Dublin: importing a counter-culture
By the early 1990s, it was possible to say with some confidence that the 1960s had arrived in Ireland. From Dublin, the capital city, they slowly seeped outwards, first to the major towns in the Republic: Galway and Cork, and onwards to the smaller towns and villages. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 opened the way to the North and the trend of cultural liberalisation, civil rights, individualism and the relegation of religious ideas to the side-lines of society started to slowly seep across the border. Central Belfast and the relatively affluent towns of the county Down coastline were first to be infected. Today the cultural front continues its slow advance towards the North East, with rumours that tolerant attitudes to homosexuality and extra-marital sex have been observed in County Antrim. The rumours are as yet unconfirmed.
The above account is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The international cultural trends of the 1960s did have some resonance in Ireland. There were hippies and protestors, of course, complete with sex, drugs and rock and roll, but they were mostly drawn from a tiny fraction of third level students, who were themselves a small proportion of the population. There were several waves of alternative youth sub-cultures in the 1970s and 1980s, but the mainstream continued to be dominated by a determinedly repressive brand of Christianity. The wave of cultural liberalisation that emerged in the late 1980s was different. It permeated everything and was made concrete in laws and judicial precedents. It changed the nature of people's daily lives considerably.
Some of the key events were the following: in 1992, the Irish Times published a story about a catholic bishop, Eamon Casey, having a child with an American divorcee, Annie Murphy. Also in 1992, contraceptives became available for public sale without restriction. In 1993 homosexuality was decriminalised. In 1995, the prohibition of divorce was removed from the constitution by a referendum which passed by a wafer-thin margin: 50.3% to 49.7%. In the wake of each of these headline moments, more reforms followed. Most particularly, the breaching of the unwritten law protecting the catholic hierarchy from public scrutiny had a huge impact. For the following twenty years, scandal after scandal swept through the media regarding the once-untouchable catholic church, covering everything from child rape networks to enslavement of ‘fallen women’ and orphan-torture, all administered with enthusiastic brutality. Cultures change slowly, at a time-scale normally measured in generations. In Ireland's case the generational change that set in from the late 1980s was dramatic - it went from being the most religious country in the West to one of the most atheist countries in the world within 20 years.
Although this change was sudden on the surface, a combination of social forces had been building up for some time. Once the dam wall of church control was breached in one place, holes started appearing everywhere and the leaks soon became an unstoppable torrent. One factor was Ireland's membership of the European Community. It brought with it membership of the European legal system and Dublin's liberal intelligentsia used this mechanism repeatedly to introduce reforms through the courts, inspired by European liberalism. The narrowness of the divorce referendum victory illustrates how difficult it would have been to introduce such reforms through legislation due to the influence that clerics held over conservative rural voters and their weight in the electoral system. The catholic lobby succeeded in getting an exceedingly broad prohibition of abortion written into the constitution in a 1982 referendum and this remains in force to this day: there are very few politicians who are willing to risk taking on the clerics directly before the people.
Another factor was the increasing presence of foreign media outlets with their liberal world-views. Music videos from the USA were an important cultural influence on those who grew up during the 1980s. Ireland's state broadcaster ran a show called MT USA which gave myself and my peers a tantalising glimpse into a glamorous world beyond our shores of sex, drugs and rock and roll. A third important factor was demographic. Between 1990 and 2009, Ireland's tradition of emigration was reversed. The island experienced the longest sustained period of net immigration in its modern history and the urban population burgeoned.
A fourth factor was economic. From the early 1980s onwards, the Republic's political elite adopted the strategy of using Ireland’s position within the EU, inside its tariff walls, married with a lax approach to regulation, to attract investment from US multi-nationals. This created a situation where many of the most important employers were beyond the influence of the old religious order. Meanwhile, their requirement for skilled workers prompted a rapid expansion of the third-level education system and an increasingly educated population.
For the political left, this might have been a significant opportunity, was it not for the fact that the wave of cultural liberalisation coincided with the collapse of the USSR. For decades Irish socialists had toiled to build parties and movements in a hostile political environment dominated by mystic nationalism, superstition, anti-intellectualism, anti-communism and intense localism. In the general election of 1989, the Moscow-aligned Workers Party peaked with 7 members elected to the parliament of the Irish Republic. Three short years later, all their decades of work evaporated when, in a bout of post-soviet modernisation, their elected representatives effectively expelled the rest of the party and wandered off to set up their own new party, Democratic Left, which merged with the socially conservative labour party a few years later.
It is often the case that great cultural changes are invisible to those who live through them. People have a great capacity for taking the world around them for granted and, more often than not, cultural changes happen at a pace that makes them only visible with the benefit of hindsight and distance. In Dublin of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was definitely not the case.
In the late 1980s, when I first started roaming around the city with my friends looking for bars, night clubs, dancing venues and excitement, Dublin offered very little. There were a few dingy music venues in the city centre where earnest young rock bands performed angsty songs for moody teenagers. Leeson street was host to a small strip of subterranean night clubs, seedy basements which offered bottles of sickly sweet Liebfraumilch to besuited business men at extortionate prices. The streets oozed with menace, anger and violence. Due to our tender years, myself and my friends had limited opportunities to explore Central Dublin after dark in the 1980s. Nevertheless, we managed to escape from parental supervision to mount a few dozen Saturday night trips into the city between 1987 and 1990. I would estimate that at least one of us was randomly assaulted on over 50% of these excursions.
