The Eurovision of Things
The Eurovision Song Contest – love it or hate it - may not seem like the most likely place to start a discussion on a changing Ireland but this glorified festival of cultural kitch and questionable hairstyles can tell us a lot about the European journey over the last half century.
The secret history of the Eurovision includes some notable off-screen incidents. The 1974 Portuguese entry ‘E Depois do Adeus’ finished an unimpressive fourteenth in a field of seventeen in that year’s contest. Shortly afterwards on April 25th, the song took on a new and altogether different lease of life when it became the pre-arranged signal on Portuguese radio for a peaceful coup d’état to overthrow the forty year old Estado Novo dictatorship. Whatever about its impact on Eurovision, the song can take some credit for altering the course of Portuguese history. And then of course, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Put to one side for one moment its impact on European history and think about its seismic impact on the Eurovision Song Contest. Gone were those endearing ballads from quaint countries like Ireland and in came the new eastern hordes with choreographed displays of everything from flame throwing to heavy metal grunge. It’s not just the cultural that the Eurovision continues to showcase, the political keeps on intruding also. And of course, there’s the Eurovision voting. Forget the intrigue of U.N. voting because it’s nothing on the shenanigans surrounding Eurovision voting. Talk of informal Eastern voting pacts, Brexit and even the role played by Eastern ex-pats living in countries like Ireland all form part of the essential commentary around voting. It is evident that, despite its somewhat dodgy low brow reputation, Eurovision continues to provide a quirky parallel view of much of what has happened in Europe over the last 50 years.
The Eurovision is also a useful starting point in mining the cultural history of Ireland over the last 50 years. This story starts with a small country on the periphery of Europe winning the song contest in 1970. Seventeen year old Derry girl Dana, dressed in an embroidered white mini dress, charmed Europe singing ‘All Kinds of Everything’. By today’s standards, it wasn’t a particularly slick performance and the lyrics would be regarded as distinctly quaint, even juvenile. It was, however, charming and succeeded in capturing the hearts of the Eurovision juries. In these early Eurovisions, Ireland’s ace card was the ballad with its narrative of an island on the periphery of Europe. There followed in the 1980’s and 90’s what could best be described as Ireland’s Eurovision golden age. Wins in 1980 and 1987 were followed by a stunning Eurovision hat trick in 1992, 1993, 1994 followed by yet another win in 1996. One popular Irish media angle during this era was the perennial story of the RTE executives, fretting over the financial cost of hosting yet another Eurovision should Ireland win yet again. The Eurovision’s love affair with the emerald island culminated with Riverdance in 1994, when the high stepping Irish dance interval act literally stole the show at that year’s song contest held in Dublin – where else! We pinched ourselves – could this really be us?
But then something changed. Old Ireland began morphing into New Ireland. No longer the land of cailíns singing ‘All Kinds of Everything’ or kindly old men posing with bikes at deserted crossroads, we were now – in the words of that famous IDA advertisement – the ‘Young Europeans’, people who, at the drop of a hat, could code, produce Viagra by the ton and to top it off, could be ‘the craic’ at any social gathering. We were, above all else, new and modern - the most equal, the most politically correct and the most popular people not just in Europe but the whole world.
Irish people have a particular take on the word ‘modern’. In most European countries, while people view their grandparents and the post war world they inhabited as materially poorer, nonetheless, they are still capable of appreciating the richness and diversity of that world. Not so in Ireland where terms such as ‘the 1950’s’ have a particular cultural resonance, more usually viewed as a place of stunted people living out unfulfilled lives in the shadow of an authoritarian state and church.
The supplied narrative of this movement from old to new, from darkness into light is very much that of Ireland’s baby boomer generation, those who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s. All across the developed world, the baby boomer generation benefited massively from the post-war economic recovery and the wholesale spending of the world’s carbon inheritance. In Ireland, given the country’s prolonged economic stagnation well into the 1960’s, the baby boomers did even better benefitting on one hand from new and improved job opportunities and on the other, from the job security and pension scaffolding of the world they were tearing down.
