Tuesday, March 22, 2022

On Atmosphere (V): The Early Nineties in Ireland

The last period whose atmosphere I'm going to write about is the early nineties, and particularly the early nineties in Ireland.

After that, it seems to me, we are living in the current historical moment-- whatever that is. I'm not aware of any different "atmosphere" in the year 2000 than there is today. In fact, very little seems to have changed. It's true that social media became ubiquitous, but the penetration of the internet into everyday life was already well-advanced in the year 2000, so it wasn't that much of a novelty.

Is it the case, perhaps, that we are simply more sensitive to the zeitgeist when we are younger? Would somebody born in 1995 perceive enormous differences in "atmosphere" between 2005 and 2015, for instance?

I don't know. But I know it all seems very samey to me. I started in UCD in 2001, a little after 9/11, and a little before the release of the first Lord of the Rings film. Sad as it is to admit, 9/11 did seem to have a certain rejuvenating effect on the world. Perhaps the stark reminder of death makes people more grateful for life. It may seem disrespectful to include the Lord of the Rings films in the same sentence as 9/11, but considering they were released over a period of three years, and each one was a major event that everybody was talking about, they definitely cast their aura over this particular passage of time.

In fact, when I think back to the turn of the millennium, it seems to me that the world had somehow regained its youthfulness. Correspondingly, when I remember the late nineties, the world back then seemed rather tired and dispirited. Of course, this might simply be my own projection. But I'm by no means sure that it is. I can remember sitting up into the early hours to witness the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It felt less like a new dawn than a marathon runner limping over the finishing line. Friends was the cultural phenomenon of this time, and, as good as Friends undoubtedly is, it's pretty vapid and undemanding.

But, even though the new millennium did indeed bring with it a certain freshness-- or so it seemed to me-- there wasn't enough difference for me to consider it an "atmosphere" of its own, as I've assigned the seventies and eighties and early nineties.

(The popularity of the "New Atheists" from the mid-2000s, which lasted about a decade, was another characteristic of the time between the early nineties and now. But I don't think it was ever mainstream enough to be called zeitgeisty. The God Delusion sold three million copies. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, released two years later, sold 100 million.)

So much for the more recent past. Let me return to the early nineties in Ireland.

I've often written about the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy, and the near-hysteria which gripped Ireland at the time. This was the first time the Republic of Ireland had made it to the World Cup Finals (rather surprisingly, since we've always had good soccer players). The fact that Ireland played England in the first game only added to the anticipation. Someone once said that a game of tiddlywinks between Ireland and England would attract a crowd of ten thousand. As it happened, the game between Ireland and England was a one-one draw, which of course counted as a moral victory.

World Cup fever was everywhere. I've never witnessed such an intensely collective experience. When the games were being televised, and Ireland scored, you could hear the cheers coming from all around. Everybody was watching the matches on television. Tricolours hung everywhere. The entire nation felt like one big extended family.

The manager of the Irish team at this time was Jack Charlton, an Englishman who had been a part of the 1966 World Cup-winning England team. He quickly became the darling of the Irish. He was down-to-earth, unpretentious, fatherly, sometimes gruff, sometimes genial, and he enjoyed fishing and having a pint. This was back when the Irish people contrasted themselves against overseas sophistication and swank.

As well as this, many of the Irish international team had English (or Scottish) accents, and qualified to play for Ireland through their parentage-- "the granny rule", as it was dismissively called. Although this was often a cause for mockery, it occurred to me even at the time that it could be seen in a very different way. These players had chosen to play for Ireland, and very often (as could be learned from the intensive press coverage and interviews of the Ireland squad) they had a genuine emotional identification with the country. Jack Charlton had them singing Irish rebel ballads on the team bus. They were discovering their Irishness, and the country was rediscovering its Irishness through them.

The song "Put 'Em Under Pressure" was played non-stop around this time. It was the official Irish World Cup song, produced by a member of U2. It's based on a guitar riff from "Dearg Doom", the signature song of the Celtic Rock group Horslips, which was itself based on a traditional Irish tune called O'Neill's March.

And this was the essence of this brief moment in Irish social history-- it seemed as though there was going to be a continuity between the past and the future, that Ireland was going to become a successful modern country while still keeping a firm hold of its traditions.

Another indication of this was the Papal audience which the Irish soccer team was granted during the World Cup Finals. Wherever they were born, most of the players were Catholic, and the audience got a huge amount of publicity. Everybody seemed to view it very positively. Of course, this was before the Bishop Casey affair in 1992, when it was revealed a prominent bishop had fathered a child...and before the much worse revelations of child sex abuse that were soon to follow it. But, for the moment, Ireland seemed safely Catholic.

The year after the World Cup, a relatively new band from Galway, The Saw Doctors, had a number one hit in the Irish charts with the song "I Useta Lover". Not only did it reach number one, but it stayed there for nine weeks. Music famously has the power to evoke the past like nothing else. Whenever I listen to this song (as I very frequently do), I'm instantly immersed in the atmosphere of the early nineties in Ireland. There's a bounciness and a happy-go-lucky air to the song that is very typical of this particular hour in history.

