Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: I don’t miss the Ireland that required us to marry in secret

Ireland’s present is not perfect but its past was grim, one of hypocrisy and economic failure

Nostalgia creeps over this slow stretch between Christmas and New Year when, as Thomas Moore’s song has it, the light of other days surrounds us. The repetition of familiar annual rituals summons the ghosts of the people, and the times, that are gone.

Yet I think it’s fair to say that one of the things that distinguishes Ireland from many other post-industrial societies is that nostalgia has no great purchase on public memory. It’s a private affair – once you try to generalise it, it becomes absurd.

If you are my age and from a similar working-class background in, say, large parts of Britain or the United States, there’s a very good reason to look back to what seems to have been a better time. Secure jobs, the dignity and protection of strong trade unions, much cheaper, or even heavily subsidised, access to higher education, thriving communities – these things really did exist and really have been lost.

But when I look back, I can yearn for my head of luxuriant hair, for my youth, for my parents and my sister being still alive and so on. I find it impossible, though, to yearn for Ireland as it was then.


Forty years ago, at the end of 1982, I was facing into the true beginning of my adult life. Within a few months, I would get married, turn 25, get my first full-time job and get a mortgage. All these milestones would rush by like landmarks glimpsed from a speeding express train.

I am aware as I write this that there will be readers in their twenties and thirties who will be thinking: lucky you. You could get a job and a mortgage.

But, though I am grateful for that luck, it does not make me ache for that past in any collective sense.

Any sane person would have to add to ‘Things are not what they used to be’, a relieved ‘Thank goodness’.

For a start, there’s that marriage. It had to be a secret affair.

Neither of us was a practising Catholic, so we decided on principle to be married in a civil ceremony at the registry office that was then part of a solicitor’s office not far up Kildare Street from the Dáil.

My wife was teaching in a convent school. Eileen Flynn, who had a similar job in a school in New Ross, had just been fired by the nuns for living in sin.

The Church would not recognise our civil wedding as a marriage, so my wife was in that same category of the damned. We put the legally-required notice of our forthcoming nuptials in Irish in The Irish Times and hoped that nobody would read it. There were no wedding pictures to be shared with my wife’s great friends at school.

How could you feel nostalgic for all that hypocrisy, for the systematic way in which we were all supposed to feel ashamed in one way or another for being ourselves?

Our experience was a minor token of a much wider culture of shaming and repression. Gay men were still being threatened with life imprisonment. Many of the Mother and Baby Homes were still in business. The last of the Magdalene laundries, right in the centre of Dublin, would still be in operation for another 13 years.

At the end of 1982, moreover, it felt like all of this was going to get worse before it got better. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had committed themselves to holding a referendum to insert a ban on abortion into the Constitution. There was no doubt that it would pass, enshrining hypocrisy as the national religion and silence as the national anthem.

This extravagant piety was compensation for economic failure. In 1983, ten years after we joined the EU, Ireland’s GDP per capita was still only 70 per cent of the EU average. We had a trade balance that year of minus €537 million.

If I had been, in 1983, the age I am now, I would have had (as an average Irish man) just five more years left to live. Today, I can expect to live for another 19 years.

There was, moreover, little sense that there were potent alternatives to the conservative consensus. The kleptocrat Charles Haughey loomed like a vulture over the domestic political scene.

People who were two or three years younger than me were beginning to plan their escape routes. By 1986, the slow demographic recovery of the 1960s and 1970s had gone into reverse. The population was falling as mass emigration returned.

And thumping along underneath it all was the drumbeat of horror from the North. The Troubles seemed quite capable of sustaining themselves forever.

Thus, even as I think back on an exciting time in my own life, I can’t do the same for the life of Ireland. Any sane person would have to add to “Things are not what they used to be”, a relieved “Thank goodness”.

None of this is to suggest that we should be satisfied with the present because the past was so grim. It is merely to say that we are largely spared the temptation to “restore” a vanished idyll in which everything was better.

It wasn’t. Ireland is not a paradise now but neither does it have a Paradise Lost to pine for.