One sure thing about old Ireland was that everyone was poorer. One of those seminal and transitional moments in contemporary Irish history was the 1977 general election when Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil came up with a game changing election strategy – the give away government. Prior to this, Irish governments had broadly followed the simple budgeting principle adhered to by most households – you can only spend money that you have. Lynch’s proposition was that, in actual fact, national finances were far more complicated than that and definitely far beyond the comprehension of the mere ordinary man in the street. Of course, relieving voters of the need to pay things like car tax and local property rates was not only possible, it was glaringly obvious to all, especially Lynch’s experts who now said it was possible. The electorate lapped it up, voted in massive numbers for Lynch’s new theory of government and, as they say, the rest is history.
The real significance of the 1977 general election was that it changed Irish politics permanently. There was no more left or right (if there ever was) just some general centre left narrative to which all political parties subscribed. With wholesale government borrowing the new norm, the Irish political centre shifted to the centre left which now became the new centre in Irish politics – far left political groups were now reclassified as ‘left wing’ while politicians with even moderately conservative or right wing views tended to keep quiet for fear of being labelled ‘far right’. In true Irish group-think, everyone on the political pitch subscribed to the same view that governments somehow had the unique ability to pay out more money than was ever collected in taxes. Even questioning this piece of group think dogma could risk drawing down the ire of those occupying the high moral ground of those opposed to austerity or any other number of moral vices.
Almost half a century later and with a national debt of 200 billion euro, everyone can now see where that line of thinking has brought us. That amount of money tends to trip off the tongue when written in words..... the actual figures look a little more daunting: €200,000,000,000 – that’s over €40,000 for every man woman and child. Even if you exclude the outrageous 64 billion bank bailout foisted on the Irish taxpayer, the sad reality is that the remaining one hundred billion plus was spent largely on buying political and electoral popularity and generally keeping the national party going.
One unsettling feature of Irish political life is its tendency towards group-think and it is in this context that the tag 'right wing' carries with it a sense of national collective disapproval. The greatest opprobrium is reserved for Fianna Fáil widely viewed by commentators as 'Ireland's most right wing party'. But just how well does this assertion stand up to scrutiny? After winning the 2002 General Election, Fianna Fáil, with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach and Brian Cowen as Minister for Finance, returned to power spending with gusto. The behaviour of politicians in the period 2002 to 2008, broadly coinciding with the dizzying heights of Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy, was critical in ensuring that Ireland took the full brunt of the economic crash when it came in 2008. With virtually full employment in the Irish economy, Fianna Fáil and their coalition partners the Progressive Democrats and subsequently the Green Party, still managed to record substantial year on year increases in the social welfare budget over this period. In fact, between 2002 and 2009 the annual social welfare budget went from 9.5 billion to 20.5 billion representing a 215% increase in a budget that reasonably could have been expected to stabilize or even decline over the course of an economic boom. Over the same period, the cost of living rose by a more modest 18.9%.
This was the period when, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern caused more than a stir when he announced that he was a socialist proudly pointing to the country’s ballooning welfare budget as evidence of his socialist credentials. This was the cause of much amusement amongst Ireland’s liberal left media establishment for whom the notion of a north side Dubliner in an anorak donning the mantle of socialist hero was anathema. Of course, they had good cause to be offended. Bertie, in all probability, was far more captivated by the electoral politics of the ATM than he ever was with socialist ideology.
For a country that is revered internationally for being old and ancient, Irish people have a peculiar relationship with antiquity and indeed anything that is old. Perhaps it’s a collective denial of a history of famine and suffering but Irish people go to great lengths in their efforts to be perceived as ‘new’ and ‘modern’. In the modern Irish psyche, old equals backwards while new equals a better way. Being new or modern is usually viewed as being better for no other reason than it is new.
This near obsession with the modern finds expression in peculiar ways. In order to prove just how modern it is, New Ireland has embraced the American 24/7 consumer model with gusto. This is most evident in the country’s shopping centres or shopping malls as the marketing people would prefer that we call them. Not being enthusiastically in favour of the 24/7 consumer model carries with it the fear of being perceived as old or backwards. On another level, it’s also viewed as empowering from the viewpoint of the consumer and consumerism is widely perceived as Ireland’s new religion.
