Homage to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary
Diarmaid Ferriter: For all the changes in Ireland the continuities are also striking
Nollaig and Vera: Like many young couples they would have watched the ‘Late Late Show’ on Saturday nights on their first television as the parameters of what could be discussed broadened.
My parents are 50 years married this weekend, marking a milestone many of my generation will struggle to reach. I’ve often thought of the Ireland they started married life in as very young teachers; my father was only 20 and, by law, had to get his widowed mother’s permission to marry my 21-year-old mother. The sun shone in Ireland in August 1968, Pope Paul VI had just issued his Humanae Vitae encyclical, industrial unrest was widespread, there were civil rights stirrings at home and abroad with riots, assassinations and Vietnam. Dev was still president but he was one of the last of the revolutionary generation still in public life as the political focus shifted to a new generation
I’m sure, as they honeymooned modestly in Donegal, my parents were focused on none of that, but the ramifications of all those domestic and international stirrings were to be felt deeply throughout the decades of their long marriage. Ireland’s best known agony aunt Angela McNamara has described how her postbag bulged in late 1968 after Humanae Vitae reiterated the Vatican’s opposition to any form of artificial birth control; it was clear “shopping around” for a sympathetic priest had begun making an a la carte Catholicism more likely. The debate on contraception was not going to be contained; ours was not going to be family of 14 children and my mother never gave up her job, later announcing defiantly through a sign in the kitchen, “Dull Women Have Immaculate Houses.”
Like many young couples they would have watched the Late Late Show on Saturday nights on their first television as the parameters of what could be discussed broadened. The archive of the Catholic archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid reveals a man under siege in 1968 who still maintained misplaced optimism about the extent to which he could continue to censor and control. Those not listening to the admonishments of the bishops, puritans, moralisers and killjoys were more numerous and determined to have fun and exercise choice but what was also revealing was the extent to which the State broadcaster was coming under pressure internally; tensions in 1968 and 1969 resulted in three producers – Lelia Doolan, Jack Dowling and Bob Quinn – resigning from RTÉ over differences of opinion as to what was the function of the television produced by the State broadcaster, its preoccupation with commercialism and its tolerance of dissent.
My parents’ careers revolved around education as primary school teachers at a time when the educational landscape was transforming and classes were bulging
It is easy to forget, because of the subsequent descent into violence, how optimism pervaded the civil rights quest in 1968; as Austin Currie put it that summer after squatting in a council house in Caledon, Co Tyrone: “If we cannot obtain justice through normal channels, then we should do so through the only other effective means at our disposal. There was no danger of violence. Indeed, civil disobedience was a safety valve.” Betty Sinclair added to this in August, speaking to marchers from Coalisland to Donegal and encouraging them to sit down rather than confront police: “In this way we will be more effective in showing the world that we are a peaceful people asking for our civil rights in an orderly manner.” Within months, however, the North was inflamed.
With Hey Jude, the Beatles in 1968 were singing about taking a sad song and making it better; that late 1960s music vitality was embraced by my father, who ensured we grew up in a house suffused with such sounds and the folk music that was thriving in Ireland was also aired, not to mention Van Morrison’s stunning Astral Weeks, a creative world away from some of the manufactured and contrived nonsense that came later in popular music. And it was not just about home entertainment: my parents had weekly date nights, even when we were babies. They married each other, not us four.
My parents’ careers revolved around education as primary school teachers at a time when the educational landscape was transforming and classes were bulging; there was more debate about church control and new awakenings around the social and psychological dimensions to education and teaching. As a future lecturer of mine, Margaret MacCurtain, put it at that time, the question of education “now lies within the domain of justice”. The campaigns centred on these issues were to be lengthy and sometimes divisive; great progress was made by that generation of teachers, though certain vested interests remained stubbornly powerful. With their colleagues, my parents gave voice to the need for equality in Irish education.
For all the changes wrought during the 50 years of my parents’ marriage, the continuities and cycles are also striking, especially in relation to a fractious Northern Ireland, a dangerous, divided United States, the role of the church and the pope, the function of the media, the status of women and quests for equality. Hats off to those who have stuck with togetherness in the deepest sense for half a century amid it all.