Michael Viney’s Ireland: 50 years a blow-in

The English journalist and naturalist – this paper’s longest-serving columnist – has always been a keen-eyed yet sympathetic chronicler of Irish life. So what does he make of our nation in this centenary year?


On a black, wet night in March 1966, as Ethna, my wife, was driving us back from the west, on a wide main road, we were struck head on by a galloping black heifer. The cow’s passage over the roof left me with a gash under one eye and Ethna badly shocked but unhurt. At Loughrea hospital news arrived of the explosion that had felled half of Nelson’s Pillar, in Dublin. It was one way of marking the 50th anniversary of the Rising and one more reason for remembering the day.

We were returning from Letterfrack, in Connemara; its industrial school was one of those that I visited for an Irish Times series on the fate of young offenders, published soon after. At the time it stirred a single letter to the editor. The deeper scandals of children in institutions had to wait for searing television documentaries that were to change the whole mind cast of Ireland.

From apprenticeship to my local Brighton weekly, at the age of 16, I look back, at 83, on a lifetime in journalism. My love affair with The Irish Times began in 1962, when the spark of postwar renewal – Seán Lemass, TK Whitaker, Garret FitzGerald – prompted me to join Ireland’s future.

In 1977 Ethna, our daughter and I moved from Dublin to Co Mayo, from where, in yet another life, I have kept my eye on affairs from a digital eyrie above the sea, where broadband beamed from the islands brings me six newspaper front pages before breakfast.

In the early years of social inquiry for this newspaper – into mental illness, single motherhood, care of the elderly, unhappy marriages and more – I sought to set a mirror to the new and understandable obsession with Ireland’s economic revival. It was, journalistically, a virgin field. As Diarmaid Ferriter wrote in his recent modern history, I became “almost a one-man department of sociology”, exploring “Ireland’s dark corners”.

But that was all a long time ago, before the Republic’s profound social change, expressed as much in people’s feelings as in new systems or law. Behind current public anger in reaction to the recent economic crash and to austerity, and the cranky verbiage of Facebook and Twitter, there has been a change of heart. Even the pattern of last month’s general election, in its support for local, independent candidates, reinforces the strength of a new fellow feeling.

Over the 50 years the advances in education and acquaintance with the wider world have helped to erase the old social exclusions and stigmas. It might even be that television soaps now meet the need for drama that used to motivate such keen and sometimes cruel rural gossip.

Life has grown much more professional in the new competition for well-paying, less-secure jobs. Most journalists today are graduates, among them gifted analysts of a far more complex society. Many women among them are instinctively feminist. Before contraception was finally freed from male control, including that of the Catholic Church, in the family-planning Act of 1979, well-known media faces were among crusading women waving condoms from the Belfast train.

The need to respect and understand the human condition has encouraged Irish people to come out in defiance of old taboos and silences. Those suffering depression should never have felt inhibited from saying so, and families coping with a suicide should never have felt the need to mask the truth. Both have to be talked about for help to intervene.

Single mothers can now push the baby down the street. The unhappily married can divorce and gay couples wed in public. Sooner or later abortion reform will respect the mother’s health, not just her life. It is as if a hidden Ireland is tired of long dissembling and has declared a solidarity with the human pursuit of happiness.

Alternative pioneers

I have never felt, nor been made to feel, that much of an English outsider. Even the nuns, priests and brothers I quizzed in the 1960s received me kindly and co-operatively, gave me tea in the parlour and put up with a Brit, a nonbeliever, seeking their views on professional theories for the progress of childcare.

If I feel an outsider now it is still towards the England I left, now so xenophobic and multiculturally confused. An exploration of Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s found not dissimilar tensions and discrimination. I returned to report on John Hume’s activism in Derry as something like good news.

It helped my own integration, of course, to marry a resourceful west-coast woman with her own ideals of social change. Ethna McManus, young chairwoman of the farmers’ co-op in Killala, was doing a late economics degree at University College Dublin. We spent weekends driving from the capital to meetings with the small farmers and fishermen she was urging towards local co-operative action.

Ethna also flew a flag for rural women, then often labouring in harsh domestic and marital conditions. A cartoon in our loo, drawn by Warner for the Farmer’s Journal in 1968, commemorates a lecture she gave to a seminar of priests and bishops. It attracted a front-page headline in the Dublin evening papers, “Country wives starved of love says Ethna Viney,” and brought Bishop Harty of Killaloe to set up the first rural marriage-guidance council. In the 1990s, for RTÉ, Ethna and I made a film with the women of our local town, Louisburgh. It was called Risen Women, with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, at the helm.

