1970s Ireland: when old ideas met new affluence
The seeds of modern Ireland were sown in the 1970s, a decade of upheaval. It was also an era of changing food, drink, travel and increasing affluence, as seen in extracts from a new book by DIARMAID FERRITER, ‘Ambiguous Republic’
The decade saw the beginnings of a more expansive restaurant trade, but there were numerous food critics to decry its lack of sophistication. Writing in Hibernia in 1970, the food critic Alec Reid yearned for the days when the restaurant was an extension of the home, as “now it has become part of one’s image – you eat the scampi, the steak or whatever is the appropriate executive food in the appropriate pseudo-intimate, half-lit sham panelled utterly unreal surroundings”.
In the same vein, the cookery writer Theodora Fitzgibbon found herself looking around “the average overpriced Dublin restaurant and see people eating poorly cooked food with apparent relish”.
Fitzgibbon was well placed to make such judgements: she had built up an international reputation as a cookery writer, and from 1968 to 1984 she was cookery correspondent of The Irish Times.
Behind Mount Street in Dublin, John O’Byrne opened Dobbin’s Bistro, a favourite haunt of politicians, businessmen and show business stars. The highly rated King Sitric fish restaurant opened in Howth, as did the Mirabeau in Dún Laoghaire (“never out of the headlines . . . owned by chef/patron Seán Kinsella, a brilliant self-publicist . . . only the host got the menu with the prices on it”). There was also “a trend towards opening restaurants in the increasingly affluent suburbs”.
The writer Ulick O’Connor, reviewing the restaurant scene for Magill in 1977, mentioned Bernardo’s, then Dublin’s oldest Italian restaurant (“Mamo, the owner, will always be there for consultation at lunch or dinner”), while Jammets, “with its world reputation as a restaurant” and which had closed in 1967, “became a self-service joint”. The oldest restaurant in Cork, the Oyster Tavern, was praised by O’Connor for its “splendid chops . . . nerve enough to serve Irish food without smothering it in continental sauces”.
O’Connor was scathing about the dearth of quality food in some establishments; chicken dishes were mocked witheringly as “the frozen leather served up in many Dublin restaurants today”, while the Trocadero, where the “actors hang out”, was regarded “from the point of view of value . . . the best in the city. A sirloin steak costs £2.50 and you can get out under £3.50 for yourself with wine, which is cheap, God help us, in this costly kip that masquerades as a capital city”.
Cork was singled out as the home of one of the best restaurants in “the British Isles” by the Egon Ronay Guide (not a single restaurant in Dublin had a star in the guide), the Arbutus Lodge in Cork, run by the Ryan brothers, Declan and Michael, got two stars.
But Irish restaurant critics could be conservative too, with the establishments they reviewed likely to be praised for a “limited, sensible menu” of prawn cocktail, corn on the cob, sirloin steak and apple pie, and service “crisp and efficient, as it should be”. As well as more convenience food such as Findus frozen “sliced roast beef in gravy”, a gourmet food festival in Kinsale in 1978 was heavily advertised.
Delicatessens and specialist food shops were making their presence felt, which meant, according to the women’s-rights campaigner Nuala Fennell, that it was now possible “for mothers like me to have a cook-free day. You can buy cooked chickens, cold meats, salads, croissants, fish and even cakes.”
It was also a notable pattern that advertisements aimed at a middle-class audience came to be increasingly centred around dinner parties.
There were also a number of American-style hamburger joints “from the fairly grotty to the slightly chic” that had sprung up in Dublin in the mid 1970s – with a hamburger and chips costing about 75p – including Captain America’s in 1971, which became “a melting pot in a city finding its feet”, and Dublin was introduced to iceberg lettuce, “deep dish apple pie, those sesame-sprinkled buns and ice-cream with chocolate sauce”.
One of the founders recalled “Several people told us we’d never get 38p for a bun burger”, but the formula worked, and the staff recalled a Dublin “full of youthful energy” who experienced “friendships, relationships, broken hearts, riotous behaviour, the freedom and energy of being twentysomething in Ireland . . . everyone was on their way somewhere. The kitchen was stacked with economists . . . Chris de Burgh strummed guitar in the corner for a fiver and a glass of wine.”
American import McDonald’s was also “opened with a flourish” by the minister for labour Michael O’Leary in 1977.
Of the factors that were contributing to Irish ill health, alcohol remained a dominant factor and excessive drinking was, during this decade, framed more broadly as a health as well as a social problem. President Erskine Childers informed young members of the Pioneer Association of his personal experience and confessing that “until he was minister for health he used to drink four or five spirit drinks . . . at cocktail parties, and without any effect, luckily for himself. He had then decided to take only two drinks and drink soft drinks subsequently and he had never noticed the slightest effect on his capacity for enjoyment, for drawing out people’s ideas and interests and he experienced no sense of fatigue.”
The association also sought to enlist the GAA to promote a “No Rounds” car sticker, to highlight the custom of each individual buying drink for a group, a practice that contributed to excessive consumption.
Such civilised suggestions by Childers about promoting a modicum of temperance came at a time when alcohol was increasingly seen as contributing to misspent youth, with wider access to cheaper alcohol.
The owner of an off-licence on Dorset Street, in Dublin, for example, Patrick McDonnell, who was chairman of the National Off Licence Traders Association in 1970, wrote to the government to complain that the Minister for Justice Des O’Malley “is not taking any notice of the serious problem of teenagers consuming alcoholic drinks. The situation is ready to erupt into a national scandal and will, if not erased now, have disastrous effects on the physical, mental and moral conditions of the children of Ireland.”
He maintained that the licensing laws were out of date – the last Intoxicating Liquor Act had been in 1962 – and that “it has become the in-thing with over 14-year-olds to get half stoned before they attend the ‘baby dances’ on Friday and Saturday nights” and that cider was being sold by those with “sweet licences” that allowed shopkeepers to sell wine of Irish manufacture. What was needed, he argued, was “maturity regarding their drinking as the European children have”. Jack Lynch expressed his regret that McDonnell’s letter “should be couched in rather intemperate terms”. There were only 256 off-licence holders (spirit grocers) in the Republic but there were 11,000 publicans.
Those involved in the licensed trade remained concerned about the burden of taxation their products had to bear, the Licensed Vintners Association informing Richie Ryan in 1973 that it was “excessive and out of scale”. Wages had gone up 82 per cent in four years in the Dublin area, they maintained, and profit margins were 30-50 per cent higher in Britain and other European countries: “We have the highest taxed pint of beer in Europe.” Revealingly, the number of special exemption orders granted by the courts – to allow drink to be served outside normal licensing hours – increased from 6,342 in 1967 to 14,814 in 1972, rising to 34,300 in 1978.
Although there were calls for it to be made more difficult to get these exemptions or attach more conditions, such as the inclusion of a “substantial meal”, Vivian Mulcahy, an assistant principal officer in the Department of the Taoiseach, was unimpressed: “Most people who go dancing after normal pub closing time probably do not want a substantial meal and I see no reason why they should be asked to pay for it.”
When it launched, in October 1977, Magill magazine made much of its guide to social life in Dublin and its pub listings at a time when a pint of stout was 43p and vodka and gin measures about 38p. The writer Anthony Cronin praised the style and continuity of Davy Byrnes pub, which accommodated “swingers and intellectuals”, while O’Brien’s on Leeson Street was “the young swingers bar in Dublin . . . convivial and unpretentious”.