Ireland – Living in the 80s

Anne Marie Whelan

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The Big Snow! Photo credit: Cappagh Drive Memories (Flickr)

What can be said about the 1980s, a decade that gave us the Rubix cube; Live Aid,1985, the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day off, 1986 and so forth.  Well, Ireland in the 1980s will probably be most remembered for mass immigration, mass unemployment and political turmoil.  And, of course, Ireland’s Big Snow, 1982, when 10 inches of snow fell and brought Ireland to a stand still.  However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, the 1980s in Ireland might also be remembered for it’s 2 triumphant Eurovision wins; Stephen Roche’s Triple Crown cycling win and the advent of Ireland’s first ever music television programme.

The Eurovision song contest

We love nothing better than getting behind Ireland when it is competing in football tournaments, rugby championships or the Eurovision song contest.  In 1980 and 1987 Ireland won the song contest with two emotional and heart felt songs, “What’s another year and Hold me now:

And, who could forget the charismatic Terry Wogan’s insightful, witty and sarcastic commentary, who made the Eurovision song contest a memorable moment in Ireland during the 1980s, which raised Ireland’s spirits and moral, after a period of mass employment and tragedies i.e. the Stardust nightclub disaster.

The Stardust tragedy

In 1982, on Valentine’s day, Ireland was shocked to its core, when tragedy struck the people of Artane, Dublin, after a fire engulfed a nightclub, which killed 48 people and injured 128 people.  The Stardust tragedy was horrific event in 1980s Irish history, effects of which are probably still felt today in the families and survivors of this tragic event.

Popular  culture

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s would not have been the same, without a weekly dose of music television, which came courtesy of Ireland’s first ever music television programme, MTV USA, Ireland’s answer to MTV.  MT USA was launched on RTE 2, on the 19th of February, 1984 and Vincent Handley was the programme’s host.  MT USA showcased all the latest music videos, which included videos from Michael Jackson; Madonna; Prince and many other 1980s pop artists.  In a decade, where you only had a couple of TV channels you flick through, MT USA was the highlight of what would’ve been an otherwise boring week.

Dr. Paul Rouse, a historian from UCD, spoke to the Circular to give his views about what life was like in Ireland in the 1980s:

Q.1 Ireland in the 1980s will be renowned for mass employment and a prolonged recession.  In your opinion, what would you say that Ireland in the 1980s will be most remembered for?

Dr. Rouse  By the 1980s the promise of the 1960s had evaporated. The Irish economy was in an appalling mess and emigration levels had soared to the levels of the 1950s. In Northern Ireland, not a week passed without reports of serious violence, be that murder or riot. As one government official remarked as he surveyed the challenges facing the country: ‘Alps over Alps arise.’ And no-one seemed to have meaningful answers on how to scale those Alps. There was no sense of a clear vision for the type of place that Ireland might wish to become. Irish independence had been a reality for 50 years; the Republic had been in existence for more than 30, the country could no longer be considered to be in its infancy. There was no convenient option to explain away the failures of the state – notably enduring poverty and emigration.

The country was in the midst of a profound identity crisis. The Ireland of the 1980s was a place where the collision of past and present produced some dramatic spectacles. The country was in the throes of far-reaching social and cultural change and was not coping particularly well with the implications of that change.

For example, the overt official Catholicism so symbolic of the 1950s had been undermined by social change in the 1960s. The Catholic church was still hugely powerful, but it was not quite the force that it once had been. Increasingly, and particularly because of the spread of television, there was great awareness of international trends in many facets of society .

All of this marked Ireland out as a country in the midst of great change.  

Q.2 What is your opinion on the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey?

Dr. RouseCharles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher were two individuals who sought to use each other. Both were driven to an inordinate degree by self-interest. This, more than anything else, defined their relationship.

Q.3 Do you think that the Stardust disaster, 1981, is an event that has had the biggest impact on Irish society in the 1980s and today?

Dr. Rouse:    The Stardust disaster was an appalling tragedy which ruined families and destroyed a community. I do not think it had the biggest impact on society in the 1980s.

Q.4 Stephen Roche, won the cycling Triple Crown in 1987.  What is your opinion on this sporting achievement?

Dr. Rouse:   On the face of it, Stephen Roche’s achievement is a magnificent one. Unfortunately, believing in it is extremely difficult. Cycling has been destroyed by cheats for more than 4 decades now and it would be naive to think that none of this cheating involved Irishmen.

Q.5 In relation to Irish popular culture in the 1980s i.e. U2 at Croke park,1985, Mike Murphy and Candid Camera,1982 and so forth. Would you say that Irish popular culture reflected the mood of the people who lived in Ireland in the 1980s?

Dr. Rouse:   Popular culture always reflects the mood of the times. Ordinarily, popular culture is neither one thing or the other at any given time. That explains why, for example, U2 were popular and so were the stars of country music and acts such as Foster and Allen. As well as being apparently contradictory, popular culture is always hugely diverse. This is absolutely true in terms of Irish sport, Irish music, Irish art, Irish films and much else in the 1980s.

If you would like to part in a poll on living in Ireland in the 1980s, please use the following opinion poll:

For further information on what life was like in Ireland during the 1980s, go to How the brain drain hit Ireland in the 1980sThe 21 most eighties Irish things ever and 7 things that anyone who grew up in 80s Ireland will relate to.

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Anne Marie Whelan