And again, there are several Catholic references in the lyrics. One is particularly crude, describing the narrator staring at a girl's bottom as she goes up to receive Holy Communion. But somehow, in the context of the song, it doesn't seem so bad, even kind of innocent. I've mentioned before how much I love the euphony of one particular line:

"You remember her collecting for Concern on Christmas Eve?"

The narrator goes on to tell us that "she was on a forty-eight hour fast, just water and black tea." Later on, he says that "all the thoughts and dreams I've had of her would take six months in confession."

So the song had a distinctly Catholic flavour, but it also had a distinctly Irish flavour. The singer sung with a strong Irish accent. We were very used to hearing Irish singers sing in American or simply neutral accents. (One of my favourite Irish musicians, Rory Gallagher, doesn't seem to have made a single reference to Ireland in any of his songs, which are steeped in Americana). The Saw Doctors were unmistakeably Irish, unmistakeably culchies (the Irish term for rednecks).

I'm pretty sure I remember us singing this song in choir practice, in my Dominican school. I don't remember any reference to posteriors so perhaps that bit was left out. But could we really have sung it in choir practice? Perhaps my mind is playing tricks, but whenever I listen to the song I find the school auditorium coming before my mind's eye, and I can hear teenage voices singing: "I have fallen for another she can make her own way home..."

I rarely go to concerts (I've even been laughed at for using the word "concerts" rather than "gigs"), but I did go to see the Saw Doctors in Galway on Halloween night in 2008. It was immense fun, and nobody seemed to be enjoying it more than the band. They are by no means one-hit wonders, but have quite a repertoire of solid songs ("Last Summer in New York", from 2005, is one of my favourites.)

It hadn't even occurred to me, when I began writing this post, that the early nineties saw the beginning of Ireland's run of success at the Eurovision Song Content, which we won four times this decade. In the 1994 contest, hosted in Dublin, the interval act was Riverdance, which became a phenomenon in its own right. Ireland seemed to be world-conquering.

The Eurovision often gets laughed at, but I have happy memories of it-- the voting, more than the music. One of Ireland's winning songs, "Rock and Roll Kids", is a particular favourite of mine-- a nostalgic, even schmaltzy lament for old times, with well-written lyrics.

While Jack Charlton was winning famous victories on the soccer pitch, and the Saw Doctors were storming up the charts, Irish kids' TV was dominated by Zig and Zag from the planet Zog, two hand puppets-- one purple, one beige. They were presenters on The Den, a block of afternoon programming which featured various cartoons and other kids' shows. Zig and Zag did the continuity, along with a human presenter, and-- even better than the two aliens-- Dustin the Turkey, a puppet who spoke with a strong Dublin accent and an endless repertoire of Dublin slang and idioms. Zig and Zag were mildly subversive. Their humour had much more of an edge to it than anything seen on Irish children's TV before this. Every kid watched Zig and Zag.

The early nineties also saw the publication of The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle, which appeared as individual novels from 1991 onwards and which I received, in trilogy form, as a Christmas present in 1993 (or was it 1992?).  The trilogy follows the lives of a single family who live in a north Dublin housing estate. Doyle is the archetypal sneering Irish liberal, but he is also a genuinely funny writer, and he was gifted at reproducing north Dublin working class dialect. Most writers, when they try to write dialect, instinctively resort to the dialect that existed decades before. Doyle had been a teacher in a working class area, and picked up on more current idioms and tendencies-- such as the tendency for Dubliners to place "but" at the end of a sentence.

It was refreshing, indeed revolutionary, to encounter fictional characters that actually spoke like the people around you. Doyle's books had such an influence that I'm pretty sure they popularised some of the slang terms that I actually hadn't encountered before the books, but which were soon to be commonly heard in the classrooms and dressing rooms of my (socially very mixed) school.

My father had a running battle with Roddy Doyle. He was vexed that Doyle allowed Ballymun to be used as a stand-in for Barrytown in a TV drama he scripted. He believed this would only worsen Ballymun's reputation. My father confronted Doyle about this when he made a public appearance in Ballymun Library. He even entered an RTÉ radio short-story competition, and made the shortlist, solely for the opportunity of confronting Doyle (who was on the panel of judges) on air. He never got the opportunity, which he put down to Doyle recognizing his name and blocking him from winning the contest. Who knows?

All that aside, Roddy Doyle's novels (and the films made from them) really did capture, and contribute to, the national zeitgeist I'm describing here. Indeed, the Italia '90 hysteria is described very well in The Van, the third novel in the trilogy.

To put it all together...in the early nineties, Ireland suddenly seemed to be confident in its own identity, its own Irishness, and bursting with creativity. It seemed, for a moment, that we might become a modern country after our own manner, without letting go of our distinctiveness or our Catholic identity. Sadly, it was not to be.

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