One of the most remarkable books of Irish social history to appear in the past twelve months is Where Were You? by Garry O’Neill, a superb photographic record of youth culture and street style in our capital, Dublin, from 1950 to 2000. The various subcultures the book represents from Teddy Boys through to mods, rockers, punks and skinheads and beyond weren’t exclusively Dublin-centric developments. Although largely imports and imitations of both American and English youth subcultures, all of these were adopted by Irish teenagers and twenty-somethings, as a means of collective and individual expression of difference from their parents. These subcultures were very often also linked to violent and social criminal behaviour. Here, I’m going to take a brief look at some of those in Waterford from the 1950s to the middle of the 1980s.
The Teddy Boy, and Girl, emerged in post-war Britain, a subculture that appropriated Edwardian dress (hence the shortening to Ted/Teddy) and subverted it through their associations with American Rock ‘n’ Roll and cemented their mythical status as troublemakers through the Blackboard Jungle and Notting Hill riots of respectively, 1956 and 1958. The style of the Teds was imported into Ireland in the same period, and caused panic akin to that in the British press.
The film in particular, so emblematic now of the Teds, was indeed popular in Waterford – being showed at regular intervals in The Coliseum (originally opened as a skating rink in 1910) cinema on Adelphi Quay from 1956-1958, but there seemed to be no desire to imitate the famed riots of their British counterparts among the youth of the south-east. One group of self-styled Teddy Boys in Waterford though in 1956 found themselves up in court for breaking and entering into various city premises and generally terrorising people on the streets; despite pleas of clemency from one of their mothers, one boy, McCarthy, was sentenced to two months in jail. The headline of the report was sensational, calling them Teddy Boy Terrorists:
Teddy Boys were most often referred to in Waterford in relation to more positive stories of youths – with local dignitaries and the clergy happy to be able to provide examples contrary to the behaviour of the Teddy Boys. But soon the Teddy Boys gave way to other emerging youth sub cultures in the early 1960s. Again taking their lead from their British counterparts, the mods and rockers of Ireland attracted the opprobrium of Ireland’s clerical class, as this stern warning from the Bishop of Ossory indicates:
Such fear-mongering was largely misplaced and indicative of a failure to understand that even in Ireland, now in the televisual age, would be open to much wider and disparate cultural influences, especially among the young. An article in the Munster Express of June 26, 1965 readily acknowledges this, if lamenting its impact on the fortunes of Irish language and culture by saying that ‘now we have more than Anglicisation: we now have world-wide Americanisation.” The journalist goes on to write, half-aghast, that “we hear so much about ‘Mods’ and ‘Squares’ that one cannot help wondering how certain sections of the community will be described next.” An article in the same newspaper in 1967 reporting a talk given by Frank Hall suggests that the Irish youth are becoming increasingly odd, and worse, unmanly, suggesting we institute mandatory military service in order to inculcate “general manliness and normal behaviour”, after all, he notes “there are no Beatniks or Mods in the defence forces.” But mods were such a part of Irish life by this time that Jacobs biscuits even did an ad for their Club Milk that saw bankers, mums, and Gardai, as well as too-cool-for-school mods doing the “Club Milk Kick!”
The mods gave way to various other youth subcultures in the 1970s, notably skinheads and a little later punks. There was a strong skinhead contingent in Waterford who became associated with the Waterford Football Club and who along with their Shamrock Rovers counter-parts caused serious trouble at games throughout the period:
But it was in the wake of the post-punk new wave and the Mod revival led by bands like The Jam, that Waterford would see panic on the scale of the early Teddy Boy scares in the 1950s. Indeed, it was in the 1980s that what was a Mod revival for the UK, was probably the real flowering of Mod culture in Ireland, and this was strong in Dublin, Cork and Waterford especially. Tramore, the seaside town in County Waterford that we’ve seen in the past play host to motor car races, was in the early 1980s a popular rallying point for mods and scooter enthusiasts. Perhaps fearing that this would lead to an Irish version of the battle of Brighton beach, captured evocatively in the 1979 film Quadrophenia the local newspapers led with a bold headline. The Munster Express was certainly raising the alarm with this notice in June of 1983:
There appears to have been little enough to have worried about, and tellingly, the paper the following week steadfastly insisted that it was not whipping up a storm of controversy, but their ‘Invasion’ headline was based upon a reliable local Garda source. There had been a major rally in 1982, and there was certainly a crowd in 1983, but whatever the Munster Express had been expecting to happen that Whit weekend didn’t seem to!