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Prof Diarmaid Ferriter's new book on Ireland in the 1970s

BOB Geldof did not think much of Ireland in the 1970s. "Banana Republic," he sang in the Boomtown Rats hit of the same name, an angry protest against the band not being allowed to perform in their own country.

As the popular historian Diarmaid Ferriter makes clear in his new book, however, the real story was much more complicated.

Ambiguous Republic argues that this was a seminal decade in Irish history, marking the point where conservative forces loosened their grip on power and liberal voices began to make themselves heard.

Rights

One key statistic is that by 1977, half the population was 26 or younger. While their parents were buying Big Tom or Dana records, they listened to the new rock sounds of Horslips and Thin Lizzy. They had no time for the country's self-appointed moral guardians, who banned Monty Python's Life Of Brian from Irish cinemas and forced RTE to take a new drama off the air because it showed a woman's buttocks.

The 1970s also saw women in Ireland demanding equal rights for the first time.

One radical feminist group, the Women's Liberation Movement, scored a huge publicity coup when they boarded a train to Belfast and brought contraceptives back to Connolly Station.

Full liberation was a long way off, but in 1973 a major victory was achieved with the lifting of a ban on married women in the civil service.

It was a decade in which the political establishment was still overwhelmingly conservative. When the Government introduced a contraceptive bill in 1974, Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave sensationally crossed the floor and helped to defeat it. A Leinster House cleaner remarked, "What else would you expect him to do? Sure wasn't he an altar boy until he was 24?'

The Troubles in Northern Ireland cast a shadow over the whole island.

There were several bloody atrocities on this side of the border, including the Dublin and Monaghan car bombs that killed 33 people.

The entire RTE Authority was sacked after the station broadcast an interview with Provo leader Sean Mac Stiofain, while the special branch raided the launch of a Christy Moore album which expressed sympathy for the H-Block prisoners.

On a lighter note, the Irish middle classes were becoming more prosperous.

Car ownership increased, houses were modernised and it became possible to indulge in such luxuries as eating your dinner in McDonald's or holidays to Lanzarote.

The world of Irish sport was also broadening its horizons. Munster scored a famous rugby victory over the mighty All Blacks, while the GAA finally lifted its notorious ban on 'foreign games'.

In soccer, Ireland were within one disallowed goal of qualifying for the 1978 World Cup and John Giles came home to manage Shamrock Rovers -- insisting that his ambition was to win the European Cup.

Irish people were on the march throughout the 1970s, protesting against nuclear power, a draconian PAYE tax system and the destruction of Georgian Dublin.

They also voted in huge numbers to join the European Economic Community, proving that the outside world could no longer be shut out.

BACKWARD

But in many ways, Ireland remained a backward country. Public sector strikes were rampant and it could take years to get a telephone installed. There were parts of inner-city Dublin where 70pc of homes had no hot running water.

The Catholic Church was still hugely powerful, with 90pc of the population attending Mass every Sunday.

The decade ended with a controversial new Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, going on television and gravely informing the nation that it was time to tighten our belts.

Diarmaid Ferriter's excellent book shows that the 1970s may have left a mixed legacy - but it looks like a golden age compared with what came afterwards.

Ambiguous Republic by Diarmaid Ferriter is published by Profile Books on November 1, priced €35


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