On my 21st birthday today I’m reflecting on how much the world has changed since the day I was born, October 21st 1991. Back then the Soviet Union still existed, the Troubles were still ongoing and Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. Homosexuality was illegal as was divorce. Old Ireland was on its last legs, we were still a white Irish Catholic country. Emigration was still common and unemployment was high (the more things change the more they stay the same). Immigration and multiculturalism had yet to arrive. The Catholic Church was still strong and the sex scandals had yet to hit. People still went to Mass. I was born right at the end of an era when the old ways were on their last legs.
When I was born there were still bombings and shootings in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were continuing with little sign of ending (though there were secret talks to end it). The year I was born, 96 people were killed in the Troubles. That year the IRA launched a mortar attack on Downing Street and almost killed the UK Prime Minister (luckily for him, they missed and the mortars landed in his back garden). Two weeks before I was born, Republicans killed a Protestant, Harry Ward, so in revenge the UDA killed a Catholic, Hugh Magee. There was no reason, religion and retaliation was enough. Two weeks after I was born Kathleen Lundy and her 16 year old son were killed when their house was set on fire. (They were Catholics killed by Loyalists, not that it matters). The Birmingham Six and Maguire Seven were finally released from prison and declared innocent after being wrongly imprisoned since the 1970s.
Ireland was a very different place. We still had some of the highest church attendance in Europe. The Church was yet to be hit by abuse scandals. Its moral integrity was intact. Eamon Casey was still Bishop Of Galway and the Magdalene Laundries still operated (the last one didn’t close until 1996). The mass abuse of beatings, hate, neglect and rape of children by the Church was still a secret. Homosexuality was still illegal (it would not be decriminalised until 1993). It was still not possible to get a divorce (that referendum wasn’t passed until 1996).Pornography and contraceptives were still difficult to come by. Not only was abortion illegal but all discussion of it was censored. Mentioning abortion would get a book banned by the censorship board.
Charles Haughey was still Taoiseach and in fact the newspaper headline on the day I was born referred to him and attempts by members of his party to remove him as leader. There were rumours of corruption linking him and the purchase of Carysfort College, but nothing had yet been proven. Politics was dominated by old style Fianna Failers, with their prejudice, patronage and corruption. Their style of cunning, sly, gombeen, cute whore politics still ran the country. Emigration was still high and unemployment was 16%. There were few if any foreigners or non white people in the country. Ireland was diverse as a glass of milk. The Celtic Tiger had yet to happen. We were still poor, with the Ballymun Flats monuments to our poverty.
The Soviet Union was on its last legs. The Berlin Wall had fallen and one by one Communism fell from each country. There was an attempt to stop this when a coup was launched but it failed and so did Communism. One by one countries voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Two months after I was born, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist, ending the Cold War.
In 1991, America invaded Kuwait to drive the Iraqis out. Isn’t it amazing how much the world has changed since then? I mean it’s not like America still invades Arab countries in disputes over oil or anything, right?
Yugoslavia fell apart around the time I was born. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and war broke out. Siege was laid on the city of Dubrovnik. A month after I was born, Serb forces seized the town of Vukovar in Croatia. The town was destroyed and 30,000 Croatians were expelled. The world was introduced to the term ethnic cleansing. The worst massacres since the Second World War were carried out.
The world was a different place the day I was born. Ireland was a much more conservative place, right on the brink of change. Although few at the time realised it, their world was about to completely change.
(A good summary of Ireland and the world in 1991 is “Reeling in the Years”)