The far greater comfort of today’s typical small-farm Ireland – carpeted bungalows with fitted kitchens – is the fruit of decades of EU farm policies and structural funds, topped up by off-farm construction work in the transient Tiger years. The farm husbands, too, have left a way of life behind.

In the late 1960s, exploring small-town economics, we arrived at Kiltimagh – where the word “culchies” came from – on a fair day in March, a necessary couple of hours before dawn. We found the dark streets of the Co Mayo town thronged with cattle, the light of torches making bright clouds of their breath. Rising in the early hours, the farmers had marched them for miles through a snowy countryside, converging along six roads into the town.

With the Republic’s entry to the EEC, in 1973, new cattle marts took over, stilling the slapping of hands on a bargain in the street. Good local abattoirs were sacrificed to larger centres of impeccable hygiene. A new solitariness entered farming life, with the end of kinship and neighbourhood gatherings for hay and silage meitheals and the seasonal cutting of turf, both now generally abandoned to outside contractors.

There’s little visiting between bungalows glowing with television screens, which makes Mass and the Sunday supermarket shop a welcome opportunity to see friends. When the young come home from Dublin their gaze remains lowered to their virtual social world. That’s, of course, when the young are still in Ireland and not chatting on Skype from Sydney or San Francisco.

Robbed, at present, of so many young, many small towns are left in sad limbo, as supermarkets and co-operative stores have centralised retail shopping. Louisburgh has the better life that tourism and small industry can bring. It was once my joke that Nomadic Structures Ireland manufactured yurts for Mongolia, but it has successfully exported folding exhibition equipment since the 1980s.

In the early years of the Industrial Development Authority there was some unease about attracting multinationals to Ireland. It was feared that many would up stakes and leave once initial grants had been spent. This was to underrate the attraction of Irish corporation-tax rates and the long and grateful service of dependent communities, not to mention the pleasing tenor of Irish life. Globalisation and corporate restructuring have inevitably brought collapses and betrayals.

In the anniversary year of 1966 Donogh O’Malley, as minister for education, disconcerted Seán Lemass and the Fianna Fáil cabinet by announcing free secondary education. This set in train the advance towards college so generally counted on today. The new embrace of science, not least in the realm of the marine, has filled great gaps in Ireland’s intellectual ambition, and the seismic arrival of computers seems to have touched, in many young entrepreneurs, an especially Irish imagination and creativity.

Settled on our acre in Thallabawn in commitment to a “simpler” life, news of a personal computer in the early 1980s had me wondering what on earth it was for. Later, struggling with the early Amstrad and its telephonic modem, the digital delivery of my “Another Life” column to Dublin was, indeed, often preferable to cycling to the post office in wind and rain.

Changes in the landscape on our side of the hill have been mercifully gradual and mostly inoffensive. Drilling on the hill for gold did not, in the end, deliver a mine, and wind turbines, similarly, never arrived. The new second homes of the Tiger years crept along the road to the edge of my view and then stopped. The Wild Atlantic Way has a tendril past our gate, but at least it keeps most of the potholes filled, most of the time.

Common pleasure

However, a natural world that was once thought of interest to ascendancy hobbyists has become the common pleasure. When the Free State was founded nature study was scrapped from the primary-school syllabus to make more room for Irish. Now the young tend school gardens for the thrill of making things grow and watching butterflies, at least until the first video game draws them into the virtual world.

The State, meanwhile, has been dragged into conservation. The EU’s protection of habitats and species was originally framed by a consensus of scientists, Irish experts among them. It was then enshrined in EU directives, enforceable through fines from the European Court of Justice. The process has produced a rich fund of native ecological research and a flow of home-grown initiatives.

Although nature directives can seem authoritarian, especially to farming interests caught up in their implementation, they let politicians get on with conservation while pleading coercion from Brussels. I trust that the next regime will follow this dishonourable tradition, so long as it works to nature’s benefit.

Conceived on this side of the hill, my view of 50 years may seem of no great relevance. Avoiding social media as unnecessary complications of life, we are spared the darker minds that haunt disputed territory. But it does seem that in today’s Ireland most people now deal with each other more fairly and with greater intelligence and empathy. In today’s divided world this can’t be bad.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of his columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/ irishtimesbooks

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