Thomas O’Grady writes: Recently I spent an agreeable hour or so leafing through a forty-year-old issue of In Dublin magazine. It was given to me fifteen years ago by a friend who thought I’d find it interesting for one reason or another. I’ve held onto it, not only in the spirit of friendship in which it was given but also in appreciation of the twinge of nostalgia it induced in me the first time I thumbed through it: dated 25 January-7 February 1980, it transported me back even further, all the way to 1977-78, the academic year I spent at UCD as a student in the MA programme in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama.
Launched in 1976, In Dublin was a fully going concern by the time I settled into my digs in Galloping Green the following September. Probably I never bought more than three or four issues ‑ more likely I picked up copies left behind by passengers on the 46A ‑ but I definitely recall flipping through the magazine regularly for theatre and movie and concert listings. How else would I have gotten wind of TP McKenna playing Captain Boyle in the Olympia Theatre production of Juno and the Paycock in October of 1977? And that was either just before or just after I saw him play Simon Dedalus in the newly released film adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (I distinctly remember my eyes widening when the cinema’s houselights came up as the credits rolled, revealing that the sparse audience at that matinee screening included a bevy of religious sisters in habits.)
And what about that Eric Clapton concert at the National Stadium in July of 1978? Forty-two years later, I still cringe at how much I paid to see Slowhand at the absolute nadir of his career, the only scintillating moment of the evening being that electrifying opening riff of “Layla”, which was served up as a perfunctory encore. By the same token, I am grateful for having got to see legendary jazz guitarist Louis Stewart play at the Baggot Inn and The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur hold court at O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row. Those were the days . . .
Plus ça change? In January of 1980, Dublin was queuing up for tickets to see Wishbone Ash and BB King and Sonny Terry & “Bonnie McGee” [Brownie McGhee that is!], all at the Stadium. An Abbey Theatre production of Juno (reviewed unglowingly by Mairéad Byrne) was just closing and a production of John B Keane’s The Field was about to open. Current films included Apocalypse Now and Alien, Star Trek and Mad Max. The local music scene was choc- full of traditional sessions at all the usual venues ‑ Slattery’s, O’Donoghue’s, The Stag’s Head. Paul Brady had a performance booked in the Exam Hall at Trinity. And rock ’n’ roll was alive and well with bands like Stepaside and The Lookalikes and Brush Shiels holding down regular gigs at Toners and McGonagles and the Summit Inn. To say nothing of the full slate of discotheques in vogue at the time.
In 1977-78 a copy of In Dublin cost 15p. By 1980 the price had doubled, and the content of the issue I have seems a bit meatier than what I remember from a couple of years earlier. It still had column after small print column listing services like pregnancy counselling and gay rights support and meetings for the Legion of Mary and the Finnegans Wake Study Group at Newman House on St Stephen’s Green. And of course lonely hearts personal ads, timelessly hopeful. But issue No 94 also includes a substantial interview conducted by Fintan O’Toole with the vice-president of the ITGWU regarding the government’s plan, subsequently abandoned, to build a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford. Now arguably the pre-eminent commentator on all things Irish, O’Toole was still cutting his writerly teeth back in 1980.
Ditto for another prominent figure in the cultural landscape of the past three decades or so: seven years before he became a household name on the spine of his first novel, The Commitments, Roddy Doyle contributes a tongue-firmly-planted-in-both-cheeks review of Arthur Flynn’s Echoes, “a record of some urbane pow-wows with fifteen of Ireland’s most wonderful and dynamic people”. Colm Tóibín is on the roster too, a decade before his first novel hit the shelves, submitting a survey of recent titles from Poolbeg Press as well as a nod toward Peter Kavanagh’s biography of his brother Patrick. (Tóibín also parries in the Letters section a disgruntled author whom he had apparently reviewed with stiletto dispatch in an earlier issue.) As Joyce has Stephen Dedalus remind us in Ulysses: “The schoolmen were schoolboys first.”
That’s evident from the cover story too, a truly prescient interview with members of a rising band named U2, still four months shy of releasing their first full-length album. The lads are in voluble form, and as this reflection by Bono suggests, they seem precociously self-aware: “Once you’re on stage there’s an elevation ‑ a star status. But the difference between ourselves and someone like Phil Lynott is that when he leaves the stage he actually believes he’s a star whereas we’re always aware that, basically, we’re pretty ordinary guys. Like, when I wake up in the morning I fart. It’s just playing a role.” The interview was conducted by Ferdia MacAnna, the once-and-future retro-rocker aka Rocky De Valera, whose debut performance with his band the Gravediggers I witnessed in the student bar at Belfield in January of 1978. MacAnna was, very briefly, one of my classmates at UCD. He would go on to make a name for himself as novelist, memoirist, and filmmaker.
In Dublin has on its cover the catchphrase “The Guide To What’s On”. That’s a fine example of truth in advertising. But looking back at that issue from forty years ago, I think the magazine might also be read as a record of a moment in time and thus maybe even of history in the making. When I was a student at UCD I read Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Epic”: “I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided . . .” Yes, those were the days back in 1977-78, whether I knew it in the moment or not. And so, I’d say, was the fortnight of 25 January-7 February 1980.
Thomas O’Grady is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he was director of Irish Studies from 1984 to 2019.