I know what you’re thinking: history doesn’t fall neatly into 10-year units to match the patterns of the calendar. And the near obsession with decades is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Were the 1530s very different from the 1520s? Probably not. And did the people around on earth then care about such artificial notions anyway? Again, probably not.
But we know what we mean when we think of the 1930s, or the ’60s or the ’80s. Images of fascism, rock’n’roll and consumerism immediately spring to mind. True, fascism’s roots were in the 1920s. Very few people really turned on, tuned in and dropped out or went to watch the Beatles play live, or wore red braces and drove a Porsche, but the decade as a measure of time has become the accepted tool for understanding contemporary history.
So what was it like? Well, the Noughties — the term never did catch on, did it? — were probably a bit rougher and tougher than we expected. Ten years ago, the headlines were still all about Bill Clinton and “that woman”; air strikes against Serbia; and the millennium bug that didn’t really bug us. Life was simpler then.
Now, although we live longer than ever before, we torment ourselves with fears of pestilence and plague, most of which turn out to be unfounded. SARS and bird flu came and went, and swine flu seems to be heading the same way.
But worry dominates. The decade just passing started with doom — those planes careening into the Twin Towers — and ended with gloom — the recession.
More generally, it’s been characterised by introspection and nostalgia. It was the decade when we all re-remembered our pasts, when we all logged on to Friends Reunited and then Facebook to get in touch with people we lost touch with, often for good reason — and our ex’s, of course. It’s all part of our longing for the past — our reality has become a reflection of itself.
But was this decade’s legacy really so bad? We had some fun too, right? For those in work, the paperless office proved to be a bit of a myth but technology was a key definer. There’s been an explosion of self-expression and the new ways of transmitting our thoughts and feelings and images made it all possible. Everyone’s an artist now, a journalist, a critic. Thinking back reminds us how far we have come. Phones used to have wires and be just for calls. Music came on CDs and cassettes. Information was to be found in books in libraries. We found our way around by buying maps.
Now, Google has digitised our whole world. An online encyclopaedia written by anyone and everyone is where we find things out.
And when we’re not connecting, creating, coalescing and collaborating on Facebook, or watching YouTube, we’re tweeting the world our trivia while listening to an entire record collection stored in a nifty little device the size of a packet of 10.
Can we imagine returning to life without these innovations? And thinking about packets of 10, remember the days when you could smoke and drink at the same time? Ah, those were the days ...
Some aspects of this decade I’ll remember less fondly: foot and mouth, for instance, those bank robberies, jeans cut so low your butt hangs out, and the erection of that God-forsaken spike on O’Connell Street. Some icons left us too: Pope John Paul, Charlie Haughey, George Best and the punt, not forgetting Spike Milligan, Patrick Hillery and Anthony Clare.
Others went violently: Ian Malone, Margaret Hassan, Robert McCartney and Denis Donaldson, to name but a few. Joe Cahill and Brian Keenan were fortunate to die in their beds — unlike some of the IRA’s victims.
But the Provos did banjax most of their guns and call a halt — not a moment too soon. And Northern Ireland does have a (just about) functioning administration. Some cheered and some wanted to vomit, but Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness chuckling together really was something to behold.
On this side of the border, the scandal of clerical rape was finally faced up to; abortion wasn’t tightened; Nice and Lisbon were rejected — and then accepted; and a small army of east Europeans came to say “dobrý den” (hello, good day) — and then, more often than not, “do videnia” (goodbye). They’ve left their mark. Despite everything, Ireland finishes this decade richer, more diverse and with a bigger population than in anyone’s living memory. Not that many feel like thanking Fianna Fáil, of course.
On the international stage, democracy advanced — but not very far. The orange and rose revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia went well; the saffron and green revolutions in Burma and Iran took a bloodier path. The end to tyranny in Iraq and Afghanistan came at a very high price indeed — although their toll pales into insignificance beside that of the world wars. Pakistan, meanwhile, daily teeters on the brink of becoming a failed state. Through it all, millions wanted to throw their shoes — or worse — at George Bush. But America wasn’t attacked again.
The worst carnage was not man-made: the tsunami of December 26, 2004 was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. An estimated 200,000 people died, almost 100 times as many as were killed on 9/11. It was another climate-related event which did for Bush’s popularity at home though — Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and his administration’s perceived indifference and incompetence.
BUT if we are just another generation scrabbling to stay alive in an unpredictable environment, our concerns have changed: from deforestation and disease to climate change, climate change, climate change. Will we still feel the same way in 2019?
Change is a constant. In January 2000, the publishing sensation was Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation tract, No Logo. It has dropped to about 4,000th in the Amazon chart today. The world has moved on.
Besides, Naomi Klein never could compete with JK Rowling or Dan Brown.
Which begs the question, how will history regard the economic downturn?
When the banking crisis hit its peak in September and October 2008 and finance houses crumbled and were swallowed up, and when the mighty Lehman Brothers crashed, the world held its breath. It looked like the end of civilisation as we knew it and the whole capitalist system seemed frighteningly vulnerable.
But the governments of the developed economies bailed out their banks, pumped money into their economies to avert a depression and the threat of systemic collapse passed.
By the end of the decade we were still digesting whether we were dealing with an ugly blip for capitalism, or a life-changing experience on the same scale as the Great Depression. But more lean days seem to lie ahead of us. The future looks uncertain. OK, I admit it, I’m getting noughties nostalgia already.