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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
brand new retro

New book brings Ireland's forgotten magazines to life

Flares, crimplene, and problem pages.

BrandNewRetro Ireland / YouTube

IF THE PAST is a foreign country, Ireland was once a big-haired, bright-patterned and slick kind of place. But it also was one where girls wrote to magazines about ‘French letters’, and ads encouraged people to light up cigarettes.

Those who love images and ephemera from decades gone by will find much to love in Brian ‘Doug’ McMahon’s site Brand New Retro, where he has scanned and digitised images from Irish magazines that have never been put on the net before.

Now he has gone through the five years of archives to create a book that’s filled with 700 images of Ireland’s past – from magazine covers to photo shoots, band interviews to problem pages.

McMahon, who played in bands like Choice (who featured on Strange Passion, Darren McCreesh’s collection of Irish post-punk and new wave music), has long collected records and magazines.

Brand New Retro was a personal project he had been meaning to get off the ground for quite some time, and when he did, it was instantly embraced by those who grew up in the eras (1960s – 1990s) featured on the blog, as well as those who barely remember the 1990s.

brand new retro one Brand New Retro A 1971 ad from the New Spotlight Brand New Retro

“I’d been meaning to digitise artifacts going back to my days creating fanzines in the late 70s with my brother, such as Too Late and Jump, and then also the music. I was in bands and I realised none of this is online. [I thought] ‘I need to do it’, but I never got around to it,” he said.

‘ I was just staring at the screen for five minutes’

A month after his father passed away in 2011, McMahon’s wife and children headed to Achill. He went to his parents’ attic and retrieved a photo of them taken at Mosney Butlins in 1964. That turned out to be a pivotal moment in the creation of Brand New Retro.

“It was a small picture, but when I scanned it in, it suddenly became big and beautiful, and I was just staring at the screen for five minutes,” said McMahon.

He started scanning and digitising personal items, like the fanzines he collected. “It was great, because I had been boring my younger friends with my days in the groups and all this, but never actually showed them anything or played them anything, and it was a great way to share it,” said McMahon.

Soon he had gotten into the groove, and realised that by putting these images online he was given them a second shot at life. “It does feel like you’re bringing a new life to it. The stuff that was lost, I feel digitising it and putting it on the web has given it a new interest and a new life.”

brand new retro gif 2

He and his brother would get letters from fanzine fans, but it’s nothing like the comments he can instantly get on the blog. “That was fascinating for me, coming from the old school into the new school of publishing and seeing how immediate that can be.”

As well as positive feedback, which helps direct the way the blog goes, he has also been able to use Twitter to help source the location for some of the images he has featured.

It does help to get some positive feedback along the way, that people like it, you see. You know that you’re not crazy and that other people are liking it.

Never seen on the net before

He only ever features items that have never been on the web before. “It was a good decision to go that way,” said McMahon. People had encouraged him to curate items from other sites, but he wants to bring something new.

“Even though it’s more effort in sourcing and scanning the stuff, the dividends were better.”

The magazines come from his collection and his brother and mother’s collections. They’re not a family who bin a magazine for no reason.

bn ad 2 Brand New Retro 1972 ad from New Spotlight Brand New Retro

“My mother was a great collector as well – some would say hoarder, but I’d say a quality hoarder, particularly for the women’s magazines and a lot of the little fashion catalogues,” said McMahon.

Over the years, he would pick up interesting-looking magazines in second-hand shops and car boot sales.

And I held on to them – at one stage I was thinking, why do I drag all these things from house, to flat, to house? And this is the reason, or the blog was the reason. Certainly my mother feels as though her hoarding was justified. She did get to see the success of the blog, she died the week after I won at the Web Awards, and she really enjoyed that moment.

manalive3-cove1 Brand New Retro Man Alive, 1974 Brand New Retro

He sometimes gets donations, but it can be hard to track down suitable magazines. He heads to boot sales and flea markets early – a good cache would be a pile of magazines that someone has donated in bulk. Then there are the Ebay alerts for magazines that he knows featured Irish-related items, like the NME Depeche Mode cover from 1983.

