Book review: Hopscotch and Queenie-I-O: A 1960s Irish Childhood

In this entertaining book, former MaGill editor Damian Corless casts a wry eye over Ireland in the ‘swinging’ sixties.

Damian Corless

The Collins Press, €12.99

A monotone place which didn’t so much swing as stutter into the 1970s via the arrival of Carry On films, James Bond, Buntus Cáinte, and the mini-skirt.

The road to social liberation was not easy — vocal resistance groups led by bishops, politicians, and ‘concerned mothers of 10’, fought a rearguard action against the forces of modernisation, which included foreign TV, foreign comics, foreign toys, foreign music, foreign sports, and, well, anything foreign. 

It was, as Corless neatly writes, a grey ‘tug of war decade’ in which youth culture ‘flipped the switch to colour’.

The children of Ireland’s 1960s were far from being children of the revolution. 

The role of the primary school, as set out by the State, included the training of pupils in the “fear and love of god” and “to support the revival of the native tongue”. 

Physical force was justified in pursuit of these goals, with teachers carrying a leather strap or cane.

A child could be hit for any reason, but if he or she was left-handed — or a citóg in Irish, translated as ‘plain’ or ‘stupid’ — he or she could become victim of a campaign to force him to use his right. 

A Rev Fitzgerald offered advice to the average schoolboy in The Boys Own magazine — if he was hit without deserving it he was not to complain, but rise above it and be ‘manly’.

Manliness was big in the 60s. According to a guide for parents boys had to be wary of being approached by homosexuals, though it did say “modern opinion has swung away from criminalising homosexuals and recognises that homosexuality is as much a sickness as measles and needs proper treatment”. 

Girls, on the other hand, had to be wary of everyone male.

However, into this conservative haven, the modern world was about to flow. The results were sometimes funny, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes profound. 

The funny and ridiculous are listed throughout Corless’s book: the Housewife of the Year show in which women competed to show off their cookery skills rounding off with a song or a jig; the first escalator in Ireland, installed at Roches Stores, Dublin, in 1963, becoming a free carnival ride for children and adults; the arrival of packet food such as instant mash — which caused a row in the Dáil because it threatened to undermine native potato growers; and the commercial success of any movie which featured nuns, especially The Sound of Music, to which thousands of schoolchildren were taken on excursions — usually organised by nuns.

This was an age when gender equality was for foreign radicals and ‘perverse’ communists — Inter Cert domestic science questions were marked ‘For Girls Only’, and in 1966 Irish bishops asked Seán Lemass to ban young women from leaving the country to protect their chastity. 

Corless’s book is a goldmine of nostalgia: The Virginian, hair curlers, Green Shield stamps, Ladybird books, TV detector vans, Val Doonican ...

However, the one unstoppable force eating away at Ireland’s rigid conservative culture had been present since the beginning of the decade. 

Teilifís Éireann arrived in 1961, ready — in the minds of bishops and politicians — to launch an onslaught of liberalism on impressionable young Catholic minds. 

They need not have worried, for years the Irish public were fed a line-up of televised masses, documentaries on the life of Christ, and Paddy Crosbie’s School Around the Corner. American westerns, old movies, and British soaps arrived only slowly.

There was concern as children abandoned healthy outdoor pursuits and moved indoors to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Their parents, meanwhile, tuned in to The Late, Late Show.

For Ireland’s 1960s, the writing was on the wall.


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