What is the effect of the rise of the 24/7 consumer shopping utopia? Well, the amount of items being sold probably hasn’t increased substantially because of it. In all probability, the same amount of shopping that would normally take place over six days now takes place over seven days and if nightly late night shopping by the multiples wasn’t available, then people would probably adjust their shopping habits to do the same amount of shopping ...... at a different time. The problem with the 24/7 model is that once it is accepted by one multiple, then all competitors are forced to adopt it for fear of losing market share. 24/7 shopping may have made kings out of the consumers but the results for the workers have been mixed. Extended opening hours haven’t resulted in the wholesale creation of additional full-time jobs in shops. On the contrary, crowning the consumer in this way requires large numbers of workers with suitably flexible working hours to cater for the extended off-peak hours rather than the creation of actual full-time sustainable jobs. But one reason why Ireland’s new shopping habits are never questioned is that 24/7 retail is as much about being perceived as new and modern as it is about shopping and, as we have come to see, that is usually enough to close down any debate in New Ireland. Interestingly, the Germans and some of the other most successful economies in Europe persist with the backward custom of not having widespread Sunday opening.
For the baby boomers, the narrative of Ireland’s journey from darkness to light, from old to new is one of the great truths of the age. It has become a sort of societal beauty contest with the image of an old, impoverished, backward, Catholic country pitted against the new, modern, secular and above all else, progressive New Ireland. No one is supposed to ask awkward questions about this supposed journey from darkness into light although there are plenty of unanswered questions about New Ireland. The narrative of this passage from old to new does not always hold up to statistical scrutiny.
There are few statistics that are more definitive than those surrounding death and Ireland’s journey over the last half century, as viewed through the prism of its homicide figures, make for interesting if not grim reading. In Ireland in 1966, there was a total 12 homicides; half a century later the same figure was 71 representing an increase of close on 600%. Over the same period, the general population increased by 65% while the prison population, matching the increased homicide figures, increased by over 600%. The period from the 1970’s to the 1990’s coincided with the Northern troubles and there was an overflow into the Republic – for example the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 claimed the lives of 33 people. Notwithstanding this, the greatest increase in deaths in the Republic of Ireland has actually come after the Good Friday Agreement and the ending of politically-related violence in Northern Ireland.
The great irony, of course, is that the prisons were virtually empty in the Ireland of the 1950’s and 60’s, a time widely viewed as an especially harsh and repressive era, while in New Ireland, the prisons are full to overflowing. First impressions might suggest that New Ireland's judicial system has been extremely heavy handed, throwing offenders into prison for the most minor indiscretion. However, few of the victims of crime in New Ireland would share this view; in fact the contrary is the case with reports routinely emerging of offenders with multiple offensives walking free from the courts. In New Ireland, a not uncommon observation after yet another unprovoked attack by an offender with a string of offences, who may even be out on bail, is to remark that the victim was ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’. This may be a suitable explanation for some random happening such as being struck by a meteorite but it seems like a particularly inadequate explanation of events for the vast majority of the victims of crime in Ireland today. One of the realities of New Ireland is that it is the offenders, not their victims, who are most likely to be receiving support from one arm of the state or another.
If there is one word that encapsulates New Ireland’s sense of itself, then surely it has to be ‘equality’. It would appear that the citizens of New Ireland are both mesmerized and terrified by the word or more correctly, the power elites who use the term for their own purposes. Not only are we given to believe that New Ireland – in particular its quangos and power elites – are the sole guardians and keepers of the equality flame but we are also given the impression that they invented the very concept of equality.
Surprising as it may seem, ‘equality’ is by no means a new concept in Ireland. Even pre 1960’s Ireland – apparently the very nadir of hopelessness and despair – knew and practised equality. Dr. Ken Whittaker, widely acknowledged as the visionary behind much of the economic regeneration of 1960’s Ireland, was educated by the Christian Brothers in what would now be called a DEIS disadvantaged school. Likewise, former Taoiseach Jack Lynch grew up in a similarly ‘disadvantaged’ setting and utilised the opportunity afforded both by his academic ability and sporting prowess to go on to occupy the highest political office in the country. The significant thing is that both Whittaker and Lynch exemplified equality of opportunity and through their own ability and determination to succeed, changed their own lives and those around them for the better. In New Ireland, the near obsession with the term ‘equality’ usually plays heavily on the notion of equality of outcome, with its self-serving sense of rights and entitlements.
