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Dublin youth culture in the twentieth century

 

A unique book of photographs celebrating Dublin’s youth culture, fashions and fads in the second half of the twentieth century has been launched.

There used to be a bit of a debate in The Irish Post letters pages about what constituted Irish culture and what therefore did or did not deserve house room on the arts and entertainment pages.

Irish traditional and folk music was a no-brainer, of course, but pop and rock music, with its roots in British and American popular culture, provided more of a challenge.

U2 were the most popular band in the world at the time, but how distinctively Irish were they, some asked.

Of course, skip back a generation and the same might be asked of the showbands and Country and Irish artistes who filled the Irish clubs and ballrooms when traditional musicians made do with the back room of a pub.

This question of how or whether to accommodate expressions of Irishness that are not quintessentially or typically Irish occurred to me again when I picked up Where Were You? Dublin Youth Culture & Street Style 1950-2000, a photographic celebration of Dublin’s youth culture, street style and teen life over the second half of the 20th century.

This is as far visually, geographically and culturally from Bill Doyle’s classic images of Aran islanders as it possible to get, with its striking images of punks, teds, mods, rockers and ravers, but this is in many ways a truer picture of the Irish norm, a catalogue of snapshots of how young people dressed, gathered and socialised over five decades in the nation’s capital.

I was delighted to find in its pages two photographs by Doyle, a Dubliner himself, the first a group of wide boys with wider flares and the widest lapels outside Johnny Eagle’s tattoo shop on Capel Street in 1975, the second a trio of rather dandyish post-punks in Harcourt Street in 1983, posing for the camera as an old man in flat cap, glasses and overcoat danders incongruously past, who for all we know might have featured on one of the book’s earliest pages as a teddy boy on O’Connell Bridge in 1959.

As well as Doyle, the book includes the work of established photographers such as Tony O’Shea, Derek Speirs, and Fergus Bourke, alongside an incredibly diverse and eclectic mix of snapshots, photo-booth and Polaroid photos contributed by the public (a kind of flashmob of images and memories), totalling more than 800 images from an original pool of over 5,000 photos.

A selection of ticket stubs, badges, flyers, adverts, quotes and newspaper clippings complement the photographs and enhance this unique social document of an often overlooked aspect of Dublin’s past.

Garry O’Neill, the driving force behind this project, became an avid collector of Dublin youth culture history while working in the City Arts Centre in the late 90s.

His original plan was to write about his memories of the various youth culture scenes he witnessed growing up in Dublin in the seventies and eighties.

It evolved into interviewing others about their memories, then expanded to 50s, 60s and 90s, but he began to struggle with separating truth from fiction, unreliable narrators and suspect memories, before realising that the truth was staring him in the face.

The photographs which he had been collecting to illustrate his text “were telling me more than most of the interviews had done or would ever do”, offering him “a visual, social document of teenage life in Dublin”.

Graphic designer Neil McCormack, formerly of the Jubilee Allstars band, came on board as designer and his flyers and posters soliciting photographs generated a huge response for the project.

The book is divided into chronological chapters, starting with the 50s and 60s, then a chapter for each following decade. Each chapter begins with a two-page potted cultural history of the period, setting the scene and putting the images to come into context.

It starts off with regular suits and petticoat dresses, overcoats and short back and sides before the rock ‘n’ roll revolution changed teen culture for good.

“You dressed very much like your folks or you looked like you were dressed by your folks”.

Photos from this period are taken at front doors or in back gardens or on O’Connell Street, where street photographers did a roaring trade.

“Sometimes when we bought a new item of clothing, be it a coat or shoes, we would head straight home and change into the new clothes, then rush back into town to have our photo taken in O’Connell Street wearing our latest purchase,” a contributor recalls.

U2 photographer Steve Averill, in his foreword, makes the connection between music and fashion and group identity that gives an underlying thematic unity to these images, “the need for like-minded souls to celebrate the music they love and its related style of dress.

It was a means of expression, of identity, of inclusion and individuality – even when the overall look had a distinct similarity. It was all a part of belonging to a particular tribe… Clothes were imported, adapted or tailor-made to make the right statement. To let others know with whom you wanted to belong.”

Averill also observes something that struck me leafing through the pages, the apparent anachronism of images of Sixties trends like the Mods popping up more in the Eighties.

“There is a sense of déjà vu when some of the styles seen in the eighties and nineties look like they should be in the 50s and 60s sections. You get a sense of how the cycle of the underlying musical trends and dress find favour decades after they first made their mark.”

He sums it up well: “Though we Irish were never known for our sartorial elegance, these pictures tell a different story, albeit a more basic one… Looking through these pages you get an insight into the largely hidden cultures of youth identity and teenage rebellion.”

Many of the images in the book can be ordered directly at www.wherewereyou.fujipix.ie – so if you or your sister or your mates are in the book you can get your own print. The book is available from www.wherewereyou.ie priced €29.99.

 

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