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”.
Sachs on Morehampton Road was “the most fashionable bar in town . . . the clientele are very much of the ‘beautiful people’ variety with a few chancers and lots of ladies on the make thrown in”. Ryan’s on Parkgate Street had a “reputation for excellent pints of stout . . . very discreet snugs, which can be opened only from inside the bar”, while Sinnotts was “the best of the Grafton Street area bars, coming down with lefties, actors, economists and other dropouts including the entire cast of The Riordans”.
Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, according to Gene Kerrigan, was “a natural for those who are into basic living”, though “on a crowded night you’re likely to wind up next to a Trinity student brandishing his cut-price copy of The Irish Times, dipping his scarf into your drink and emoting about Annie Hall in a voice that sounds like all his teeth are loose”.
Another special Dublin pub was O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row, where “every Irish traditional musician with any self-respect and many more with none, have featured . . . in the last 15 years”. Meanwhile, “in Barbarellas on Fitzwilliam Lane are the most naked girls you can see in Dublin” with only tiny pieces of silk covering them up.
It was asserted in Magill in December 1977 that “the country [had] been on a massive drinking rampage”. Sales of alcohol had “rocketed by 15 per cent” in the three months from June to September 1977 compared with the same period in 1976. In 1968, 58 per cent of the adult population were estimated to have drunk alcohol; by 1975 this figure had increased to 65 per cent and it was maintained that by the end of 1977 this had risen further to 70 per cent, with women and younger people accounting for most of the increase.
But Irish consumption figures were not high by international standards; in the late 1970s the per-capita consumption expressed in litres of 100 per cent alcohol for France was 16.5, West Germany 12.5, Denmark 9.2, the UK 8.4 and Ireland 8.7. What did mark Ireland out as different was that 75 per cent of all drinking was done in pubs or clubs, and while Ireland spent more of its consumed expenditure on alcohol than other EEC countries (12 per cent),
“This anomaly is explained by the very high duties on drink in Ireland and the relatively low income per capita.”
Black Tower wine was presented for a country relatively new to wine in terms of popular consumption as an exotic, historic sophistication: “Today the soft, light refreshing wine is bottled in a replica of the stone crock of Roman times and can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with good food.” Another popular sweet German wine was Blue Nun (“a reflection of good taste”, according to the advertisements); the joke peddled at a much later stage about the 1970s was: “You wanted a choice of wine? Well, you had little or Nun”.
Drink continued to be pervasive in artistic, journalistic and political circles. The actor and comedian Niall Tóibín, a marvellous mimic, who with talented writers such as Eoghan Harris and Wesley Burrows, had “ploughed a furrow into the virgin earth of Irish satire” on RTÉ television, and who in 1970 garnered plaudits for his performance in the Tony Award-winning production of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy on Broadway, fell out of the Belfast to Dublin train at Connolly Station in Dublin uproariously drunk one day in March 1974. He spent the following week drying out in a Dublin hospital. It was his last act as a drinker. His doctor calmly explained: “You can continue to drink like this, or you can continue to work like this, but you cannot do both.”
The film critic of the Irish Press was nearly sacked after the opening of a new cinema in Dublin: “Adrian proceeded to urinate on Jack Lynch’s shoes. There was uproar and Adrian was ejected from the premises. Meanwhile, the phone rang on the editor’s bedside locker: ‘Your f***ing film critic,’ an irate cinema manager roared, ‘is down here pissing all over the f***ing taoiseach.’ ”
Michael Mills, a political correspondent at the Irish Press, recalled an annual dinner of the Leinster House press gallery for which expensive wine had to be bought specifically for Charles Haughey, which witnessed Haughey scarpering without thanks after a drunken row between two of the journalists about Civil War allegiances.
Aodhan Madden, a journalist with the Irish Press in the 1970s, may have viewed drink as the “great liberation from a 1950s Irish childhood” but he came to realise its horrendous grip. He was also struggling with his (hidden) homosexuality.
Whatever the degree of social liberalisation there was in some areas, there was nothing approximating free love and tolerance of sexual diversity, but instead the persistence of a homophobia that was “tangible and frightening”.
When Madden appealed, in a newspaper article, for a more compassionate attitude to gay people, a priest from his parish called to the house to tell him he was ’most concerned’ about the views he had expressed.
Eibhear Walshe, growing up gay in Waterford, found in the gentlemen’s outfitters “the sole sexually attractive image from my entire teenage years. It was a large coloured ad of a handsome young man in white vest and underpants, staring at the camera with his arms folded.”’ Most difficult, however, was that “at the core of my understanding of sex and romance was the absolute certainty that I would always be outside it’.”
