Take a trip back to golden days of Irish pop culture with Brian McMahon's new book

Brian McMahon’s book on retro Ireland is a treasure trove of nostalgia and vintage pop culture, writes Richard Firtzpatrick
Take a trip back to golden days of Irish pop culture with Brian McMahon's new book

IN THE summer of 1966, there was an ad in New Spotlight magazine for music lovers. Its copy was euphoric. It announced that a new craze in Ireland was about to take off. The ad was for discatrons.

“Wow! Here’s a record player that’s as portable as a transistor. Walk with it! Dance with it! Hold it over your head you crazy thing! DISCATRON keeps on playing! It’s the swinging record player for the space age and you’ll love it.”

The devices, which cost 17 guineas, never did catch on.

The discatron advert is one of over 700 ads, images and articles collected in Brand New Retro: Vintage Irish Pop Culture & Lifestyle.

The book is kind of a magic carpet ride back over the flotsam of Ireland’s cultural life of the 1960s to 1980s. There are ads in there for Tanora (1980), Swingers nightclub in Cork (1976), Levi’s jeans (“The cord garments with the style for the young set”, 1968) and ones pushing cheese from Woman’s Way magazine in 1970 which claim that the dairy product “is manfood. Ask any woman”.

It has photos of Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew modelling clothes on Dublin’s docklands in 1967 for a clothes store. Other pop stars of the era moonlighting as fashion models include Dickie Rock and Joe Mac from The Dixies decked out in sports jacket and hipster pants with Chelsea boots supplied by Saxones on Cork’s Patrick St.

The book is the brainchild of Brian McMahon, who was born in 1960, the same year as Bono. One of McMahon’s rock bands played support to U2 at a gig at the Dandelion Market. McMahon teamed up with Joe Collins, a graphic designer, to add the book’s artwork flourishes. It’s a collector’s item, and the guts of five years in the making.

McMahon’s father passed away in early 2011. A month after the funeral, McMahon was rummaging in his father’s attic for some photos when he came upon a picture of his parents taken at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Mosney, Co. Meath, in 1964, among lots of interesting old magazines and photos from his own youthful stockpile. He scanned the image and it became the first photo of a blog he created called Brandnewretro.ie (and it also appears on the last page of the book).

He set off a mission to digitise Irish-related magazine content from the 1960s onward, including stuff from defunct fanzines that previously didn’t have an online presence. It involved trawling through flea markets, second-hand stores and bidding online on, say, eBay for rare items. It brought out the nostalgia in people who kept track of his blog.

McMahon’s roots spring from the world of fanzines. Infused with the DIY spirit of the punk era, he published a fanzine called Too Late in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his brother, Eamonn, in their hometown, Dundalk, Co Louth. They used to shift close on a thousand units an issue, which is about the average sales of a decent novel in 2015.

“It was pre photocopiers, they were very rare back then,” he says. “Paper came in a roll. It was really expensive. There were no ads in the fanzine so it was a labour of love. There were no computers, no Macs. You were cutting and pasting everything, to make your headlines and covers. The first one came out in December 1979.

“Some of the fanzines were great; some of them were terrible. Heat magazine from Dublin was a big influence.

“We had to sell ours. That was hard. We didn’t have distribution. We didn’t get any deals with Eason’s or any of the shops so we had to round the pubs in Dundalk and Dublin and meet people face to face and sell it.”

The book captures passing fashions, including ads for weight-gain products, and who knew wigs were once so popular? McMahon says his mother — who was a striking-looking woman “with lovely hair” — used to wear one. There is a section on House of the Year, a competition Woman’s Way magazine began running in the late 1960s, a nod to the aspiring consumer culture that was taking hold in the country.

Joe Dolan took out a mysterious half-page advert in New Spotlight magazine in June 1968 — which is reproduced — in an attempt to squash a rumour being circulated about him, offering a £500 reward to get to the bottom of it. The issue also contains an article on the subject, which maintained: “Normally Joe is cool, calm and unruffled, but the totally unfounded stories that have gained currency about him have hurt and angered him.”

“His management put that ad in,” says McMahon. “It’s almost like ‘the Streisand effect’. Why would you bring this attention to yourself? Somebody said to me they heard that they put out a rumour that he was caught skinny-dipping with some of the local women or convent girls. Who knows?”

The book also contains a feature on streaking in Man Alive magazine from 1974. McMahon says he admires the photographer’s ability to capture recognisable Dublin 4 landmarks in the accompanying photo section.

Already, though, by the early 1970s, he reckons the sun was setting on a golden age of style in magazine publishing. “Like with Mad Men, the 1960s were the best for advertising, clothes, fashion, design. Even though Ireland didn’t get the full benefit of the free love 1960s’ psychedelia there were elements of it there.

“The illustration work of the artists is brilliant. Ireland was on the up then. Emigration had stopped. People were coming home. There was great optimism, which is reflected in the ads.

“From the 1970s, the quality started declining. The quality of the paper wasn’t as good. The quality of the product wasn’t as good.”

At least McMahon’s collection serves as a fine reminder of the era.

Brand New Retro: Vintage Irish Pop Culture & Lifestyle by Brian McMahon (with Joe Collins) is published by Liberties Press, €29.99.

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