Reframing Irish youth in the sixties

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

CAROLE HOLOHAN
Liverpool University Press
£80
ISBN 9781786941237

Reviewed by Tom Inglis

Tom Inglis is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at University College Dublin.

In 1966 Éamon de Valera was elected president of Ireland. He was 84 years old. His dream of Ireland as a country of cosy homesteads and comely maidens was shattered. Ireland was marching towards becoming like the rest of the West, embracing consumer capitalism, hedonism and self-indulgence. The march was being led by young people who were able to leave farming and find work in the towns and cities. They had money in their pockets. The men were able to grow their hair and let it down. The women were able to raise their skirts and show off their legs.

If sex did not exist in Ireland until the 1960s, neither did youth. There were adults and children. There was no social category called ‘youth’. The modernisation of Irish society was inextricably linked to the emergence of young people who began to tear up the script of what it meant to be Irish. Little or nothing of de Valera belonged to them.

Nevertheless, as Holohan points out in this erudite, scholarly and well-researched book, the sixties in Ireland was not a period of social or cultural revolution. Rather it was more of a gradual merging of the old into the new. In 1969, a survey of 16–21-year-old Catholics found that 95% of the female respondents went to Mass at least once a week, compared to three quarters of the males. Young people could have sex, but without contraception they played the game of Irish roulette, trying to avoid pregnancy. It would be another 30 years before becoming pregnant outside of marriage would be socially acceptable.

While Holohan rightly emphasises how ‘youth’ became a social category through the economic growth that enabled them to stay in Ireland, stay in education and find work, and how this was linked to their becoming politicised and the subject of political discourse, what made them different can be characterised as their willingness to abandon a culture of self-deprecation and self-denial and embrace a culture of self-expression and indulgence.

In many respects, however, Irish youth became constituted as subjects through the discourse of the market and the media. Holohan is right to focus on the ways in which an international youth culture penetrated Ireland. She concentrates on how the media began to focus on the needs and interests of young people, particularly through magazines and music. At the same time as de Valera was presiding over the country, the young people of Ireland were dancing the night away in the new ballrooms that mushroomed everywhere. In rural areas and towns there was an emphasis on country and western music; in cities it was rock ’n’ roll and beat music. It is estimated that at one stage there were 800 groups and showbands operating in Ireland, although they were mostly performing covers of international music.

The emergence of youth led to a moral panic. In England it was about how the fights between ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ signalled the end of society. In Ireland there were regular stories about sex, drugs and drunken rowdies. De Valera, McQuaid and the moral majority were still trying to hold onto Catholic Ireland, but the young people were having none of it. They wanted to be entertained. They wanted pleasure.

It was this determination to do things differently that led many young people to be categorised as juvenile delinquents. Again, this was happening all over Western society. Holohan refers to the Irish Teddy Boy. Having been a youth in the 1960s in Dublin, however, I don’t remember there being ‘Teddy boys’—certainly in terms of style of dress. The main concern was with ‘corner boys’.

Many saw the reason for delinquency as being a departure from Catholic values, beliefs and practices, and for many the solution to the problem was often involvement or incarceration in practices and institutions run by Catholic bodies. When it came to issues of the family and young people, the Church and state in Ireland still worked together and sang from the same hymn sheet.

Under McQuaid’s supervision, the Catholic Youth Council began to play a pivotal role in youth welfare work. There were specific structures and guidelines for clubs affiliated to the Council. Needless to say, one of the main aims of the CYC was to keep the youth of Ireland Catholic. There were other youth organisations, such as Macra na Tuaithe, that were less religious in their orientation. By 1962 there were 200 Macra na Tuaithe clubs around the country. In 1967 the National Youth Council was formed. Being an ecumenical organisation, it received only lukewarm support from McQuaid. Monsignor Cecil Barret, his right-hand man in youth affairs, reported back to McQuaid about the launch: ‘As Your Grace foresaw, the Protestants were out in force—with their wives. Mrs Sims was dressed as a Girl Guide.’

Holohan has done a good job, using a variety of primary and secondary sources to show how the young people of Ireland began to shake off the shackles of old Catholic Ireland, and how they were constrained by Church forces but empowered by the media and market. What is missing, perhaps, is an insight into the mind-set of the youth at the time and how the struggle between institutional discourses played out in the minds, hearts and bodies of young people.

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