What did it mean to be an Irish teenage girl in the early 1990s?

Being from the same generation suggests some form of shared cultural experience but how each of us interprets that experience is anyone’s guess

Rachel Donohue began writing her book about two teenagers, part of which is set in the 1990s, the month Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries died. Photograph: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic

Rachel Donohue began writing her book about two teenagers, part of which is set in the 1990s, the month Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries died. Photograph: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic

 

A friend from my teenage years died of cancer in her early twenties. I remember getting the call with the news and having to sit down on a park bench in Merrion Square. It was lunchtime. I hadn’t seen her in three or more years. My last memory of her was a friendly but passing hello on the way to the library in university. I hadn’t known she was sick. We had all moved on, drifted. Her death marked the end of the “Imperial” phase of my youth, to steal from the Pet Shop Boys. Things were different after.

It’s in the years since that I have often thought how perhaps she, out of all of us, would have made a proper, functioning adult. She could have handled Celtic Tiger Ireland, and what befell it. The “frontier town” aspect to Dublin in those frenzied years, the anything-is-possible vibe that I was taking refuge from in a park that lunchtime in the early 2000s. Death had gone to the wrong door.

Entrepreneurial, she always had some job on the go when none of the rest of us could get hired as waitresses in 1990s suburban Dublin. She talked about wanting to run her own business. An alien concept. She dyed her hair blonde and was busy when we were flirting with a semi-goth look and being idle generally. Her mother had a serious job.

She called her parents by their first names. I might have imagined this, but it just seems like something she would have done. She was capable, modern somehow.

Looking back, I understand she sensed a change in the air before any of us, the opportunity that was on the horizon. Introspection and irony were not worth the energy.

They delayed you, just cloaks to hide behind. And she did not have the time. I didn’t see that then, though. She was a figure of pleasant, much-liked, bemusement. An outlier.

I’m thinking of her as I write this, and it is as a warning in a way to generalisations about people and the times they live in. We were never all the same. I’m not even sure what being from the same generation means, it’s some form of a shared cultural experience but how each of us interprets that experience is anyone’s guess.

Individuals are always more than a demographic and the cultural pond they swim in. And nostalgia is cheap anyway. Though it can also be an ache, and deserves some sympathy as a result.

I see those early years of the 1990s in Dublin as a kind of waiting, a pause. One world had ended, but a new one hadn’t started yet. Even Nirvana wasn’t on MTV yet, though MTV itself was a kind of joyous lifeline. Nothing happened quickly. There was still hellfire in school, but it didn’t seem that overly concerning. It was like an advertising slogan that had been used too often. All practical meaning had drained away, and the rituals were just that. You went through them, without question, but also without care. A kind of quiet, passive disregard breaking out on the inside. Not much shared or spoken about, but acknowledged in countless unspoken ways.

Defiance

We discovered Dublin city at some point, and that did feel different. Second-hand clothes shops, indie record stores. A lone ageing punk sitting on the side of a kerb in Temple Bar.

The Connolly bookstore where they had mini hardback editions of Russian classics. Buildings being torn down, one surprising constant of life since then. Old antique shops on the quays with decaying books and furniture. Buying a costume jewellery ring and wearing it to school, only to have it confiscated for breaking the rules of adornment. Dyeing hair black in homage to Winona Ryder in Heathers. Getting into trouble in school for this too. Thinking about ways to buy alcohol. A friend with a boyfriend 10 years older than her.

A point of curiosity and deep interest, more than anything else.

Waiting.

Like the girl in an older year who got pregnant and was, we heard, “encouraged” to leave school for the duration. I don’t know if this is true but leave she did.

Sometimes I’d see her standing outside the school gate as I was on my way home. She was waiting for her friends, and the life she had before. I know we were indignant at her exile, saw it as grossly unfair. Her education being interrupted actually the most distressing thing to us, but we didn’t know her personally so said nothing, did nothing.

A young woman with something to say, but she can’t be seen to say it completely, yet. It might, if we believed in the ability to define a generation, be a way of defining what it meant to be an Irish teenage girl in the early 1990s.

Except perhaps file it away under injustice. And wait. I don’t think we saw much power in acting together as a group, having one voice. It was to each her own. A search for freedom around the creaking structure of Catholic morality was navigated best as a solo journey. You were less likely to be noticed. I remember she didn’t look sad or shamed as she stood there at the gate, but strangely defiant and powerful. And that in itself was kind of hopeful. She was not broken.

Mary Robinson on the TV. Aware this was important but unable to fully grasp why or what it really meant. Perhaps recurrent images of Margaret Thatcher had softened the ground in a strange, sacrilegious way. Sinead O’Connor on MTV. Also important. A sense of the world listening, having an eye on us. Pride, maybe. A German teacher crying in the classroom while discussing her first visit home to her country after reunification. A strange May parade around the school, hymns sung aloud and a statue of Mary carried high, participated in through the full lens of irony. Even then the feeling, it can’t go on, as it is, for much longer.

A young civics teacher telling us to always, always earn our own money while looking vacantly out the window, thinking about someone, perhaps herself. An English teacher passionate, obsessed even with Russia and talking about perestroika. A sense of change in the air.

Breaking barriers

Plates move under your feet, and your head doesn’t register it for a while. A mild dizziness, a sense of the unfamiliar becoming familiar. The only thing you come to understand is that worlds can exist for a time, and they can also vanish. And afterwards, no one would ever believe what you were telling them about the past.

Perhaps barriers have to be broken first inside, before they can be taken down elsewhere.

And maybe that’s our story, or one of our stories.

I began writing my book about two teenagers, part of which is set in the 1990s, the month Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries died. I remembered how when she started out singing she did so with her back to the audience. The haunting power of this image of her stays with me, though I never witnessed it. Perhaps it isn’t even true.

But if it’s a myth, regardless, it captures something. She is there, but not there; she is strong, but frail; she is ambitious but held back. A young woman with something to say, but she can’t be seen to say it completely, yet. It might, if we believed in the ability to define a generation, be a way of defining what it meant to be an Irish teenage girl in the early 1990s.

The class that matriculated from a school for the blind, to steal from Tennessee Williams.

I don’t know what my friend who died too young would make of us now. All that we did and what we became. She belongs to a world from before, no matter her powers of prediction.

She doesn’t even exist on the internet, no Google search will reveal her. She does not have the luxury of nostalgia, of looking back, of comparing. She might think it a waste of time, like the irony of yester year. She would probably be right. Because we were never all the same, anyway. And we just did the best we could.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue is published by Corvus

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