Around the time of the foundation of the Irish Gay Rights Movement in 1974, one of its founders, Edmund Lynch, was aware that at meetings of the sexual liberation movement in Trinity College Dublin “we could wax lyrical” about patriarchy and contraception “but the reality of our own lives was so much more pressing, so much more urgent. The reality was that we were still facing a possible prison sentence”. In 1973 and 1974, 43 men were sentenced in the district court for acts of “gross indecency” under 1885 legislation.
RTÉ took up the issue with a documentary in July 1977 by the multi-talented Cathal O’Shannon, who had worked in BBC current affairs in the 1960s before returning to RTÉ. His documentary included footage of a gay disco in Parnell Square while an Insights documentary by Ruth Dudley Edwards, shown on RTÉ in November 1979, concluded that Patrick Pearse was a latent homosexual.
But there was a mountain to climb to make homosexuality acceptable. Cllr Frank Sherwin, in a letter to the Evening Press in February 1977, defended Dublin Corporation’s decision not to fund the Project Arts Centre: “If people want to indulge in homosexuality then they should keep quiet about it. In my opinion these people are not only weak but also sick and they should not be permitted to contaminate others, especially the young.”
Just what was ranked high in terms of personal financial priorities? Aside from food and drink, what were those with money to spare consuming and desiring during this decade? Eibhear Walshe recalled the young people working in shops, factories and glass factories: “the older brothers had the kinds of noisy cheap car that adults disapproved of on principle”, while girls working in the shops were “jingling with golden chains and bangles”. Elephant flares, platform-heeled boots and floral shirts were in vogue, and some students opted for “Indian shirt, Moroccan beads, Jesus sandals”.
The first punks began to appear on Dublin streets by the mid-1970s. For the younger market, advertisements appeared in Hot Press for Wrangler cord jeans in 1978 for £10.50. Other fashion staples of the decade included cheesecloth, Afghan furs, satin hot pants, bell bottoms, tank tops and “four-inch platforms gave disco divas a whole new stature and with the advent of central heating, people peeled off and dispensed with sturdy tweeds in favour of new man-made fabrics like Courtelle, polyester and Trevira”.
Travel agents were busy advertising – “more for your pound with Sunbound” – and a holiday in Lanzarote with Bray Travel in the autumn of 1978 was advertised at an all-in cost of £180. In 1979, two-week holidays in Europe were being advertised for about £350. Spain was popular with younger people and it was noted in 1979 that “Irish holidaymakers discovered Greece relatively late but are making up for lost time. Last year, 16,000 Irish went there, a 60 per cent increase over 1977.”
Joe Walsh Tours (JWT) became one of the most successful travel businesses, having started with pilgrimages to Rome and Lourdes, but by the mid-1970s Walsh had set his sights on Spain. Families were implored to “Join the JWT set”; a rival company, Budget Travel, was established by Gillian Bowler in 1975.
Many were applying for passports for the first time and “there were still some moral strictures, of course. Even in the 70s, some Irish travel agents refused to take bookings from couples unless they were respectably married.”
As recalled by Pat Boran, whose father ran a travel agency, “the better-off families were already beginning to take occasional breaks in Spain and on their walls or mantelpiece might be castanets, earthenware jars garishly painted, tea towels that said Benidorm or Torremolinos”.
Home holidays were also being promoted, including cruises on the Shannon, visits to stately homes, camping and caravans, while the “joys of youth hostelling” were savoured by others and bicycles were seen as an ideal way to absorb the countryside.
A new £7 million terminal at Dublin airport had come into partial service in May 1972 and two years later Trans World Airlines opened its new Atlantic service to Dublin, nearly 30 years after it had first sought permission to gain landing rights there.
There was no shortage of complaints about the prices Aer Lingus was charging for its London to Dublin route, which at £56 for a return trip at Christmas 1976 was regarded by one complainant as “exorbitant . . . we are being held to ransom”.
