Often enough, both in real life and social media, I come across people who lament the past. “Ah, we were much more free back then, we could do as we wanted, and weren’t we all so happy”. This kinds of “och ochon” sentiment makes me want to puke. I’m not doubting that they had mostly happy childhoods, but implicit in their writing is that current kids cannot possibly be as happy as they were back then. To which I call bullshit. The only thing they are demonstrating are the massive defects in their memories. So here are just a few things that are much better now in Ireland than back then.
It might be hard to believe, but Ireland was a much filthier place in the 70’s and 80’s. The plastic bag levy had not yet been imposed, so we used to hang them on any available tree. It was a long time before businesspeople took action to name and shame town councils and villages into making even half an effort. There was no such thing as separating rubbish – everything went to landfill. I remember finding a dead calf in the ditch on the way home from school once. We are still a filthy nation, as David Norris recently said, but relative to decades past, there are signs of hope.
The Corporal Punishment
Until 1981, teachers could belt kids with fists, sticks and leather straps if they got out of line. The only psychological diagnosis for kids who stepped out of line was that they were “bold” and the only remedy on offer by the teachers was 6 of the best in front of the class. Slapping kids was a great way for teachers to release their endorphins, but fuck-all use besides this. It didn’t make classes more disciplined (they weren’t) and it didn’t stop us being extraordinarily cruel toward classmates when the teacher’s eyes were looking elsewhere – leading by example and all that.
Road journeys were a nightmare when I was a kid. Apart from the Naas Dual Carriage Way, no roads in Ireland even came close to being adequate. Hardly any town had a bypass, so the road trips were a continuous succession of bottlenecks and queues, exacerbated by the atrocious parking in every small town you passed through. And Ireland was pothole central – full of gaping voids into which cars might disappear forever. We think nothing of a 2 and a half hour trip from Cork to Dublin. Not long ago that would have been the stuff of science fiction.
The day after a sunny day in Ireland, intense pain would grip the nation. The whole country was filled with people with tomato red faces, necks, arms and that soft bit behind your knees. A few days later and we were all peeling like snakes. Misguided by the notion that a sunburn would “set the foundations of a good tan”, we would strip off and let the UV go to work on our skin cells. It’s not that sunscreen didn’t exist. It did, but nobody really saw the point of it. Better to dab on that useless aftersun lotion later on, in a vain attempt to ease the agony.
Ireland only introduced a National Car Test in the 1990’s. Before that, our roads were full of the most ancient, crapped out bangers you could possibly imagine, all contributing to those nightmare road trips. Seat belts were either absent or optional, and most kids spent their journeys lying on the flat area beneath the back window of the car, or sitting on their mammy’s lap in the front passenger seat. And it’s not like people didn’t pay badly for this fecklessness. 600 people used to die on Irish roads each year during the 1970’s – over 3 times as many as now. Those who lament the freedom were not the victims of this carnage. They were just lucky.
The Radio and The Telly
When I was a kid, we had just one radio station – Radio Eireann. It was talk radio with a good daubing of religion, sport and traditional Irish music. The full Catholic Mass was a mainline program on the radio every Sunday morning. TV was not much better. Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations were wild, lawless and frowned upon. Younger people only got their first music radio station in 1979, a full two decades after rock and roll kicked off in America and Britain.
We all looked the same too. Everywhere you looked, it was the same pasty faced (and occasionally sunburned) people in every town, in every locality. If you looked different, it’s likely you would have been stared as you walked down any street in Ireland. Casual racism tripped off the tongue and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Sure they were all grand, but you wouldn’t want one living next to you. Of course we were all into the black babies god love them, but it was far from an egalitarian view – underlying it was a sense that they weren’t able to cope as well as the rest of us.
Like a constant drumbeat, the news from “The North” used to keep us in an almost permanent state of depression. Every day there was some interjection of hatred, some killing and bombing, some fucking godawful atrocity, to remind us that we Irish were a screwed up lot. True, “The South” was a quieter place, but there was a sense that this was a particularly Irish problem, with our religious differences and our 17th Century animosities, still boiling away like a volcanic rupture that could never be healed. And you dare not say anything about the IRA, lest the word got around. Of all the shit things about growing up in Ireland, this was among the worst.
The Clergy and the clericalism
What more needs to be said? Princes and privilege and power and that total arrogance that enabled every single thing to be swept under the carpet until it all came vomiting out in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Awful, awful, awful. And what’s worse, is they still haven’t yet grasped the lessons to be learned from it. Some of them still think they are kings of the hill.
Though Ireland was technically part of the First World, there was a sense where we knew this couldn’t possibly be true. While many European countries had got their shit together, we were still rummaging around, looking for it like it was gold bullion. There was no money for anything, we had a particular breed of clientelist politician, the weather was awful and anyone with a bit of get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone. Gay Byrne once famously said that we should contact the Queen of England to ask her to take the country back, while apologising for the state we had left it in. A lot of people would have nodded their heads about this.
So, you know, it’s better now. Not at all perfect, but better. Kids have more choices and more opportunities to engage with people who are different to them. They are safer. They don’t have to live through that atmosphere of barely comprehendible hatred that we all just took for granted. They don’t need to feel they are lesser beings than anyone else. Despite all it’s faults, I prefer the Ireland of today. I really do.