McMahon said the popularity of retro items has grown, which is reflected in how much harder it is to get the magazines these days. “Some of these things can be very expensive online – Spotlight you won’t get cheap.”

Spotlight is a particular favourite of McMahon’s – it was a showbiz weekly back in the 1960s “with very strong production values” (and with a bias towards showbands). It’s a real collector’s item.

Retro worries

McMahon doesn’t stress over the condition of the magazines he scans. “I don’t worry too much if it’s in bad nick, once I can scan it I don’t mind,” he said.

Actually, a lot of the Spotlights were from a skip and they were in terrible condition. I’d say the mice and rats were at them. But it actually makes the restoration and your purpose even that greater when you do scan them in and they look fine.

He had to re-scan everything for the book so that the quality was high enough for print, but again McMahon knew it would be worth it.

brand new retro gif 1

The book was created with graphic designer Joe Collins, and has five chapters: Fashion, Lifestyle, Music and Showbiz, Sport, and Readers’ Lives.

This latter section features readers’ five minutes of fame in vox pops and features, as well as ‘retro worries’ – letters to problem pages. The letters almost always concern sex, marriage or relationships. “Where can I meet a beautiful girl?” asks one male letter writer.

“Now I hear the girls where I work talking about ‘French kissing’ and ‘French letters’. I don’t know what they mean and I wouldn’t like to ask because the girls would just laugh,” writes a young girl.

In the introduction to this chapter, McMahon writes:

I never wrote to problem pages. Little point, when I could see from the replies to others, that the advice to me would probably be to ‘discuss with a priest’ or send off for that special book in Easons.

Though the whole of Brand New Retro shows how much Irish society has changed, it is these problem page letters that remove any desire to be back in the Ireland of old.

“The thing about the book is it shows it’s not the good old days,” said McMahon, who has a love for the fashion and sounds of the era, but is grateful for how much things have changed socially. “Nowadays we live in the best of times.”

I do have this theory that I think you could see progress in Ireland, but then the Pope came in 79 and we just seemed to [change] again.

manalivebetterthanaverage-02 Brand New Retro Man Alive Brand New Retro

Why spend time poring over Ireland’s retro past? It’s all about inspiration, said McMahon.

There’s always inspiration there from looking at the past, without trying to live in that era. For me it’s certainly [that] I love the style of it. Whether it’s the fashion, I see nothing bad in any of the 60s stuff at all, it’s brilliant, it gets a bit dodgy in the 7os – I’d say it was a bit uncomfortable to wear some of the stuff…

Flicking through the book, you can see distinct obsessions standing out from certain eras – the obsession with ‘Miss competitions’; glamorous ads for cigarettes; ads for weight gain followed a decade later by ads for weight loss.

Almost news

cover Brand New Retro Brand New Retro

Many of these magazines would have been forgotten about, and their studies, articles and discoveries left to decay, were it not for the blog.

There’s Status For Women magazine (edited by Marian Finucane), which lasted for one year: 1981. Then there are others like Miss, Social Personal, Nikki (‘Ireland’s first frank and funky mag for chicks’); The Word; Success; Vision; Almost News.

Long-running magazines like the RTÉ Guide and Women’s Way are also featured, alongside the likes of Magill and In Dublin.

McMahon can spot the quality magazines, but he can also see how the production standards began to decline.

“There was good high quality to the end of the 1960s, then it went down a bit,” he said. Part of the blame might lie with the advent of desktop publishing in the 1980s. “They had difficult to read text because they have a habit of putting text on a coloured background.”

colour-copy Brand New Retro Brand New Retro

The book is laid out like a magazine, with ads split throughout, and McMahon hopes people will treat it like one.

“I think there’s great variety in the book. Like if you’re just interested in sport, you might go down and find other stuff that’s sitting side-by-side. The same way a magazine should work really, you might go in to read this particular article but you find something beside it, and before you know it you’ve found something else.

Plus, you never know who you might spot in the Readers’ Lives section:

It is a small world in Ireland – so people are going to know these people and who they are.

Brand New Retro is available in all good bookshops, RRP €29.99

Read: This underwear ad in the RTÉ Guide caused a bit of a stir in 1978>

Read: “It creeps menacingly”: When deadly smog choked Dublin’s skies>

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