A Dubliner, a girl in her twenties, envies me for living in that city through the seventies. She, and many of her friends do not snigger at those years described as ‘the decade that style forgot.’ They love how things were back then, citing everything from our apparent carefree life, lots of jobs, not so many crazy rules, many different styles of clothing and, in their words, totally brilliant music.
‘Tell me, what music from today will we be listening to in forty years’ time?’ she asked. ‘You saw all the greats. Envy! At least Fleetwood Mac are still playing.’
Yes, I did see lots of bands in Dublin back then. From Led Zeppelin to Horslips, they came to Dublin and belted out their hits, often with just one big speaker on either side of them. They mostly played in the old boxing stadium. We went to the concerts by bus and walked home. Hundreds of teenagers heading off on foot in all directions, maybe picking up fish & chips on the way.
Loving music, I bought a guitar and the Paul Simon songbook in Walton’s. I can’t have been the only teenager sitting in her bedroom, with painful fingertips, singing ‘Hello Darkness my Old Friend’ to the walls.
Considering my life in the seventies, I came up with this very personal look back.
Things were already changing in the Ireland of 1970, when I was sixteen and beginning the real business of living. Not that I’d had an awful life before that, far from it. Between nine and twelve years old I’d attended probably the best junior school in Dublin, Marlborough Street, opposite the Pro Cathedral. Taking a bus from the suburbs into the city in the early morning and back late afternoon as a nine year old seems unthinkable today, but it was fine.
My senior school, nearer home, then called a Tech, now called a College, never measured up to Scoil Mhuire. Bored witless, after the Inter Cert I left, got a job in the city I loved and joined the adult world. It was an interesting job and I took to my new office life with gusto. Starting in the Data Processing department, I was there for the beginning of the new technology and I often went over to the swish IBM offices, who did the processing for our company. But my personality was more suited to people and I transferred departments, travelling with young students on Educational Tours to the UK, France and Holland.
I signed up for a three year evening art course, spent a lot of time in the National Gallery, I wrote, painted, became a cub scout leader, took up horse riding and made great, lifelong friends.
The seventies informed and educated me. They were heady days, taking responsibility for myself, working, earning money, learning new skills and enjoying all that the city offered. And Dublin city offered a lot.
My office in Westmoreland Street meant I was in the thick of the action and the area around me, Grafton Street and the streets leading off it had everything I had ever wanted. Lovely buildings, Trinity College at one end, St Stephens Green at the other, fantastic shops, art galleries, restaurants, great pubs in the side streets, and, something that changed my life, one special hairdressing salon.
With a head of strong auburn brown hair, and the wages of a junior not stretching to salon appointments, I looked like Rory Gallagher. The salons I could afford just put rollers in, bunged you under a huge hot drier and you came out looking like your mother.
The Witches Hut, in South Great Georges Street was my aim. The owner had worked with Vidal Sassoon in London, hair was cut in modern styles and dried with a hand held drier. I saved the £3 cost of this transformation and turned up, unaware that my luck, indeed my life, was about to change.
The legendary Tony Rodgers, while completely ignoring me, tugged at my strong locks and said to a lady ‘this will be good, take details’. She informed me they would like to use me as a model. How did I remain standing? The following Tuesday evening, I presented myself, fell in love with Paul and the world of hairdressing.
When the decade began, I was dancing in the legendary Grove in Clontarf, the alternative disco where Cecil never played ’bubble gum’ music. We considered ourselves super cool.
Continuing to dance my way through the decade, I moved on to Sloopy’s and Zhivago, experimenting with all the fashion world threw up. The Grove days of desert boots and fringed jackets, carrying Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush under my arm, not in a bag. Very important.
Hotpants and platform boots, kaftans and sandals, leather wrist bands, checked shirts, cowboy boots and real Levi’s. Miniskirts, Midi skirts, Maxi coats, huge palazzo trousers, long dresses for evening dances. And hats, hats and more hats.
Eating out in the early part of the decade meant three or four favourite spots. Of course there were a few famous, very expensive places but our age group couldn’t afford them, and who wanted to be in a place full of grey suits?
Number one was Captain America’s. At the top of those stairs, we walked into the American dream. Juicy Burgers, with the famous mushroom sauce soaking into the chips was a once a week definite for lunch. The Universal Chinese in Wicklow Street. The Berni Inn for a prawn cocktail and a steak. Across the river, Murph’s had opened on Batchelors Walk, with a brilliant buzz, ever smiling staff and great food.
As the decade moved on, the city changed and we were changing with it. Not all changes were welcome.
One of my aunts, retired from the Irish Sweepstakes in Grafton Street, heard news about her old building that shocked her to the core. I can see her, as if it was yesterday, wearing her trademark black dress and pearls, hair perfectly coiffed, cigarette held aloft, in a voice indicating the end of civilisation, telling my mother: ‘Breda, some fast food place is to take over the old building.’ Yes, the big yellow M was on the way to Dublin’s most glamorous street.
As my finances grew, I became something of a fashionista. Pia Bang was the place for tailored French clothes for us smaller girls. I copied fashion shoots from Vogue, one featured a leopard print dress I’d bought in Chelsea Girl in Liverpool. A long black coat from Friends, the ultra-chic women’s clothes shop on Grafton Street, was not actually put on, but worn over my shoulders. The front of my hair was dyed blonde, curled back, a sort of shingled look. A large black hat from Switzers, a long cigarette holder and lashings of seventies make up completed the look. My mother’s wonderful reaction was to announce she now had a Gangsters Moll for a daughter.
It was all such good fun, and yes, carefree. How?
With injustices like the marriage bar for women still in place when I began working, no legal access to contraception and obviously no abortion or divorce, to be gay was unlawful, Northern Ireland was in flames, atrocities headline news every morning, how on earth did we manage to have such a good time? Many of us look back with fondness on the 1970’s and I would willingly re-live those years again.
Apart from now, it was possibly my best, happiest decade.
Living in Dublin, a busy place, a port city, was a huge, important factor in my life. Being an independent child of sensible parents who encouraged thinking, and beginning my working life so young, gave me a sense of freedom. By the time the decade ended, I knew London and Paris well, and had spent three weeks in Canada, a huge adventure. Others had taken to the east and gone to India. Two of our group had even gone to Russia in 1978.
Myself and others who took a similar path seemed to have emerged as a robust, independent generation. The group I considered friends and colleagues were intelligent people who could, and did, look after ourselves, taking whatever action was necessary, without reference to anybody.
Yes, there was unfairness, fierce injustices and horrific ignorance back then. But we did our own thing and knew that highly qualified people had been working hard since the late sixties, determined to address and change Ireland’s laws.
Brilliant journalists, some, activists themselves, informed us daily in the pages of the Irish Times. Through their work, Nell, Nuala, Maeve, Geraldine, Elgy and all the Marys, gave us hope and optimism.
How proud we were in 1990 when Mary Robinson, a long time role model for us all and the woman who had bravely challenged the male establishment, forcing many changes, became the first female President of Ireland.
Stately and dignified, she transformed the Irish Presidency and in doing so, the country.
(c) Jane Shortall