New Ireland is not a place without its fears and the fear of being perceived as somehow in favour of discrimination or against ‘equality’ ranks up there with the biggest fears. This fear of offending the sensibilities of a politically correct equality dogma can be taken to ridiculous lengths. For example, in the best interests of equality and in order to avoid any hint of discrimination in New Ireland, the children of millionaires also receive one of Europe’s most generous Child Benefit payments just like their poorer counterparts.
But an equality of sorts has been achieved in some areas. In 2018, Ireland’s crumbling health system has over 680,000 on medical waiting lists – considerably more people than the entire populations of counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, Roscommon and Mayo. The equality of the hospital trolley has in part flowed from the difficulty in recruiting and retaining medical personnel. Ultimately, someone has to pay the Child Benefit for millionaires and who better than the young nurse who, on a modest salary of €34,000, finds herself in the super rich tax bracket. The problem for the Irish public is that few if any other tax codes in competitor health systems regard someone on such a modest salary as being super rich. It is interesting to note that many of New Ireland’s power elites – and most vociferous equality cheerleaders – are those least likely to be sampling the ‘equality’ doled out by Ireland’s public health service.
There was much that was wrong with old Ireland – for one thing it was poorer and even through rose tinted glasses, poverty has little to commend it. It was also a place where organisations such as the Catholic Church wielded an inordinate influence. Individual personalities in the Catholic Church were by no means immune to empire building. This tendency to be drawn to power and its trappings was and is, be no means, exclusive to the Catholic Church. It exists in just about every power structure and affects politics, state and the myriad of quangos, interest groups, professional charities and state-funded agencies who now occupy such a central role in public life.
All the signs are that ‘religion’ continues to play a central role in the lives of Irish people. In New Ireland, however, it is more likely that materialism, consumerism and a blind adherence to the mantra of ‘equality’ – are likely to be displayed with a religious like intensity. Like any religious dogma, many of these precepts tend to be offered as articles of faith and not open to question or debate.
If old Ireland was characterised by an unquestioning attitude to Catholic dogma, then remarkably, the same unquestioning group-think pervades much of public life in New Ireland. Today, terms such as ‘health and safety’ have the same effect of silencing public debate in much the same way as terms such as ‘sin’ once did in old Ireland. Ireland’s bishops may have long since lost their position of prominence in Irish affairs but you wonder whether they have been replaced by clerics of a different hue. Today, we are far more likely to witness the spectacle of the CEOs of various quangos and allied advocacy groups exerting control through carefully worded press releases and media briefings. Old Ireland may have had its mortal sins but New Ireland has its ism’s – racism, sexism, homophobia and any number of other moral transgressions.
So what happened to Ireland’s Eurovision dream? Since the turn of the century, Ireland has only managed to make the top ten in the Eurovision on just three occasions. Unthinkable in the 1990’s, we finished last in the 2007 final and again in 2013. We’ve tried rock songs, pop songs and even in desperation, old ballads and still the same result. Our Eurovision low point surely was Dustin the Turkey’s 2008 tongue in cheek entry called ‘Douze Points’ – which singularly failed to impress the Europeans.
What is the true cultural self of New Ireland in the 21st century? Sure, we are new, modern, politically correct and, above all else, into equality. And, of course, there are the defining cultural traits of New Ireland as outlined by the great prophets of the age, the advertising copywriters – a tendency to talk incessantly about the weather, ‘the craic’ and not forgetting Barry’s Tea and of course, Taytoes..... Strangely, it would appear that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about these or indeed many of New Ireland’s other deluded affectations. Certainly, the Eurovision juries are not impressed.
The Millennials, whatever about facing long term financial insecurity, have had the consolation of getting to wear some of the best T-Shirts – ones with words like ‘equality’ emblazoned on them. In fact, it seems that today’s young are more likely to be pre-occupied with the socio-political fashion statements of the baby boomers than they are with the more pressing issues in their own lives such as job security, the likelihood and ability to be able to buy their own homes and above all else, access to viable pensions when they eventually retire. The baby boomers were the generation that were significantly better off than their parents; the same cannot be said for their children and grandchildren. Perhaps, the real achievement of the baby boomers has been in getting their children and grandchildren to buy into a vision from which they are largely excluded.