THE GUBU YEARS

Sat, Oct 18, 2008, 01:00

1980s REVISITED:It was the decade that sense forgot, when turbulent politics, moving statues, relative sporting success and even JR Ewing distracted us from the economic misery, social divisions, emigration and Troubles in the North. Why, exactly, should we be nostalgic for the 1980s?

IN JULY 1986, the then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was walking down the main street in Ennis. He was assailed on his way by buskers and beggars and had gradually emptied his pockets by the time he got to the square. "Bejaysus," said one impressed local, "the next thing he'll be doing is giving us the shirt off his back." As he approached the O'Connell monument in the square, he was still holding on to his last pound. He was accosted, however, by the mime artist Little John Nee, dressed as a moving statue. With an imperious gesture, the moving statue pointed to the cap at its feet and the taoiseach obediently deposited his one remaining banknote.

That same year, FitzGerald's great rival for power, Charles Haughey, was making a film called My Ireland for Channel 4. At the Leopardstown races, he was talking to camera about his horses and racing colours when a genuine 1980s icon hove into view. Larry Hagman, wearing the Stetson hat and lascivious grin of his alter ego, JR Ewing from the uber-soap Dallas, approached Haughey, seemingly from nowhere. He gave him a big oil baron's handshake, then reached into his inside pocket and took out a piece of paper which he pressed into the politician's palm. It was a dud thousand dollar bill with the face of JR Ewing where some venerable founding father should have been.

These two vignettes capture something of the sheer strangeness of Ireland in the 1980s. It was a decade of weird conjunctions. Penury for many and easy money for the well-connected few. Moving statues and Dallas. An almost hysterical piety and a popular taste for louche fantasy. Truth being stranger than fiction and an extravagantly fictional character, JR Ewing, managing to capture a hidden Irish truth with one playful gesture. A complex, contradictory culture in which the people who watched Dallas religiously and thrilled to its sexual and financial amorality were not at war with the people who flocked to out-of-the-way villages to watch statues move. They were often the same people.

This was the decade whose governing acronym was Conor Cruise O'Brien's brilliant distillation of Haughey's explanation for the bizarre sequence of events in 1982 when the most wanted man in the country (the murderer Malcolm Macarthur) was found in the apartment of the unfortunate attorney general, Patrick Connolly. O'Brien put together a series of disconnected adjectives used by Haughey at a press conference - grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented - to create the word Gubu, a term that transcended its original context and seemed to summarise the times in four letters.

This was also the decade in which, in the conclusion of his report into the Kerry Babies case, Mr Justice Kevin Lynch thought it apt to quote a saying of James Thurber: "We live, man and worm, in an age where almost everything can mean almost anything . . ."

Meanings were slippery and up for grabs. Things were falling apart. The economy draining down the plughole. There were three general elections in 18 months. Fianna Fáil was in perpetual crisis, with a series of heaves against Haughey culminating in the foundation of the Progressive Democrats. The young were leaving in droves, and even Gay Byrne admitted in 1985 that he might be tempted to work in the US. Youth crime was being hyped by the media, and a vicious heroin epidemic was hitting working-class Dublin. Large sections of the business class were going absent from the nation, fiddling their taxes and getting away with it. Another new coinage captured the spirit of the pillars of society - the "bogus non-resident". The H-blocks crisis in the North was playing out as a fierce and visceral psychodrama. And in response to all of this, we suffered a kind of collective nervous breakdown.

The 1980s was the decade of magical thinking, when we took refuge from depressing reality either in foreign countries or in strange visions and wild revels. The most literal visions were the statues that started to move on February 14th, 1985, in the little north Kerry village of Asdee. I remember going there a few weeks later and meeting Elizabeth Flynn, who was seven. She told me, in a story that was already so well-rehearsed that her voice seemed almost bored, that she had gone into the church on her lunch break to pray before the plaster statues of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. As she looked at them, Jesus crooked his finger to beckon her over to him. When she looked again, Mary's mouth was open.

Within hours, other children were seeing the same things. Within days, 36 of them had reported visions. And within weeks, statues were moving all over the country. From Asdee, the phenomenon spread to Ballydesmond, near the Cork border, and then to Ballinspittle, where, by late July, the statue of the Virgin in the grotto was moving so spectacularly that CIE was laying on special services for the huge crowds (an average of 10,000 a night - twice that on some occasions) that flocked to see her.

Some 80 per cent of those visiting the grotto - most of them respectable middle-class people - reported seeing the statue move, and 30 per cent said they had "seen the face of Our Lord appear". The visions even travelled on the airwaves - dozens of people wrote to the Mike Murphy radio show claiming that they had seen the face of Christ on screen while the Nine O'Clock News was showing a report on Ballinspittle.

The miracles continued sporadically for the rest of the decade. Two sisters, Judy and Sally Ann Considine, saw apparitions in three separate churches, (in Mayfield, Cork; Granstown, Co Wexford and Fahy, Co Galway), each time sparking a fire of devotion. And everyone seemed to be looking for some meaning, something to explain the state of the country. As the father of one of the visionaries in Asdee told me, "There will surely be a message. With all that's happening, it wouldn't make sense if there was no message." All of this was clearly a desperate response to social change.

