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

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

Shockin’ holy:  St Patrick’s Day parade-goers in Dublin in 1981. Photograph: INM/Getty Images

Shockin’ holy: St Patrick’s Day parade-goers in Dublin in 1981. Photograph: INM/Getty Images

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.

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