So many images are conjured by the 1970s, most of them nostalgia-tinted, distorted by memories that linger of good weather, great music, endless summers. Examining the decade through the lens of time doesn’t help alleviate this sense of wistfulness that causes many of us to sigh when we think of the seventies. The cars. The clothes. The music. The Chopper bikes. Playing outside until it was dark.
I was a child in the seventies, so my own particular recall of the decade is certainly inked with a yearning for the simplicity of those years. Closer examination reveals that longing to be more for the simplicity of childhood itself than it is for a return to platform shoes and Charlie’s Angels, the Beano and Datsuns.
I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I’ve read enough of Irish social history to know for a fact that the sixties didn’t swing anywhere near these shores. Maybe the seventies saw the burgeoning of Ireland’s slow move towards modernism, away from the clutches of the church and parish pump politics. It has taken since then to reach the point we are at now as a more forward-thinking, open, diverse country. No matter what way you look at it, that is one slow road to travel, one we as a nation still journey on.
The heatwave of 1976 is one of those standout sections of my childhood, a huge sun-filled interlude in my early life. Everyone remembers it, and as a novelist, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story. Anything can happen in a heatwave, and we can blame it on the weather.
In my second novel, Night Swimming, Gemma, the young mother of my narrator, Megan, begins an affair with a married American man, Chris. If I’d written the book against the bleakness of an Irish winter, I doubt the affair would have happened, simply because there wouldn’t have been the opportunities for sitting out in the garden at night, listening to music, there wouldn’t have been picnics by rivers or bus trips to the beach.
Irish people tended to be quite buttoned up emotionally, and so this extended period of heat and sunshine allowed passion to break through. Emotions run higher in the heat – why else are holiday romances virtually guaranteed? Using the heatwave as my backstory makes the affair more authentic, and it almost gives the lovers permission to behave as they do. After all, if things go wrong, they can blame it on the weather!
The summer of 1976 exists as proof, incontrovertible fact, that Ireland doesn’t always have disastrous weather. We too can be counted among our southern European brethren as a people who can enjoy extended periods of sunshine – in their own country – from time to time. It doesn’t matter if the time lapses between good summers can amount to a decade or two. Because of 1976, Ireland can have good weather.
Of course now, with our 21st-century sensibilities and our acute sense of environmental awareness, we know that prolonged heatwaves, particularly in the cool temperate environs of northern Europe, are not usually a good thing. But in the 1970s most of us had no knowledge of the grim realities that lay behind a good summer. It was a more innocent time, and possibly because of that we were freer to indulge ourselves in sunshine and heat, our collective conscience clear of having had any hand to play in the soaring temperatures.
Memories of that mythical summer of 1976 are a form of cultural capital that are still shared and swapped among those of us who remember it, a climatic Woodstock if you will. Even those who weren’t there were there.
The Dublin that I remember of the 1970s is so different from the Dublin of today that it’s possible to believe that it is an entirely separate place. Before unregulated, rampant capitalism became the accepted norm, it was not just possible, it was expected, that families could buy their own home, or at the very least rent it without worrying about being turfed out on to the street. My memories are childish, and, yes, middle-class, but none of them feature people living rough, sleeping in cars, calling shoddy B&Bs home.
The roads were safer to walk beside and cycle along because cars were fewer, and smaller. Despite families being larger, there was no expectation that everyone needed to drive an outsized car that hoovered up all the available space. There was more outdoor play, a greater proportion of children’s free time devoted to just going outside and playing. It seems radical now, that lack of organising of downtime, the permissiveness of parents who sent their kids out to play. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t anyone to play with, it was about getting out there and using your imagination and your social skills, and just getting on with the important business of being young.
And yet. And yet. While it is easy to rail against the invasion of screens into our lives, and the corralling of children’s brains and imaginations and free time into rigid lines of organised and structured activities, easy to bemoan the price of everything and the minuscule return we get for our euros and our hard work, I wonder if the seventies were as wonderful we think?
I remember a girl who sat in her house, crying. She was in her late teens, and her baby had been given away. Not her choice; she had no say in it. I remember a couple of girls at school who today would be described as neglected, who sat at the back of the classroom and were ignored. I remember the casual cruelty towards children, the smacking in particular, by anyone who was around, parents, teachers, someone else’s parents. I remember many mothers who withered without paid work outside the home, who sought meaning in anti-depressants. Feminism had yet to find its mainstream groove, and women were regularly left out, ignored, frequently treated with contempt.
We know now what went on industrial schools and Magdalene laundries, the enslavement of our most vulnerable, while everyone else either didn’t know or looked the other way. And the North: it is impossible as an Irish person to reflect on the 1970s without referring in some way to the Troubles, which were omnipresent throughout the decade, a shadow falling across the heatwave of ’76.
Whitewashing a whole decade with nostalgia and sentiment is easy, and it’s fun. People been doing it for generations, looking backwards with yearning for something ephemeral that slipped out of our grasp without our noticing it. The good things are what we remember: the music, the sweets, the awful clothes, the limited television, the Enid Blyton books.
Yet I believe what we long for, whatever our decade of choice may be, is not the songs on the radio or the comics and sweets at the weekend. It’s a version of ourselves, an uncomplicated truth, a lost simplicity. Every generation looks back to its youth. It’s what we build our present selves on.
So my Dublin of the seventies is an emptier, brighter, sunnier place. It had interesting ice cream, bikes with cool names, space to roam. Bedtime in summer was a fluid affair, dependent entirely upon who was still out playing. Arms and legs were bare and sun-darkened. Sun protection came in a brown bottle that smelled of coconuts and had no SPF. Records crackled on players in every house and the top ten was equally important as news from abroad.
Am I open to disagreement? Most certainly.
Am I wrong in what I remember? Maybe only a little bit.
Night Swimming by Doreen Finn is published by Mercier Press