Jump forward a few years to 1993. Central Dublin is now full of dance clubs: Sides, the Temple of Sound, Rí Rá, the Ormond, the Olympic Ballroom; all packed with sweaty, skinny young things dressed in acid-house t-shirts, dancing manically to the hard beats of house and techno music. The menacing atmosphere has been replaced with a blissful euphoria. Strangers stop to salute and compliment one another, sometimes even exchanging hugs. The city which, just a few years before had largely closed down by midnight, is now full of people into the small hours. The idea that things have changed for good, that the future will be different and liberated, is a common topic of conversation. For, hot on the heels of the cultural thaw, recreational drugs had arrived. Ecstasy – MDMA tablets – first appeared in 1991 and quickly swept through the city’s youth culture. By 1995, the early underground self-organising wave had dissipated and been replaced with super-clubs as the music and pills formula became mainstream.
Upon arriving back to Dublin from India in October 1995, this was the world that I was stepping into. Myself, Phil, Simon and Toner shared a two bedroomed apartment in Temple Bar, in the very heart of the city centre, above a dance club. Temple Bar was in the process of being transformed from a scruffy cultural quarter full of off-beat second hand fashion shops, artisan co-ops and cheap eateries into a nakedly commercial, alcohol-soaked, tourist zone: paddy-land. Toner was back in Dublin after years abroad and was intent on recreating a version of the European counter-culture in Dublin. The great cultural shift presented a window of opportunity in that there was already a youth sub-culture of significant size which existed on the fringes of the law and beyond. He met this opportunity with typical energy and threw himself into a blizzard of activity. Our apartment was his headquarters, which gave me a ringside seat from which to observe his escapades.
Some of his projects were clearly of situationist inspiration: attempts to subvert the conventions of art and culture. For example, he talked a nearby café into offering him wall space with which to run an exhibition of “postal art.” The idea was that anybody could submit a work of art by post and everything received would be displayed, thereby challenging the tradition whereby exhibitors filtered submissions through their own subjective value systems. I remained unconvinced and when a used sanitary towel arrived in an envelope, I felt that my misgivings had been validated. Toner, however, displayed an admirable attachment to the exhibition’s principles and it duly found its place among the other exhibits in the Café.
Another project - that seemed much more interesting to me - involved a squat in a grand derelict Georgian building on Ormond Quay, facing onto the Liffey. Fergal Leddy, who was an old friend of Toner’s from his Berlin squatting days, had taken occupancy of this building, along with a handful of comrades, and was attempting to renovate it and turn it into a social centre as well as a place to live. I was impressed enough by Fergal’s mix of practicality and idealism to help out on a few occasions in lifting rubble from the crumbling building. Sadly, it was a short-lived affair. Ireland lacked the social democratic legislation that our European neighbours enjoyed. Whereas, in most European countries, squatting a derelict building was not considered a crime, and squatters even had certain rights that made evicting otherwise homeless people from unused buildings difficult, in Ireland none of this was the case. Furthermore, Dublin was in the early stages of a 15 year long property boom and bubble. Many of the derelict buildings which littered central Dublin at the time were being hoarded by speculators who planned on cashing them in for development once prices had appreciated. Fergal was quickly summoned to the High Court and presented with the choice of prison or immediate departure. He chose freedom.
Through this period I still considered myself to be on a journey of political discovery. Thus, I was largely content to observe this activity while continuing to read as many of Toner’s esoteric publications as I could manage. I made it through most of Foucault’s works along with a smattering of post-structuralist and anti-colonialist literature. Franz Fanon’s “The wretched of the Earth” made the greatest impression on me. If there is a book that better captures the rage that colonial domination inspired in educated ‘natives’, I have yet to encounter it.
The one exception to my passive observation was graffiti. I had been a fan of hip-hop music since first coming across it on MT USA in the late 1980s and saw the music of groups like Public Enemy and French groups like NTM and IAM as the expression of a coming wave of rebellion by an oppressed under-class. I had also learned, in Paris, that graffiti was an integral part of hip-hop culture, as expressed most clearly by NTM’s classic anthem “Paris sous les bombes” (Paris under the bombs: bombs being slang for spray cans). Like many other European cities, Paris served as an impressive gallery of street art, with colourful graffiti ‘pieces’ covering virtually every available surface.
Dublin was almost totally lacking in any such influences. All we had were bare gray concrete walls, sometimes adorned with a few untidy scrawls of writing. Myself and Simon tried to do our bit in importing the culture of underground street art to Dublin. Simon came up with several designs and, together with a few others who we occasionally roped-in, we set about painting these on as many walls as we could. Although the connection with hip-hop culture provided me with a justification for this activity, and I am still of the opinion that colourful graffiti is almost always an improvement over a bare concrete wall, for me, the thrill of night-time clandestine activity was at least as important as the artistic or political content.
More impressive than the standard graffiti pieces that adorned walls, trains and trucks in Paris were the stencils that frequently accompanied them. These tended to be more explicitly political statements, frequently of situationist inspiration, and the medium allowed for much finer detail than freehand designs with spray-cans could achieve. We decided to extend our scope and to produce some of these. To do so, we teamed up with an old friend, Helen O’Connell, an artist who was also enamoured by graffiti. She had a trademark ‘tag’ of a cute little stick figure, often with an upside-down question mark beside, which was ubiquitous around Dublin for several years. Helen produced a series of stencil designs based on Síle Na Gig – a woman holding her over-sized vulva open. This figure used to appear above the doors of medieval Irish monasteries - a relic of old pagan superstitions.
I think the idea was that the stencil was meant to illustrate the fact that Irish Catholicism had only recently adopted its sexually repressive ways. Or maybe it was a symbol of how catholicism had always been afraid of female sexuality - I don't know. In any case, we cut several stencils of her design from polystyrene sheets, acquired a bunch of spray cans and recruited Toner and Phil and another friend, Ed Eustace, to help myself, Simon and Helen in disseminating our image among the good people of Dublin. However, transporting this cultural form from Paris to Dublin turned out to be much more difficult than we had imagined, as we were to quickly find out
The second part of this story can be found here.