What’s so special about the seventies?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Volume 20

Diarmaid Ferriter—‘Sometimes I think the 1970s is the last paper decade . . . People write all sorts of letters!’

Diarmaid Ferriter—‘Sometimes I think the 1970s is the last paper decade . . . People write all sorts of letters!’

The 1970s was an undeniably dramatic decade, with economic, industrial and political unrest at home and abroad; social change, with a new level of consumer affluence; and sharpened debates about religion, equality and the status of women in Irish life. And there was the continuation of the conflict in Northern Ireland, with serious implications for civil liberties and cultural life in the South to accompany the mounting death toll in the North. Apart from the Troubles, the 1970s were, in many respects, Ireland’s 1960s, but Ferriter is at pains to emphasise that any period of the past will have distinct characteristics. The 1970s were no exception. So why write a book about them?Why not? Historians are only as good as their sources, and with the advent of the ‘30-year rule’, by which state papers are released annually into the custody of the National Archives, material from the 1970s was becoming available throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Ferriter concluded that ‘maybe it’s now time to have a proper look at the 1970s’. The 30-year rule gave ‘enough time to give you perspective and distance, but also to give you access to the material’. The case was strengthened by the availability of other material: the papers of key figures such as Garret Fitzgerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien, not to mention the Fianna Fáil archive in UCD. On the grounds of source material alone, it was very difficult not to look at the 1970s. Ambiguous Republic is not an oral history; it does not have to be, and an added attraction of the 1970s was that it may prove to have been the swansong of a time-honoured form of communication: the letter. ‘Sometimes I think the 1970s is the last paper decade . . . People write all sorts of letters!’ ‘It’s the decade I was born in [1972]. That often gets you thinking about particular childhood memories you might have of some of the dominant themes of the era, whether it was the crisis in the North, or the queues for petrol, or strikes, or whatever was going on.’ But Ambiguous Republic is not Ferriter’s memoir: ‘I don’t have a personal experience of the 1970s to write about’, apart from ‘vague childhood memories . . . this for me is the first time I’ve written about the period I was alive in. I’m not saying that informs the narrative, but it does get you thinking about some of the things you come across.’ Ferriter quotes the late F.S.L. Lyons on precisely this point, and one of the reasons he did so ‘was partly because there was that thing going on in the 1970s, of how to absorb the enormity of what was happening in contemporary Ireland, particularly in the North, and how it might inform historical narrative, which is a very different thing to attempting to write from personal experience’. He is very wary of letting the present shape perspectives on the past. ‘You can’t avoid it completely, but you still have to strive for it not to overly influence your approach. Some of the things that are highlighted in the book, well, you could say “look where we are now”: is that a product of the mistakes that were made back in that decade, whether it’s to do with public finances, or failures of political reform, or the impact of EEC membership? And of course you can see certain themes emerging that you could say are still relevant now, and that’s perfectly legitimate, but at the same time you’re not going to read backwards from September 2008 and say “this is where it all began”.’This reluctance to yoke together the present and the past is most obvious in terms of what the book lacks: a conclusion. Ambiguous Republic can be seen as a chronicle of a decade rather than a work that puts forth a neatly constructed argument. While it is an extremely thorough survey, written from primary sources and studded with brief interpretative chapters, Ferriter is rightly wary of claiming to have all the answers and is acutely conscious of ‘the difficulty of making definitive assertions or very firm conclusions about events that we’re still trying to understand . . . I didn’t want to fall into that trap’. He thinks of it as a ‘framework’ for further investigation as much as an exposition of its subject. ‘I would always say one of the functions of the historian is to ask as many questions or raise as many questions as they can attempt to answer. Readers have to draw their own conclusions and I wouldn’t underestimate the intelligence of the reading public or people who are interested in history. They all have their own interpretations and they don’t necessarily need historians to hold their hands.’Is there a case for looking at the 1970s as a discrete period? A lot of preconceived notions that had ossified in the southern state were challenged by crises, both external and internal. Whilst mining a thriving culture of journals from the period, Ferriter noticed that ‘the word that keeps cropping up is “crisis”. Can we rely on traditional ways of doing things? What is it to be Irish now, 50 years after independence? The word crisis keeps coming up because you’re dealing with a period of transition and confusion, where they can’t rely on some of the old ideas and attitudes.’ It is precisely this climate of uncertainty and questioning that gave rise to the ‘ambiguity’ in the title of the book. But was there also a positive side to the 1970s?

What’s so special about the seventies 2Of course there was, he says, and scholars would make a huge mistake by ‘approaching the 1970s as being a decade that is only defined by the problems and the crises. There was huge fun to be had. There was festival fever, people had more money at certain times, there was a very young population—50% were under 26—you’ve got the beginnings of Hot Press, which reflects that burgeoning youth culture, you’ve got Bob Geldof being really lippy and going on The Late Late Show saying this [country] is a shithole. The Irish music scene was really impressive. People were mobilising around environmental issues, such as Carnsore Point, which was dealing with a very serious issue—nuclear power—but that didn’t mean the 1970s couldn’t be great fun. Christy Moore talks about these festivals that were supposed to last for a day or two but could go on for a week. There was a great social scene. Even looking at the music listings and the cinema listings, you get the real sense that there was a hell of a lot going on. The South, for all the horror of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, did not experience that scale of terror and conflict. It was quite a stable entity. There was upheaval, and there was great vitality, but there was a degree of quality of life.’ The big issues that hogged the headlines could obscure as much as they reveal. To what extent did changes of government, beloved of commentators, register with that young population on the ground? ‘If we just get preoccupied with Section 31 and the impact of the Troubles on broadcasting, you’re losing a much bigger picture, which is creativity, such as the pirate radio scene.’If the Irish experience of the 1970s was one of upheaval and change, it is probably impossible not to look back at it without being influenced by living through a period that future scholars will probably describe in a very similar way. And Ferriter is well aware of this. ‘Like everybody else, I was listening and absorbing everything that has happened in the last four years—“crisis Ireland”. It really struck me that a lot of the issues that were being discussed were issues that had been raised in the 1970s and not confronted adequately, by which I mean political culture, whether it served us; our relationship with the EU; a lot of the issues around childcare and the status of children; the vulnerable and how they are treated; what constitutes justice, and care, and compassion: again, a lot of those issues had been raised for the first time in the 1970s, and a lot of them had been fudged. So it did strike me that the shadows of the 1970s are still very much with us, and then there are others that aren’t there to the same extent—you’re looking at a much more peaceful country; but a lot of the issues that were brought up, we’re still questioning whether we’ve dealt with them. But there is also a sense that we can begin to document how some of those ambiguities, or how some of those crises, manifested themselves, and we can have a much longer, harder and more honest look at the decade now.’  HI

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin.


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