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David McWilliams: The past is a sexually repressed, tax-dodging, country

A social survey of Ireland in 1981 exposes an extraordinarily conservative citizenship

When thinking about the past there is a tendency to remember the big events, the political crises, the economic moments and the newsworthy stories. This approach only tells us so much about the country and tends to offer blurry snapshots of the big-shots. What about the ordinary citizen? This is where survey data is so revealing. The attitudes garnered in survey data are the creed of the country and this value system represents the suite of beliefs that we professed openly.

In 1981, just after the papal visit and just ahead of the 1983 abortion referendum, the European Values Study conducted a wide-ranging survey of Ireland, interviewing thousands of people. The results expose an extraordinarily conservative country, with deep-rooted animosity to people outside the mainstream, a level of moral and sexual conformity that is quite startling, but also a country whose political stability was not taken for granted.

To use that immortal line from LP Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

When seen from the vantage point of today, the values Ireland believed in when Pope John Paul II visited make it not just a foreign country, but an alien planet.


Sexual freedom

For example, when asked whether people should be allowed to enjoy sexual freedom, 70 per cent of people said no; with only 19 per cent saying yes. This is a shocking level of public support for private sexual repression. When asked whether sexuality should be left to individual choice, a huge 61 per cent of Irish people disagreed. This implies that people believed that their own sexuality should be determined by someone else, by society’s general conservative norms and not by themselves.

Nearly six out of 10 people believed that being gay was unacceptable. Just to give you a sense of the nation’s value system, more people (58 per cent) believed that being gay was unacceptable than believed that tax evasion was unacceptable (44 per cent). Practically half the adult population (45 per cent) maintained that divorce was never justified, in under any circumstance.

Four out of 10 contended that four children was the ideal family size. 17 per cent – that’s more than one in six – believed women should ideally have six children or more. Capturing the moral censoriousness of the time, the survey shows that six out of 10 disapproved of single mothers who did not appear to want a stable relationship with a man.

Table manners

Interestingly, when asked about what values we should emphasise in children, over 80 per cent believed that we should place more value on authority and family. When asked what qualities we should instil in our children, only 8 per cent of parents identified encouraging imagination, while 65 per cent maintained that good table manners were crucial.

Religious observation was almost total. An extraordinary 82 per cent of Irish people claimed to go to church at least once a week, and only one in 20 said they never went.

Just over half of people, when asked, contended that the church provided the answers to family problems. Nine out of 10 people believed in heaven and one in three said scientific advances would harm humanity and shouldn’t be embraced.

The survey does throw up strange anomalies, such as that 97 of people believed in God, which is astounding, but one in three also believed in reincarnation, which is kind of reassuring.

Despite violence being visited upon innocents on almost a weekly basis, one in three people said that they supported the notion of terrorism

In contrast to how much we value individual rights today, in 1981 less than one in four people thought that giving people more say in their lives was important. Reflecting the groupthink of the day, less than one in 10 thought free speech was a vital issue. This was in a country that had just banned Monty Python's Life of Brian because, although free speech was not important, religious satire threatened the soul of the nation.

Over half of Irish people identified not with Ireland first and foremost, but with the town or locality from which they came. Less than 3 per cent said they were European and only 20 per cent suggested Irish was their preferred identity above their county or village.

Yet it was also a time of rampant nationalism and atrocities in the North. Despite violence being visited upon innocents on almost a weekly basis, one in three people said that they supported the notion of terrorism, which – again seen from today’s vantage point – is disturbingly high.

Significant threat

It was a time of significant threat to the State, mainly stemming from the IRA. We were just about to witness the hunger strikes, and there was a real fear that the State was not in control. Capturing the anxiety of the people at the time, the opening question of that national survey of Ireland in 1981 was: “What should be the nation’s top priority over the next 10 years?”

By far and away the most significant concern, with 41 per cent of people saying it was the top priority, was “maintaining order in the nation”.

Think about this answer and the words “maintaining order in the nation”. Back then the very existence of the place was the primary concern for four out of 10 people. Underlining this was not just the threat from the North spilling over, but deep economic chaos and rampant inflation. The second most pressing concern was “fighting rising prices”.

When looking back, it is helpful to dig deep beyond the headlines. In terms of how far this nation has travelled, how did a nation where close to 60 per cent believed that being gay was unacceptable in 1981 become a nation led by a gay Taoiseach in one generation?

The country that the pope will speak to on Saturday is indeed a changed place.