The Asdee visions coincided with the hearings of the Kerry Babies tribunal in nearby Tralee. The tribunal was supposedly looking into the circumstances in which a young woman, Joanne Hayes, confessed to a murder she could not have committed. But Joanne Hayes was actually drawn into a dark conflict about morality and control, about the power of the church and the right of women to their own bodies, that ran through the decade.

What shaped the psychodrama was an attempt by the Catholic Church (partly through its official structures, partly through militant lay organisations) to draw a line. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, though it created euphoria among Catholics, failed to make much difference to the reality that sexual mores were changing. Demands for access to contraception (condoms were available by this time only with a doctor's prescription and for "bona-fide family planning purposes") and divorce were becoming louder. Church authority, though still powerful, was being more and more openly challenged.

The desire to say "thus far and no far further" was, for conservative Ireland, irresistible. It was made all the more powerful by the near-collapse of the modernising project that had been under way since the 1960s. With traditional industries closing, mass unemployment rising and emigration re-starting on a large scale, modernity was no great shakes. Since the country was going to Hell in a handcart, why not try to put it back on the road to righteousness? Thus the anti-abortion campaign that began in 1981 and culminated two years later in the passage of an anti-abortion referendum by a two-to-one majority. Thus the defeat by the same margin of Garret FitzGerald's attempt to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. Thus the case of the New Ross schoolteacher Eileen Flynn, sacked because she became pregnant by a separated man with whom she was living, and informed by a judge when she appealed that in other countries women were stoned for such "offences".

But none of this actually had any real effect. It didn't stop two American ex-nuns appearing on the Late Late Show to discuss their lesbianism. It didn't stop the Kerry Babies case, with its revelation of a woman in rural Ireland having an affair with a married man and conceiving a child. It didn't stop the death in 1984 of a young girl, Ann Lovett, giving birth in a grotto in Granard after a secret pregnancy. Hayes's case opened up a world of hidden births and discarded babies. Lovett's prompted an extraordinary flood of letters to the nation's Father Confessor, Gay Byrne, about rape, infanticide and secret burials, that marked the beginning of an exploration of the dark side of Catholic Ireland. The delusion of the abortion and divorce referendums - that words in the Constitution would stop Ireland changing - was exposed. What was left for traditional Ireland was magical visions and the hope of some divine message to make sense of everything.

But even in the midst of all this religious ecstasy, there was a sense of devilment, of things being desperate but not serious. When I asked people in Asdee what they thought of the fact that the statues had started to move in Ballydesmond as well, they told me that all that had happened there was that two fellas had got locked accidentally in the church and the locals, hearing them banging on the windows from the inside, had run to the priest shouting "Come quick, Father, the statues are trying to get out of the window."

Likewise, a man seeking directions to Ballinspittle in Cork was told "just follow the star". The surrealism reached a point of absolute absurdity in October 1988, when there were mildly violent clashes outside a screening in the Cork Opera House of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. The scuffles were between a group wielding rosary beads and denouncing "blasphemy" and a second group of white-clad women describing themselves as "handmaidens of Ballinspittle" and "keepers of the third secret of Fatima". The first group thought the second was making a mockery of them, but the handmaidens insisted that they were serious. In 1980s Ireland, Father Ted would have been social realism.

With the grim H-Blocks hunger strikes, the bitterly divisive referenda, the emigration of whole classes of bright young graduates and long-term unemployment so bad that many sensible commentators were talking of "the end of work", we were both distracted and in need of distraction. Politics addressed this need. The heaves and cabals, the tapping of journalists' phones and the secret taping of conversations between ministers, the Manichean struggle between Garret the Good and the evil Boss Haughey, the messianic expectations that gathered around the shiny new Progressive Democrats, all made up in excitement what they ultimately lacked in substance.

And if politics became a sport, sport became a kind of substitute for politics. It gave us hope of a better time. We may never again know a period in which any kind of sporting success generated such pure, innocent, uncynical joy. Barry McGuigan winning the world featherweight boxing title; Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly dominating world cycling in 1987; and above all the emergence of Jack Charlton's Irish soccer team as a serious force, all gave us reasons to be, not so much cheerful, as madly ecstatic. As Jonathan Swift said of his decision to leave money to build a mad house, "no nation needed it so much".

It is hard, in retrospect, to feel much nostalgia for any other aspect of this bitter decade. The 1980s are a rebuke to the currently fashionable notion that maybe a recession is not so bad if it allows us to discover a simpler, gentler, purer Ireland that existed before the great boom of the 1990s. That pre-Tiger Ireland was not simple - it was half-crazed and fully convoluted with contradictions and hypocrisies. It was not gentle - liberal and conservative Ireland genuinely hated each other and the sickening drumbeat of sectarian murders in the North sounded constantly beneath all the mundane miseries. And it was not pure - fraud and corruption were practised on an enormous scale, led from the very top. In the end, the best reason for remembering the 1980s is to underline the necessity of not returning to them.