Hope and despair


Looking out his window at grey, rainy Dublin in the summer of 1954, the writer Anthony Cronin, then editor of The Bell magazine, was in sombre mood.

"Here, if ever was," he wrote, "is a climate for the death wish." It was an observation that encapsulates stereotypical 1950s Irish gloominess, and historians were later apt to reiterate such sentiments. In the standard histories of 20th-century Ireland words such as "doom", "drift", "stagnation" "crisis" and "malaise" dominate the chapters relating to the 1950s. What is refreshing about this collection of 18 essays, some a result of a conference organised in UCC in 2001, others commissioned after it, is the illustration of directly contrasting perceptions of the decade, the tendency to challenge lazy assumptions as a result of original archival research, and the excavation of areas long neglected.

It gets under the skin of Ireland in the 1950s in a number of different ways. Statistics and economic analysis by, amongst others, John Bradley of the ESRI, are not allowed to hide the human cost. He points out that the difficulties of this era "have left semi-permanent scars on the lives of individuals and on society itself . . . I well recall the game we used to play as young children, passing the time counting the cottages through Roscommon and Mayo that were boarded up and abandoned". It is a stark reminder of the sheer scale of economic development since then. How much are those cottages worth now?

The contributions of journalist Brian Fallon and novelist John Banville indicate the degree of divergence in memories of the 1950s. Banville is adamant that docility was everywhere in a country that was "a demilitarised totalitarian state", in which lives were controlled, not by a system of coercive force, but "by a kind of applied spiritual paralysis". Fallon disputes this stereotype and identifies a restlessness and inquiring spirit, a cultural vibrancy evidenced in journalism, broadcasting and the visual arts; "the underlying creative force" that propelled the many rich personalities of the decade.

Unsurprisingly, emigration dominates the book. While the contributors do not dispute the idea that economic depression was eating away at Irish confidence like a cancer, their analysis is balanced and probing and exposes the abdication of political responsibility. As Enda Delaney illustrates, emigrants were often depicted as somewhat feckless and easily led, which amounted to a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves rather than the society they left. This is particularly relevant in relation to the huge exodus of women. Caitriona Clear provocatively and convincingly demolishes the myth that all female emigrants were victims, and sees low marriage rates and high rates of permanent celibacy as reflecting the fact that "women were rejecting men". One young woman, who spoke to Seán O'Faoláin, left him in no doubt of the reasons for her choice: "I saw what my mother went through - not for me, thank you".

A similar logic witnessed some women choosing to seek abortion. Sandra McAvoy delves into this world prior to the high profile abortion trial in 1956 of Nurse Cadden, convicted after a botched abortion in Dublin's Hume Street. This is relatively unchartered territory for the social historian, making this contribution all the more fascinating, with women haggling over prices and common household cleaners being injected into the womb. The tragedies that resulted from dependence on amateurs loom large, while rural women passed on abortion knowledge by word of mouth - all in all, "a mid-twentieth century women's culture in Ireland which is at variance with the stereotype of prayerful, passive obedience".

Two absorbing essays by James Ryan and Liam Harte tackle the issue of the emigrant experience as represented in the creative writing of the period. Ryan identifies a frustration on the part of writers like O'Faoláin, Liam O'Flaherty and Mary Lavin in attempting to adequately articulate the emigrant experience in their fiction; their relative silence on the issue being eloquent testimony to the "lost decade". Harte finds no such reticence in the work of playwright Tom Murphy, which he sees as not only a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of Irish migrants in England, but also the tensions between rural fundamentalism and urban modernity at home. Linda Almeida explores the strength and vitality of the 1950s Irish community in New York, where for many, it was a place of abundance, opportunity and exotic food - "chicken chow mein - so much of it we couldn't get through half", as one emigrant's letter put it.

The voice of exiles both at home and abroad is strongly represented, and Dermot Keogh documents the plight of the Blasket islanders as they contemplated evacuation. Contemporary government files noted that "women are no longer prepared to marry into the island". Keogh also highlights aspects of the 1950s that need further exploration, particularly the growth of the voluntary disability sector and the extent to which people were forming organisations to respond to unmet needs. This book is an important reminder of the extent of despair in 1950s Ireland, but it also does justice to the restlessness, questioning and creativity that marked the decade.

Diarmaid Ferriter is a lecturer in history at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. His new book, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, will be published in September by Profile

Ireland in the 1950s: The Lost Decade Edited by Dermot Keogh, Finbar O'Shea and Carmel Quinlan Mercier Press, 302pp. €16.95