1970s Ireland: Where would we be if Dana hadn't won the Eurovision?


A decade of disputesThe 1970s was the decade of industrial disputes, student and PAYE workers’ marches and – almost unheard of today – frequent and crippling strikes.

“There always seemed to be something kicking off,” says broadcaster and musician Ferdia Mac Anna, who started his band, Rocky de Valera the Gravediggers, in the late 1970s.

“You were surrounded by tribes making their point of view, but you were also surrounded by tribes asserting their own identity. As a student, you’d only go on marches if it was on between half two and half three, because that was when the pubs closed for holy hour. During the bus strike, you’d hitch and you’d get a lift into town. People didn’t have much, but they were generous with what they had.”

Declan Kiberd, professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, recalls the march of 200,000 PAYE workers on March 20th, 1979. “I watched the march from Burgh Quay and it seemed to take hours to go past, and then I joined it at its tail. People had more spirit in those days and protested when they knew a system was unfair. It was a dignified and overwhelming statement, which sent a clear message to political elites. If only we had that spirit now.”

Burning of the British embassy

On February 2nd, 1972, an angry crowd of 20,000 protesters burned down the British embassy on Merrion Square in retaliation for the Bloody Sunday killing of 13 people in Derry three days earlier.

“On the night of Bloody Sunday, we were playing in St Patrick’s in Drumcondra,” says Barry Devlin, “and the news started filtering through to the hall. First there was word there were casualties, then it just got worse. Because there were no tweets in those days, the news was just filtering through slowly, and it took a couple of days before people realised just what had happened, and the barbarity of it.”

The Miami Showband killings

On the morning of July 31st, three members of the Miami Showband, on their way home from a gig in Banbridge, Co Down, were shot dead by gunmen at a bogus checkpoint near Newry. “There’d been a belief among people playing in the North that you don’t shoot the piano player, that there was a diplomatic immunity afforded to the musicians in the transit van,” says musician and filmmaker Barry Devlin, who regularly toured Northern Ireland with his band, Horslips, at the time.

“Coming home from that same ballroom, which was the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, about four or five months earlier, we’d been pursued by a car, which we’d eluded. We assumed we would get a hiding if they caught us, but who knows what would have happened. It changed things completely for everyone.”

Pope’s visit

On September 29th, 1979, Pope John Paul II landed in Dublin for a three-day visit and said the country’s first Papal Mass in front of one million people at the Phoenix Park. “I remember how completely empty all he streets of Dublin were,” says Kiberd. “I cycled across the city from South Circular Road to the park and passed less than a dozen people out walking (including two famous, agnostic poets!). At the time, I thought the huge turn-out was a sign of religious revival, but Fr Peter Connolly of Maynooth told me afterwards it was a mark of crisis, because of the decline in religious practice and vocations over the previous decade. True enough, no pope had ever been sent for in the older days of unquestioning faith. Fr Connolly made an interesting prophecy to me: ‘The Irish often junk core values. If religion goes in Ireland, it will go so fast nobody will even know whats happening.’ I often thought of that remark in the subsequent decades – he was a shrewd prophet as well as one of the finest priests of his day.”

Boomtown Rats on the ‘Late Late’

For many Irish teenagers, a key musical moment in the 1970s came when The Boomtown Rats appeared on Top of the Pops after their single Rat Trap knocked Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta off the No 1 spot. But Ireland’s moral guardians were outraged when Bob Geldof went on The Late Late Show and mouthed off to Gay Byrne about “getting laid”.

“The Boomtown Rats were a rhythm and blues band when I saw them first, doing Dr Feelgood,” says Mac Anna. “But they came on a wave of punk, and they did it brilliantly. The energy of punk was the reason I started a band in the first place. Suddenly everything was possible. It was do-it-yourself: if you wanted to be in a band, you could be in a band. If you wanted to hijack the name of the founder of the State and use it as your stage moniker, you could do it.”

Alternative voices

The 1970s, says Ferdia Mac Anna, was when young writers and journalists, including Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín and Fintan O’Toole, now of this newspaper, began to find their voice through writing for ‘alternative’ publications. “Suddenly there were a lot of ways you could express yourself. A lot of avenues for getting your work published. If you wanted to know what was going on, you bought In Dublin, Hibernia and Hot Press, and if you wanted to hear good music, you listened to the pirate radio stations. And if you wanted to know what was happening in the underground, you walked around and asked people. So it was a word-of-mouth culture, and a lot of it was portrayed though the writings of a generation who came through In Dublin and other publications.”

Dana wins the Eurovision

On March 21st, 1970, a pixie-faced teenager from Derry swept to victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, and swept Europe off its feet. Dana was the innocent embodiment of Ireland, and her song, All Kinds of Everything, was the perfect jingle, tempting prospective tourists with promises of snowdrops, daffodils and dew.

“Everyone was proud of her,” says Mac Anna. “She was this pretty little thing on a stool and people thought she was wonderful. She’s spent a lot of time since then trashing her own image.

“Up to then we had felt isolated from the rest of Europe, and we didn’t really have a sense of being part of the wider world. If Dana hadn’t won the Eurovision, I’m sure we would still be speaking Irish and wearing báiníns.”

“Aer Lingus sent out a plane to bring her back,” says Barry Devlin. “Dana and the pope: they both got planes, and I think Dana’s plane might have been even bigger than the pope’s.”

Carnsore anti-nuclear protests

In August 1978, young people packed their sleeping-bags and roll-your-own tobacco and made the pilgrimage to Wexford for the first antinuclear festival at Carnsore Point, headlined by Christy Moore.

They were there to protest against plans by then minister for energy and commerce Des O’Malley to build a nuclear power station on Carnsore Point, but musician and broadcaster Ferdia Mac Anna reckons most were there for the beer, the babes and the wacky baccy. “The hippies were lovely around the time of Woodstock, but after that it got stale. It’s great that there was a protest movement, but, like the Green Party, give the hippies any power and they make a balls of it.”

Seige at Monasterevin

On October 3rd, 1975, Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema was kidnapped on his way to work at the Ferenka plant in Ballyvara, Co Limerick. His abductors, Eddie Gallagher and Marian Coyle, demanded the release of Republican prisoners, including Dr Rose Dugdale. After an 18-day search, the Garda surrounded a house in Monasterevin, and a two-week siege began. “Those kind of things happened on TV. To us They were like Vietnam,” says Mac Anna. “It seemed so far away to us, but yet the IRA were at our doorstep. I don’t know if people were trying to find out why all this was happening – people were trying to block it out. We weren’t properly informed about what was really going on. It’s ironic that I started in RTÉ in the late 1970s, and it was the start of Section 31. The South, where there should have been freedom of speech, had banned freedom of speech.”

Oil crisis

In October 1973, oil-producing Arab countries proclaimed an oil embargo in response to US policy in the Middle East, triggering a global oil crisis. Ireland had just joined the EEC, but the fallout from rising oil prices and diminishing supplies plunged the country deeper into recession. It meant people had to abandon their cars and find other ways of getting around, and sparked a black market of sorts in siphoned-off petrol. “I remember people on our road and around Howth siphoning off petrol,” says Mac Anna. “It was a bit of an industry, kids siphoning petrol from people’s cars and storing them in milk bottles.”

“My favourite memory was running out of petrol at three or four in the morning on our way to Kinnegad,” says Devlin. “Kinnegad was the holy grail, because it had an all-night filling station which, throughout the oil crisis, always managed to have a few gallons in place for showbands. And we set out from Galway, in the fond hope that we’d get there, which we almost did.”