A new exhibition documents the thriving youth sub-cultures in the south-east during the 1980s, writes Marjorie Brennan
The 1980s is often portrayed as a grim decade in Ireland; the country was in the throes of recession, emigration soared and conflict raged in the North. But for many of those who came of age in the ‘80s, it was a vibrant and exciting time, culturally, musically — and sartorially, especially if you were a mod (or modette). Joe Evans was a teenager in Waterford in the early 80s, indulging his nascent interest in photography in the nearby seaside resort of Tramore during the summer. More importantly though, Evans was a mod and proud.
“I was only 16, 17, and the photography was more a hobby than anything. I worked in the chipper in Tramore, and on a lunch break I’d bring the camera down and take a few pictures,” he says.
That hobby became a full-time job and Evans is now a staff photographer with the Waterford News and Star. However, back then, he was interested in capturing a snapshot of his fellow mods who would congregate in Tramore during the summer. One of his pictures is a strikingly evocative portrait of a group of teenagers against the backdrop of a wall daubed withmod graffiti. A younger member of the cohort sits on the ground, underneath a badge-bedecked parka. Behind is a shop window featuring doughnuts on sale at 10p each.
“I love looking at those details in the background… at an old car, a shop window or the prices,” says Evans, who knew most of the people in the picture. “The guy with the blond hair and the leather jacket was Whacker Mulrooney, who died last year. He styled himself on Sting in Quadrophenia.”
Evan’s pictures feature in Against the Current, an exhibition chronicling Waterford’s Counter-Cultural Movements from 1979-1996. The project, organised by Keith Daniels and Anthony Barron, covers four phases of youth culture in the city: the biker scene; mod and ska; punk, new wave and new romantic; and dance.
Daniels, who was also a mod, points to the release of the iconic Quadrophenia in 1979 as a lightning rod for his interest in the movement.
“I was very young but that’s where I got the bug. Then The Jam exploded. In Waterford, you had the first wave of mods, they faded away as they got older, then the new batch came in, and the scooter boy thing exploded around 1985/86; the three-button suit and parka gave way to combats and Docs [Dr Marten boots].”
For Daniels, being a mod was a way to break away from the norm.
“We were part of the alternative scene, we didn’t want to go to Preachers [nightclub] dancing around handbags. We wanted to be different. It was your identity — you were saying ‘this is who I am, this is what I believe in’.”
Daniels regularly travelled to London, and would head for Carnaby Street to stock up on the latest Mod fashions. “It was the 80s and the Irish wouldn’t have been welcomed by a lot of people in England because of the IRA. But in the mod and ska scene, we were influenced by soul music and reggae; we were listening to northern soul and black artists, there was no racism or prejudice.”
While there he would get inspiration for the clothes shop he ran in Waterford in the early 80s.
“We would see The Jam wearing jumpers on the Top of the Pops, and I would buy the same in London, for myself, not for the shop. I’d be the first in Waterford with them and everyone else would want them so the next time I got stock I’d get them in. Lads would come from around the country; one would come from Cork and might spend £700 or £800, he was buying for people back in Cork. We had the white denim jackets, the Sta-Prest trousers, all that stuff.”
When it came to his own style, Evans was equally dedicated.
“When I was dressing like that in the 80s I didn’t think I was stylish but looking back on it, it was totally different to what we have today — there’s a lack of individuality. Even when we wore suits, every one was different. They were tailor-made, and you paid it off a few pounds every week. When it came back, you did the alterations, the lapel might need to be widened or you might put a slit at the end of the leg. Everyone added their own little touch.”
Such a commitment didn’t come cheap, especially in the midst of a
recession. “You could only buy what you could afford. I was working in the clothes shop and in Tramore in the summer. You could be paying £4 or £5 a week, as the suit was being made, then you’d make a final payment when the suit was ready. The only thing was that in the few months you were waiting, you had to make sure you didn’t put on any weight, otherwise your £160 suit was no good to you.”
Many of Evans’ photographs show mods from around the country congregating in Tramore for the June bank holiday weekend. These gatherings were portrayed as a flashpoint for mods/rockers skirmishes but Evans says such claims were greatly exaggerated.
“It was totally overblown. It was a holiday weekend, the lads might have had a few drinks and fallen asleep on the prom or the bumpers, but there was never trouble. There was a resurgence of mods at the time in England, and there was a bit of trouble in Scarborough and Brighton. You also had Quadrophenia, with the scene on the beach where the mods and the rockers attacked each other.
“Then, when that came over here, the papers had it that there was war in the arcades in Tramore, and the shops were barricaded because the mods were coming to town — but the only arrest I can remember was one of the lads driving his scooter on the prom.”
It was a similar story with reports about clashes involving bikers, says Evans. “It was only a media thing. There was never any hassle. If you were going up town as a mod and you saw a few bikers you wouldn’t be crossing the street to avoid them. You probably knew them or your sister was going with one of them. Waterford was too small for that, everyone knew each other.”
Evans’ pictures are all the more notable for the fact that taking photographs in the 1980s required a great deal more energy and investment than today, He took the shots in
Tramore on his first proper camera, an Olympus.
“Each roll of film probably took me three or four weeks to get done. I just didn’t have the money — a roll of film could cost you £6, getting it developed another £10.”
Exhibition organiser Daniels says they would love to hear from people who have any material on any of the cultural movements featured. He says photos are particularly hard to come by, as unlike today’s selfie
culture, people didn’t have easy access to cameras. They also had better things to do, he says. “We were more interested in hanging around looking cool,” he laughs.
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