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Book Review

Ambiguous Republic by Diarmaid Ferriter

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Publisher: Profile, paperback

1 of 1 The 1970s: the heyday of Thin Lizzy Rory Gallagher and the Boomtown Rats, but Dana and Brendan Shine also reigned supreme. Ferriter does not exclude the culture, music and sport in his vast account.
The 1970s: the heyday of Thin Lizzy Rory Gallagher and the Boomtown Rats, but Dana and Brendan Shine also reigned supreme. Ferriter does not exclude the culture, music and sport in his vast account.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s comprehensive account of the 1970s - a crucial decade in Ireland’s development - runs to 800 pages, and has just been issued in paperback. Ambiguous Republic - Ireland in the 1970s is indeed a lengthy tome, but the UCD historian shortens the road somehow with his brisk, engaging narrative and eye for telling detail.

The key political developments take centre stage - in 1973 we joined the EEC, which later mutated into the EC (European Community) and finally, the EU (European Union). There were often stormy relations between Ireland and Britain, as the North exploded; lives were lost in pub explosions, or men were summarily executed at the side of the road. Every morning it seemed - and continuing relentlessly into the eighties - we woke up to hear of a shooting or a bombing on the news, another life or number of lives lost. It cast a curious pall before the day got going at all.

1972 saw one of the most catastrophic events, as thirteen unarmed men were shot dead by British paratroopers on January 30, in what became known as "Bloody Sunday".

It was also the decade of  the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, and the Miami Showband massacre, when three members of the band were shot dead by the UVF, disguised as British soldiers.

A very useful timeline at the start of the book takes the reader through the key events, with appropriate short summaries. It is fascinating to discover that Hortense Allende, widow of the former president of Chile visited Dublin in September 1975 to thank the Irish government for accepting 100 Chilean refugees after the Chilean coup of 1973. Her husband Salvador had died during the coup, instigated by the Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet.

It was indeed a time of refugees, and 40 people arrived in the Republic, seeking refuge from the Northern troubles in July 1971. 58 Vietnamese refugees arived in 1979.

1971 was also the year of RTÉ’s first colour TV broadcast, and some years afterwards, the station would launch the hugely popular satirical TV programme, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. Ferriter’s account is fascinating on the social, cultural, sporting, culinary and artistic themes.

Pop music festivals were a new phenomenon, and Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and the Boomtown Rats made us proud with their achievements across the water, the former scoring a UK hit in 1972 with an unlikely ballad, Whiskey in the Jar, which frontman Phil Lynnot revved up with great swagger.

Ample space is devoted to religious belief and practice and the ongoing tensions over contraception. Pope John Paul II made a huge impression when he visited the country in 1979, a year which also happened to be the worst in the history of the state in terms of industrial disputes.

To give just one example, I recall hitching from Stillorgan to the RDS for university exams in 1974 along with a friend, because the buses were on strike. The difference was you could be reasonably confident a charitable soul would stop, and they did. I wouldn't bet on it now.

Ferriter concludes his comprehensive account with the observation that many of the questions that were first raised in the 1970s "cast a long shadow that the Irish Republic continues to live under."

Paddy Kehoe

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