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Extract: The bits of Irish history you weren't taught at school

Do you remember when ‘I Shot JR’ windscreen sticker were ubiquitous or The Hucklebuck dominated the Irish music scene?

Damian Corless

TWO RECENT HISTORY projects really captured my imagination…

First came A History Of The World In 100 Objects in 2010. Presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, the 100-part BBC Radio 4 series chronicled the history of humankind from stone chipping tools to the Sharia-compliant Visa card. The series and tie-in book were stunning.

Then came A History Of Ireland In 100 Objects. Penned by Fintan O’Toole in association with the National Museum and other State agencies, the book was an erudite and handsome coffee-table affair.

Together, these worthy projects set me exploring several completely original and unassociated lines of thought. What could I bring to this party that was lacking in the others? A light dusting of humour? (Yep.) A free-range selection of artefacts liberated from the captivity of the museum case? (Suppose so.) More bang for your buck? (Now this was good! In homage to Spinal Tap, whose amplifiers went up to eleven, I could make everything that had gone before look lazy and unimaginative… by going up to 101!)

So that’s about it. Featuring not 100 but 101 short chapters, From Clery’s Clock To Wanderly Wagon tells a fragmentary story of Ireland in 101 – again, not 100 – objects that you may think you know all about, but you don’t.

Whether or not you remember the capital’s abominable Musical Bus, the ubiquitous Black Babies Box, the ludicrous Shamrock Car or the fee-paying Hedge School, there are likely to be some fleeting moments on the way to modern Ireland that will amuse you. Such as…

The Half Crown Coin

In 1926 the poet WB Yeats chaired a committee to select the designs for independent Ireland’s first coinage. The committee decided that the horse was the most noble Irish animal and so should go on the highest denomination coin, the half-crown. By 1960, the housewives of England were up in arms that the Irish weren’t treating their horses with due respect. Disgusted at the Irish practice of exporting live horses to the Continent for slaughter, they called for a British tourism boycott on Ireland. One woman wrote to Taoiseach Sean Lemass calling him a “cowardly skunk”.

CB Radio

The CB (Citizens Band) radio craze hit Ireland in the late 1970s at a time when getting a phone landline installed cost three weeks’ wages and could take up to seven years on the waiting list. Half the price, readily available, and with no call charges, set ownership soared to 100,000, with “good buddy” and “ten-four” the buzzwords of the day. The government hated people having the freedom of the airways and Minister Albert Reynolds introduced legislation that killed the fad.

Benjy Riordan’s Flat Cap

From the mid-1960s to the late-1970s Ireland’s most famous man was soap character Benjy Riordan played by Tom Hickey. The first soap in these islands to move outside the studio into the fresh air, The Riordans inspired ITV to launch Emmerdale Farm (now Emmerdale). When Benjy’s girlfriend Maggie began displaying symptoms suggesting she was getting a little more pregnant each week, writer Wesley Burroughs was hauled before RTÉ execs and told there was no way that was going to happen. He had to look-up a medical condition that would innocently explain away her condition.

The Uilleann Pipes

When the first edition of the Evening Press appeared in 1954, its most eye-catching headline was: “Boy Will Play Pipes Hitler Wanted”. The boy was the son of Dubliner Sean Dempsey who had played his pipes for top Nazis in Berlin in 1936. There was no chair, so he played sitting on a Nazi stormtrooper on his hands and knees to provide a seat. Delighted by the display, Hitler asked Dempsey if he could have the pipes. Dempsey said no, and lived to tell the tale.

The Musical Bus

In 1976 CIE launched the Musical Bus on certain Dublin routes. Passengers could now enjoy piped pop music peppered with adverts, whether they wanted to or not, while they parked at some midway point waiting for their driver and conductor to come back from the bookies. The commuters selected to suffer were on the less-well-off routes while those travelling in better-off districts were spared the pain.

The ‘I Shot JR’ Windscreen Sticker

In 1980 then 37% of Americans tuned into the episode of Dallas that revealed Kirstin as the shooter of JR Ewing, it was the biggest TV audience in history, but when RTÉ screened it a gigantic 60% of the Irish population watched. JR-related tack was on sale everywhere, from T-shirts to car stickers to Stetsons, and no political tussle was complete without one TD comparing his rival to the evil, scheming JR Ewing. Taoiseach CJ Haughey got the most JR comparisons, while politicians blamed Dallas for promoting marriage breakdown and corrupting the youth.

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The Catholic Catechism

In 1961 Dublin’s Archbishop John Charles McQuaid called on the medical profession to come up with a way of telling Ireland’s young people about the birds and the bees without telling them too much. In fact, he wanted them to come up with a form of sex education that would “tranquilise the adolescent”. Learned off by heart in the classroom, the Catechism was already trying to do that with call-and-response questions like:

Q: Is it sinful to have unchaste thoughts?

A: Unchaste thoughts are always very dangerous and, when they are entertained deliberately and with pleasure, they defile the soul like criminal actions.

Linen Underwear

The ruling English maintained that the so-called “Savage Irish” had filthy personal hygiene habits. To support this case they insisted that the reason the native Irish dyed their shirts and undergarments brown, was so that they wouldn’t show up embarrassing stains, allowing the Irish to wear their clothes until they fell apart. In defence of the natives, one traveller in 1591 wrote that the Irish were now in the habit of washing their shirts “four or five times a year”.

The Hucklebuck

The showbands dominated the Irish music scene from the late-1950s to the early 1970s, but between them only recorded one great record. That was The Hucklebuck by Brendan Boyer and The Royal Showband. Records weren’t considered important. They were just promotional devices for live shows where the bands churned out covers of UK and US hits. Sometimes the bands would slip a self-penned number into their set. It was considered the mark of a really good song if the audience didn’t recognise it as an original.

From Clery’s Clock to Wanderly Wagon – Irish History You Weren’t Taught at School by Damian Corless is published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie

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Damian Corless

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