Opinion: Ireland in 1968 shared the experiences of that year with other countries, but did so according to local conditions

As with many other places, the significance of 1968 for Ireland was not so much in what happened, but in how the events were perceived in the long term. Remembered as revolutionary and historic, civil rights movements and protests by students and workers and the clashes they provoked with authorities in different countries did not overthrow the institutions of state or existing economic and social systems.

What demonstrators and reform-minded individuals did achieve in the Prague Spring and through the campaign for civil rights in the United States, in the Sorbonne in France and in schools, colleges and factories in Italy in the late 1960s and into the 1970s was to challenge what they perceived to be authoritarian and bureaucratic regimes. Where demands for equal rights and a greater say in the running of work places and of universities were not always granted, improvements to education, employment and wages did follow.

In Ireland, a desire for change was similarly expressed, albeit mostly in a less militant manner. As elsewhere, left-wing groups were to the fore of a more activist approach but protests were also a response to local conditions. Housing shortages throughout the island and concerns over the decline of the Irish language combined with a leftward shift in Republican circles to give rise to new strategies.

10 children and two adults living in two tiny cells in a crumbling tenement block, previously used as British Army billets in the 19th century, around Dublin's Benburb Street in 1968. Photo: Sunday Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

This culminated in more direct tactics being adopted from 1968 by the Dublin Housing Action Committee and the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement even to the point where these contravened the law. Their actions included demonstrations, squatting in vacant properties, the establishment of pirate radio station Saor Raidió Connemara and defacing the English part of public signs.

While they did raise awareness of housing needs and the position of the Irish language, their effectiveness remains questionable given that they did not secure wider societal support. This points to the relative weakness of left-wing politics in southern Ireland, but also underlines the general evolution of society. Rather than experiencing any revolutionary moments, the country during the post Second World War period gradually opened up to fresh ideas about politics, the economy, education and religion.

From RTÉ Archives, a Seven Days' report on UCD's "Gentle Revolution"

This approach was supported by the mass of students whose focus in 1968 was on issues in higher education rather than wider societal problems. In University College Dublin, for example, discontent over issues such as overcrowding, the proposed merger between Trinity and UCD, library conditions and the later college’s move to Belfield gave rise to the "gentle revolution"’. Protests during 1968 culminated in the November sit-in with over 1,000 students protesting at the university’s refusal to allow them to use the Great Hall at Earlsfort Terrace and particularly an overnight occupation of administration buildings in February 1969.

Echoing the Students for a Democratic Society in the United States, the Students for Democratic Action who led the occupation in UCD sought a radical transformation of society. While the protest received the support of the majority of the approximately 1,500 students who attended a meeting in the college the next day, they were, however, prevailed upon by the student body to end their occupation. This provided the space for more moderate student and staff members who were content to see gradual reforms and improvements in facilities. Partly for that reason the Students for Democratic Action, unlike radical students in France and Italy, did not gain the support of workers. As one of the then student activists Kevin Myers put it in Philip Petit’s The Gentle Revolution: "gentle it was; revolution it was not". 

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, and Pat Rabbitte, former leader of the Labour Party, discuss 1968's student revolutions 

Northern Ireland was perhaps a more fertile if dangerous ground for radical voices during this period. The events of October 5th 1968 when a civil rights march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was banned by the Unionist government but held in Derry, still reverberate on these islands. The march resulted in rioting and confrontations with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Thereafter, People’s Democracy, a radical student body which included Eamonn McCann, organised a four-day march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969 which was partly inspired by Martin Luther King’s 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The 1969 march led to loyalists responding with counter demonstrations and violence.

From there, events in Northern Ireland quickly escalated into a military struggle between paramilitary organisations and security forces. The Troubles reflected the divided society that existed in that part of the island and the increasing ineffectiveness in that context of forms of protest that had been adopted by the Civil Rights Movement. Where students in People’s Democracy gained, if briefly, more traction than those in Students for Democratic Action, this was, however, partly due to the fact that their demands for wider societal change coalesced with those of the civil rights movement.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on the civil rights march in Derry on October 5th 1968

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which had grown impatient with the ineffectiveness of the Nationalist Party, emerged from the increased number of Catholics in Northern Ireland, who had benefitted from the 1947 Education Act which brought free secondary education and easier access to higher level education. This also meant that there was potentially greater support for groups like People’s Democracy in Northern Ireland. In southern Ireland, wider access to education had to wait for the 1967 free post-primary education scheme, the reform in 1968 of the university grants system and the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges the following decade.

What all this points to is the emergence of an increasingly questioning climate of opinion. This is underlined by the varied response of Catholics throughout the island to the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae which declared the use of contraceptives to be unacceptable. In some ways, this was the most revolutionary of all moments in that year. Given the almost universal expectation following Vatican II that the Catholic Church would give a liberal ruling and permit the use of contraceptives, there was quite widespread surprise, even shock, both nationally and internationally at the announcement.

From RTÉ Archives, a 7 Days interview from 1968 with the Archbishop of Westminister Cardinal Heenan about the church and contraception

In his chapter on Ireland in The Schism of ’68, Peter Murray recounts how couples started to look for the "sympathetic priest", "for the ‘easy man’…in the privacy of the confessional". Notwithstanding the compassion individual priests displayed for the difficulties the encyclical caused couples, its greatest legacy for the Catholic Church was the change of direction after Vatican II and the impetus it gave to conservative forces within the church.

Divisions within the Irish church were crystallised from 1968 when Rev. Dr James Good of University College Cork criticised Humanae Vitaefor which he was censured by Bishop Cornelius Lucey. The divergence with the public, at least in the long term, was quite stark. Not only were some men and women unwilling to accept official church teaching on this matter, but they have ignored it with use of contraceptives almost universal. This marked a new departure in that independent thinking was much more to the fore in Ireland post 1968.

What all this points to is the emergence of an increasingly questioning climate of opinion

The questioning culture that advocated an opening up of the Irish economy and society and reforms to education and censorship in the 1950s and 1960s had given rise in the 1970s and 1980s to an increasing proportion of the Irish public calling for the liberalisation of Irish laws and changes to the constitution. This led to bitter divisions with conservative forces, including the Catholic hierarchy, who demanded that the status quo be retained. Meanwhile, in one of the few positive moments during the Troubles within Northern Ireland, free family planning services were made available by the short-lived power-sharing government in 1974. This removed contraception as a potentially controversial issue at least in one part of the island.

Ireland in 1968 shared the experiences of that year with other countries, but did so according to local conditions. For activists, it was a process of adopting and adapting strategies used elsewhere. But the majority within southern Irish society were content to see continued improvements in education and their living and working conditions, whereas Northern Ireland became subsumed by a bitter conflict from which it has yet to recover. To understand any one year, particularly one such as 1968, one must then understand the long term as well as short term developments that gave rise to the events of that year. It is only then that one can fully grasp the extent to which they are or are not revolutionary.  


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