The long overdue apology by an Garda Síochána issued last month to Joanne Hayes, whose life was blighted forever by the almost forgotten “Kerry Babies” scandal, has triggered a thoroughly risible campaign to re-write recent Irish history.
The media coverage was almost universally callous in its complete disregard for baby John, the infant found dead with 30 stab wounds on White Strand in Cahersiveen on April 14th 1984. The Garda focus on trying to blame the Hayes family for this cold blooded murder was certainly worthy of an apology, but surely the bigger issue is that those responsible for this most heinous crime have been able to escape justice for over thirty years. That fact was barely mentioned, as journalists tried to evoke an Ireland that they saw as almost parallel to the Great Famine era in its levels of deprivation and depravity.
If you were to take the word of several writers at face value, then you would have to believe that Ireland in the 1980s was some kind of Catholic Church dominated dystopia where barefoot women were chained to the kitchen table while unwanted and malnourished children queued up for their annual bath. I lived through the 1980s in Ireland and that’s not how I remember it.
Don’t get me wrong, there were big challenges in the Ireland of three decades ago. Unemployment blighted the country and forced emigration on many who would rather have stayed at home. However, the boom years in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain would have provided their own lures, irrespective of the state of the Irish job market, while Canada and Australia actively sought out well educated English speakers, to offer alternative options for our school and college leavers. Almost half of my Leaving Cert class had left the country four years later but most did so by choice.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job, made friends easily and was living at home which provided me with the opportunity to save for a mortgage while at the same time building an enormous record collection. Millennials may have every gadget in the world at their disposal, but they’ll never know the joys of a 1980s soundtrack to their teens and twenties. The only serious drawback that I remember was losing over half my weekly salary to the taxman, something that made the recent recession look like a minor inconvenience.
Of course in the modern media’s version of the era, I should have felt constantly repressed. A country which did not permit divorce, saw sex between consenting men as a crime, and contraception as something that only married people could buy and even then only from a pharmacy, is now viewed by today’s judgemental journalists as some black bygone era which scarred me for life.
That’s the problem with judging a previous era by the rules, standards, and priorities of today.
Back in the 1980s, we didn’t need the state to validate us, we had mutual support from friends and family who didn’t need to like our social media postings to show us that they cared. We didn’t have Wikipedia to tell us everything. We had real uncertainties and the joy of personal discoveries and above all else, we spoke to one another, rather than spending our time staring vacantly at screens while the world and our youth passed us by.
Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that in recent years the suicide and murder rates are several multiples of what they were back in those supposedly dark days. Another thing that changed in Ireland is the value that we place on human life. We’ve created a society where rights are redefined at will and duties are seen as nothing but an inconvenience.
The 1980s also saw the term “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” gain more traction and more often than not as a mark of how we found a way of expressing our love of pragmatic rebellion. Divorce was not allowed, so couples arranged for legal separations and annulments. Contraception was always available if you knew where to go and with the arrival of Ryanair and cheap flights, few went without. And while it would take the 1990s to decriminalise homosexual acts, more often than not a blind eye was turned to the first gay venues and men who had “special friends”.
So why has the media chosen to mislead people about Ireland in the 1980s? Some, it has to be said, never experienced it for themselves and judge the era by their personal 21st Century perspective, but others, I suggest, have a more sinister agenda.
Several have taken advantage of the newfound interest in the “Kerry Babies” case to try and draw a tenuous link with the attempt to introduce abortion on demand into Ireland. A few months before baby John was found murdered on a Kerry beach, Irish people had voted overwhelmingly to insert a clause into our constitution which banned abortion and gave equal right to life to the baby in the womb, the oft mentioned 8th Amendment. I remember that referendum campaign vividly. I recall it being contentious, ill-tempered and full of spurious claims and counter-claims, something that is unfortunately likely to be repeated in the next few months.
I opposed the 8th amendment based on two reasons which made sense at the time but which look rather odd in hindsight. The first was that people who opposed the amendment said that it was likely to make certain forms of contraception illegal. Mary Robinson was one of those people who made such claims, even after her side was defeated, but it never happened that way. And even the “morning after pill” is freely available over-the-counter.
However, the clinching argument for me wjuas that there was never likely to be anyone ever elected to the Dáil who would favour abortion. In a country where divorce, contraception and gay sex were illegal, the idea that anyone would support abortion and still be electable seemed like the stuff of fantasy. How wrong I was.
Today’s Ireland generally and disparagingly uses the phrase “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”, but what is our low corporate tax regime if not an Irish solution to the problem of a small domestic market and a lack of natural resources? What was our (first in the world) national ban on smoking in pubs, but a way of breaking the link between two of the major causes of premature death?
And so it is that our constitutional ban on abortion is our unique way of protecting human life, even before birth. In 1985 when Irish people had little money, we made the greatest effort to preserve human life in Africa by being the biggest per capita contributors to the global charity event “Live Aid”.
Ireland back then wasn’t dark or uncaring.
The 80’s in this country were a time when we cared for one another and a time when we held human life in the highest esteem. We should think twice before abandoning those Irish solutions to Irish problems.