Irish road fatalities were alarmingly high throughout the 1970s. In February 1972 Bobby Molloy, the minister for local government, whose department had responsibility for roads, wrote an extraordinarily heartfelt letter to Jack Lynch about this issue; he was concerned that an additional 800 gardaí were being recruited but none was going to be assigned solely to traffic duty:
The road deaths figures issued by the Gardaí for January show another shocking increase to 62 deaths – 22 more than in January 1971. It looks as if we must expect 700 road deaths this year and at least 25,000 people injured unless we can take some drastic action to prevent it . . . the big gap I see in the whole organisational approach is the low level of traffic supervision and enforcement of statutory requirements by the Gardaí. It is commonly accepted that speed limits and road signs can virtually be ignored, as long as one gets away with it. There is a plethora of “bangers” on the road with bald tyres, defective steering and little or no brakes. Cars are more frequently not taxed or insured. Above all, there is frightening (though confidential) evidence of the level of alcohol in the bodies of accident victims, while drivers under the influence are a common sight after closing hours . . . I don’t think we can be morally justified in not assigning men and equipment to the protection of road users . . . in most countries the correctness of devoting police resources to road accident prevention is accepted as a proper and necessary part of upholding a code of civic behaviour.
He finished by writing of the “despair which I feel. I even thought of asking for a day of national mourning for the 600 dead last year and making it an annual event.”
The cost of housing was another major preoccupation. In 1970, a three-bedroom pre-war house in the south Dublin suburb of Sandymount was on sale for £6,100 while a three-storey semi-detached house in Rathmines, Dublin 6, was £12,000.
At the end of 1973, the Sisters of Charity order of nuns reputedly received £1.5 million from the sale of St Vincent’s Hospital on St Stephen’s Green, reckoned to be “the biggest single property transaction ever to take place in the State”. This land was not used for charitable purposes and the journalist Brian Trench asserted that “the records of land disposal by church bodies shows little regard for social responsibilities.
The same year, a new record for a Dublin property was established at auction, when nine-tenths of an acre of land in south Dublin sold for £115,000. In 1976 a semi-detached pre-war four-bedroom house in Terenure was on sale for £27,000.
From the end of 1976 “a backlog of demand for housing from the stagnated 1973-6 years has driven up the price of land for residential development by 120 per cent, not including inflation”. With the economic recovery in 1976 came rock-bottom interest rates and looser credit. In 1978 it was reported, “The Fianna Fáil government has made good on their election promises, introducing £1,000 grants to house buyers and raising the SDA [small dwellings acquisition] loan limits. Demand for houses has soared. People owning homes have seen their value jump 24 per cent despite a 6.2 per cent inflation rate.”
By 1979, it was observed that flats in Dublin 2 and 4 that sold in 1972 for £10,000 were now being resold for £25,000, while for those renting, a one-bed flat costing £55 a month in 1973 now cost £86. As a result of EEC membership, the price of agricultural land soared 150 per cent between 1973 and 1978.
Domestic comforts were in demand. Youghal Carpets employed more than 600 people in Cork, while shag rugs were also popular and central heating became much more common. Lava lamps, bean bags and colour televisions were other creature comforts, while “Mrs Nineteen-seventies would have been hugely proud of her new set of non-stick pots and frying pans and on her kitchen counter there would probably have been a Soda Stream, the clever CO2 device that produced endless litres of fizzy drinks. Toasted sandwich makers also made their debut, as did the electric carving knife.”
Some were intent on indulging in the luxury of second or holiday homes, which caused some negative comment about the damage holiday-home developments might do to the 3,498 miles of coastline in the Republic: “Unique in western Europe with a small population and as yet limited industrial growth, Ireland enjoys the great advantage of being able to plan its coastline development with thought and care.”
These are edited extracts from Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, published by Profile Books
The National Prices Committee’s monthly reports gave a good overview of what people were consuming.
Popular brands included Findus beef burgers, Birds Eye potato chips, Galtee rashers, Little Chip marmalade, HB Vanilla ice-cream, Aero, Rolo, Toffo, Crosse Blackwell Salad Cream, Goodall’s YR sauce, Goldenvale Cheese, Cookeen cooking fat, Yoplait yoghurts, Jacob’s biscuits, Gateaux Swiss roll, Campbell’s soup, Shamrock Almonds and walnuts, Lyons tea bags, Kellogg’s cereals, Uncle Ben’s boil in the bag rice, Maxwell House coffee granules, Liga baby food and SMA powder.
Popular confectionery launched in the 1970s included the Curly Wurly bar, “one of the relatively few British confections on sale” in the Republic. The market was still dominated by native confectionery such as Twirl and Catch chocolate bars and the Wibbly Wobbly Wonder ice lolly. “’But for Irish kids exposed to British TV, the real objects of desire were the sweets beamed into Irish living rooms every night in adverts that got brighter, catchier and more glamorous with the coming of colour TV at the start of the seventies. Spangles, Skybars, Swizzels, Double Dips, Texan Bars, Treets, Revels and a host of other sweets flashed before young eyes, but for a while it was a case of You can look, but you cannot touch.”