By Jody Moylan
One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the back seat of my father’s Talbot Alpine as he drove down the runway at Knock airport. It must have been 1984, and the last leg in the construction of ‘Ireland West’. I can almost whittle it down to a Sunday; the day we’d visit our relatives in Mayo, and a day when all building workers would have clocked off work. If not exactly the work of God, it was, at least, a project that had been summoned and delivered by one of His earthly disciples, Monsignor James Horan. It might seem strange to think that access was so open back then, to such a site as an airport build, but really that Ireland of my early youth is a long time ago now, even if I don’t like to admit it.
I began to think about the 1980s this week, after I re-watched the brilliant documentary series Seven Ages; a must for anyone interested in the Irish twentieth century since the foundation of the state in 1922. The ‘80s was truly a twilight period, existing at the end of an old world, and while popular culture, for example, was looking forward with a refreshingly light air, many aspects of the decade were truly looking back. It’s hard to believe that the airport in Knock was originally founded not on the idea of helping westerly emigrants with their forlorn commute to all the cities of England, but on bringing foreign tourists to the shrine of its titular town. Coming 100 years after the apparitions of — to give them their dues — Our Lady the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, Jesus Christ (in the form of the Lamb of God) and some angels, the green light given by the then–Taoiseach Charles Haughey was an apt example of a long marriage of devotion with a wilful ignorance to the pressing issues of the day; a country about to drop into a deep recession being one of them. And even though it’s hazy now, I still remember that about the 1980s; the distinct feeling of being ‘under’ something greater, of a kind of authority still presiding, of the normal person just having to accept their lot.
In something of an irony that Karl Marx would have appreciated — he had great ideas on what, exactly, religion was — one of the biggest scandals of the 1980s revolved around a young teenage girl who sought solace by a grotto of the Virgin Mary, while her all-destructive guilt was founded on the moral message of her church. The case of Anne Lovett happened around the same winter months of 1983-84 as the Kerry babies scandal; a tale of a washed up infant in Cahersiveen that reads like a nineteenth century work of fiction based around God, sin, and moral authority. Ireland in the 1980s, as the Irish Examiner recently put it, ‘was a place where a Catholic version of Sharia law prevailed’. This kind of ‘code for living’ was truly at its height in the decade where, really, true Christianity had itself been asphyxiated in the ‘hypocrisy of unchristian Irish Catholicism’. This extended itself to the ban on divorce (upheld after the ‘no’ referendum of 1986), tight restrictions on contraception, and a continuing ban on same-sex relationships. The truth is that all of that goofy nostalgia for the decade is based off the pop culture people saw on their TVs, and heard on their radios. I still remember watching The A-Team on Saturday afternoons, or trying to catch a glimpse of Magnum P.I. before I was sent to bed. While Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show had a very definite golden age during the 1980s so too did American drama, with Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Dallas all big hits with anyone who yearned for a glimpse of the high life (which was practically everyone in that recession and emigration hit era). But, like the story of the road leading out of the one-horse town, great hope and optimism emerged too through Irish sport, and the arts. I thought of this a few nights ago while out with a friend, when Johnny Logan came on, booming out ‘Hold Me Now’ through the sound system. We were reminded that it was this that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1987, the same year that Stephen Roche won the Tour de France. Though both competitions have since descended into farce in their own distinct ways, back then, they were the only shows in town, or at least some of the only shows we could watch on our very limited television schedules. And really, they were some of my fondest early memories, like rallying down the runway at Knock airport. All a long time ago now. Even if I don’t like to admit it.