A WINDOW ON THE PAST
We’re already at Easter, with just a year to go before Brexit, a referendum on abortion pending, a Papal Visit due in August and every possibility of a General Election and even a Presidential one by year’s end. The economy is thriving, with an almost full bounce back from recession and while there are problems still regarding homelessness and mortgages in distress, generally things are looking up.
While spring cleaning the attic recently I came across a book presenting a picture of a very different Ireland – that of half a century ago. The “Statistical Abstract of Ireland for 1970-71,”a government publication, should be a dry-as -dust compendium of out of date facts. This was after all the pre-Internet era in which data was stored and accessed in print and, not surprisingly, the 400 page book is crammed with facts and tables, not necessarily easily digestible. However, there are excellent and detailed contents and index sections which facilitate.
The result is a fascinating journey back in time, reminding us of what has been achieved. For the data in it predates arguably the most significant landmark in Ireland’s post-war history – our accession to the then European Community in 1973. (The only possible rival for that landmark gold medal – the Good Friday Agreement – would probably not have been possible had Ireland, and Britain, not been members of the EC/EU.) In the context of Brexit, and the expected collateral damage to Ireland in particular, the book offers a useful reality check, lest we protest too much, and is far more than just source material for the social historian.
Politically, in 1970-71, the country, North and South, was sliding into the cycle of violence that became known as the “Troubles”, though none foresaw how savage and prolonged they would be. 1970 had witnessed the first stirrings of the Provos, and the steady deterioration of relations between the Nationalist minority and the British Army (welcomed as protectors in 1969). The first soldier was killed in February 1971, and thereafter the violence escalated rapidly, surging enormously after the one-sided introduction of internment without trial in August.
In the Republic, 1970 saw Haughey and several other Government Ministers fired and put on trial in connection with an attempt to smuggle arms to Northern nationalists. Relations with Britain were fraught, particularly after the Tories returned to power in mid-1970. Fianna Fail was convulsed, with a number of hotheads splitting away, but Lynch held on – and held firm – and the message was clear; there was a limit to what was acceptable behaviour for politicians in the South regarding events in the North.
But this time politics was merely a sideshow. The country’s main preoccupation was a six month bank strike which saw all Ireland’s major banks shut from May until November 1970. Repeat: six months with no banks, no property transactions, no access to any legal documents the banks might be holding, no settling of debts. There was something almost surreal about the dispute, provoked by the banks in an attempt to smash the powerful banking officials union (IBOA). The IBOA lived to fight several other days before modern technology won out, but in 1970 there was no machine banking only over the counter service.
Surreal also was the way Irish society coped, with pubs functioning as money exchanges and surprisingly little serious damage done to the economy. This was probably because Ireland’s economy was still quite backward, just emerging – slowly – from decades of stagnation. The main stated official policy aim was to secure entry, in tandem with Britain, to the European Community, following the withdrawal of the De Gaulle veto, and negotiations with Brussels occupied much of 1970 and 1971. It would have been a disaster had we not been admitted with Britain. The Abstract makes clear just how desperate our plight would have been on the outside.
Take Trade. In 1970 Ireland’s total exports were £431 million, of which £226m (over half) went to Britain and a further £57 m (13%) to the North. Of those total exports, Food and Live Animals accounted for £193 million, with £146 million going to Britain ( 75%) ; this in a country where one in three of the workforce were directly employed in agriculture. To be shut out of the British market would have quite simply ruined the country. The many other tables in the book serve to illustrate just how backward the country was, though everywhere things were looking up by contrast with the horrible decade of the Fifties. Some selective samples follow
The population in 1971, stood at 2,978,248, showing another modest rise over the ground zero figure of a decade earlier. (The North’s population, incidentally, had by now increased to1,527,593, its highest figure since 1841 and now slightly over 50% of that in the Republic.)Population distribution by age was heavily weighted towards the young, with almost a third under fifteen, reflecting the effects of the heavy emigration of the fifties and earlier. The population was almost 95% Catholic with the numbers for other main religions showing double digit falls in twenty years. In the North Catholics were the largest group, comprising around a third of the population.
It was a male dominated society. Of the “gainfully occupied” – i.e. working for money – figure of, 1,118,204, 74% were males, while 79% of the total “non-gainfully occupied” were female. Of the 289,144 women who were gainfully occupied, 20% or 58,325 were service workers, with 22,575, domestic maids, and a further 19%, 55,916, were typists and clerks. This was the era of the Marriage Bar in the public service, which until 1973 required women to resign their jobs upon marriage.
There were no motorways and widely varying quality in what roads there were (some dating back to the Famine) for the country’s 353, 961 private cars, which perhaps in part accounted for the figure of 438 road deaths in 1969. The figures peaked at 640 in 1972 before declining steadily to the 2017 figure of 158, at a time when the number of private cars hit two million.
There were 64, 382 births in 1970 and 33,686 deaths, including 255 from TB, a scourge of ages past ( 9323 died of TB in 1916!), now effectively tamed by better medicine, better treatment, and better living standards. These last still had some way to go particularly regarding housing. Of the 674, 602 private dwellings only 296, 370 had internal water taps, mainly in Dublin and Cork, while only 361,406 had flush toilets, with the percentages with no facilities whatsoever in Connacht approaching two thirds.
It was, on the surface, a remarkably law-abiding society, with ten murders and 124 sexual assaults on women in 1970 (in 1971 the figures were nine and 139). Other crimes included Burglary and Housebreaking, 3426 in 1970 (4092 in 1971) Robberies with violence, including armed robberies, 213 (314) and Arson, 132 (151), as well as “Forgery and Uttering” 396 (848 – the steep rise in 1971 perhaps a function of bounced cheques after the bank strike). No mention, of course, of the Magdalen Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes and the Abortion trail to England.
Mark Twain wasn’t wrong. Fascinating just the same.