By Jody Moylan
While most undergraduates today will look back on the 2010s as the decade they came of age, ‘my decade’ was the 1990s. I remember those years like it was yesterday, though it’s just vivid fragments I remember now; small snatches of time, many of which are not particular to anything. A view of a street, standing for a school photograph, walking into my grandmother’s rose garden. Her blue dress. Soap operas from England. All odd interventions that flash up like an old film reel. Not unwelcome, but never invited either. Bigger moments, too, are isolated with single memories. In 1990, I remember standing over the toilet at home in Roscommon, almost sick, as England led Ireland by a single goal to nil at the World Cup in Italy. It really mattered then — playing England — like it was second only to war, and I knew it even at the age of ten.
Along with changes in how we dress, what music we listen to, our quality of life, that England thing can be tracked over decades too. It was particularly pronounced in the late 80s and early 90s. I can’t remember Bobby Sands. I was alive alright, but not yet two when he died on hunger strike in 1981. He was part of an explosion of feeling that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1985 — a failure — but it offered up something to the white noise newly discernible to me in our little country living room. Voices crackling from a radio that was also a record player, and from a television that was two tonne weight.
Becoming more conscious, I remember 1988, a single day in June, standing outside in the sun and walking in to see Ray Houghton score a famous goal in Stuttgart. A floating header that seemed to take forever. All the serious stuff was on RTE 1. The murder and the politics at least. But then, as before it, we had two separate relationships with England, where one half of us seemed to be cheating on the other. We enjoyed its music, magazines and newspapers, its comedies and dramas, much the same as we do today. In every sense, though, the conflict was ongoing back then, and there must have been a pang of guilt, too, by the older generation who knew how badly some of their own had been treated, on all the streets, the building sites, and tenements of England.
But that conflict of cultural and social/political life had gone on for generations. I was reading recently about Ernie O’Malley; that famed and iconic Irish revolutionary who was both an intellect and a man of the gun. Much has been made about the conflict of his mind; of his simultaneous ‘Anglocentrism’ and ‘Anglophobia’. That somehow the two could not co-exist. For he was both a fan and an enemy ‘of things English’. He read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante and Milton, while, at the same time, was a leading guerrilla with, he stated ‘an inborn hate of things English, which I expect all Irishmen inherit’. Daniel O’Connell — our great nationalist ‘Liberator’ — got caught up in the soap-opera-like wanderings of Nell Trent, a fictional character from the Englishman Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, which was serialised in the magazine Master Humphrey’s Clock between 1841 and 1842. When Nell was ‘killed off’, Dan threw away the magazine ‘with a gesture of angry impatience’. Whatever about Dan’s petulance, what Dickens was doing in works like Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist (which O’Connell also loved) was telling the story of the harsh reality of the world in which they all lived, and under the system which they all lived.
The written culture was a critique of the political and social culture. Shakespeare, for O’Malley, should only have been someone who summed up the banality of monarchs, rather than being a cultural influence to feel guilty about. I remember after leaving the bathroom that night in 1990, Ireland got an equaliser. And that’s the way it stayed. We proved we were just as good as them, but no better than them either. And we continued watching their soap-operas, as we do today, with all the little comedies and dramas of normal people trying to get by. Because, for all their bad governance, prime ministers and pointless monarchs, most of them, when it comes down to it, are just the same as us.