Which year of the boom was the writer referring to in the following passage? "It was a bonanza year. In the year to mid-August personal borrowing from the banks increased by an extraordinary 45%. It was the year of the big spenders… land prices leaped to unprecedented heights. The banks were only too happy to accommodate the demands of a clientele who could offer land as a security on the expectation of permanently rising prices."

So, was that last year, or 2006? Or was it as far back as 2004? No, the year in question was 1978. The passage comes from histor­ian Joe Lee's book, Ireland 1912-1985. The year in question represented a high watermark before the depths of the 1980s recession were plumbed. History is about to repeat itself. The question is whether it will do so as tragedy or farce.

Of one thing, be reassured. It can't be as bad. Growth rates may seize up. A proliferation of economic soothsayers means there is more fear than was ever before possible. But at least this time around even those on the dole can afford to leave the country if the worst comes to the worst. And if you must remain, give thanks your TV viewing is not confined to the two native channels, a trauma veterans of the '80s conflict have managed to hide away in a dark corner of their collective psyches.

The last recession was a different country. The economy was a dark beast, threatening to visit every home like a grim reaper on speed. Nobody was "going forward". Nobody was going anywhere except to the pub.

The economy, as it was, shut down each evening at 6pm. Up until nine, you might have been lucky to get a bottle of milk, but beyond that you were on your own. There was a single 24-hour shop in Dublin, on the Rathmines Road, and another in Cork, a service station on the Western Road. Beyond those emporiums, the only commerce being conducted after sundown was the lazy ring from the till behind bars up and down the country. Publicans were adding value, even if in those days they only recognised it as fleecing with a smile.

Some things are the same as it ever was. Despite the advances of economic science and space travel, economists got things as wrong then as most of them did over the last few years. In 1979, the projections for 1981 had growth in GNP at 5%, inflation at below 5% and unemployment hitting around 50,000. As it turned out, growth rates for the year in question plummeted to 2.6%, inflation hit 20.4% and the ranks of the unemployed swelled to 147,000.

It was the decade of living dangerously if you were in a job. For those who were without, the airline tickets purchased were all one-way. The price of leaving on a jetplane to London, for instance, was somewhere between £200 and £300, which was about a fortnight's wages at the time. The International Monetary Fund was rumoured to be anchored offshore, awaiting instructions to invade, so there was little prospect of returning. Through the middle years of the decade an average of 30,000 left to seek work.


Social partnership was understood to be a date gone wrong. Industrial relations were only sporadically harmonious, bringing us bus strikes, bread wars and power cuts. Telephones were not as we know them today. They were immobile objects, confined to lines for the lucky ones, at the end of a long queue line, which could go on for three months, for those wanting one installed.

Smokers paraded their sophistication. One of the photographs remaining from a decade of political upheaval shows Gerry Collins conferring with Des O'Malley as the latter gets into a car outside Leinster House. O'Malley's hand is something that no politician would be seen dead with today. The dreaded weed was still in vogue.

Does anybody out there remember buddleia? The flower of colour blossomed on derilict sites in every city and town across the land. Wherever there was a vacant site – and they were all over the place – buddleia was coaxed from between the rubble, threatening to spread and smoother the plans of any dreamer who passed for a property developer in those days.

There was solace from the woe. Religion still had a grip on the majority. Sundays were reserved for quiet, Mammon remained subservient to god. Worship on the Sabbath was almost exclusively undertaken in churches, before transferring to today's shopping centres.


There were also signs that the country was not alone in being in danger of tottering into the breach. On 23 July 1985, in a year when immigration was peaking, two women claimed to see a statue of the Virgin Mary lurch off centre. The tremble seen at a grotto in Ballinspittle, Co Cork, prompted ructions throughout the faithful, and thousands made their way to the village to seek refuge from an unemployment rate that was touching 20%. Soon statues were stepping out up and down the country. Some thought it was a trick of the eye. Others felt it was god's message to the people of Ireland that we were not alone in these barren times. Local hawkers and shopkeepers just praised the lord.

A group of scientists from UCC concluded that the Ballinspittle miracle could be explained by light conditions and eye strain.

The statues embarked on the hucklebuck in a year that was possibly the darkest hour before the dawn. By 1985, unemployment had crept up towards 240,000. Those who were privleged with work were taxed at a rate of 35%, 48% and, for the really lucky ones who earned big, 65%.

A snapshot of values and trends among the Irish in the mid-'80s was offered by a survey called the European Values Systems Study. In it, 92% of respondents said they attended mass regularly, with 82% attending every week. Of the 2.45 million adults in the country in 1985, 2.3 million had a television in their homes. Only 1.9 million had a fridge, with 641,000 boasting the luxury of a fridge-freezer and 243,000 a dishwasher.

Nearly half of the population had a private phone, which means that there was a landline phone in the home in which they lived, as opposed to owning their own private mobile phones, which were still but a germ in some techie's imagination.

Despite the tough times, personal debt was low for the simple reason that banks were unwilling to lend. A mortgage could only be obtained for 75% value of a secondhand home, and it required a savings record of at least 12 months.


Saving was ingrained in folk back then, the way debt is today. A total of 2.3 million adults responded to the survey that they had savings of some degree in either a bank, post office or building society. Only 59,000 people owned stocks or shares.

Some of the gloom weighed heavier than mere economics. The killing in the North continued unabated through the decade. It was as if the island was becoming mentally attuned to a thousand-year war.

Daily violent death was reduced to practical footnotes in media bulletins. Many, particularly in the south, became anaesthetised to word of another life snuffed out in its prime. Real outrage was reserved for those occasions when circumstances or numbers lifted the killing from every day banal to the truly horrific. The bombing of Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday in 1987 was one such occasion, in which 11 lives were lost and a new low plumbed.

On the bright side, smugness and faux American accents were at a minimum. The only people who spoke, like, American, were students who had spent three months over there and wanted to let the world know about it. They were treated as the unclean.

The decade brought other woes from which the nation would not recover for a long time. The Eurovision was won in 1980, forcing RTÉ to stage the event the following year. The station was nearly bankrupted as a result, and before our European breathren we were forced to cover up the hairshirt.

Offshore, a new order was taking shape. Reaganomics, the trickle down economics that handed the running of a country over to the free market, gained traction. The new system meant bad news for those at the bottom of society, but heralded untold riches for those entrusted with running economies.

It would be some years before the full thrust of Reaganomics washed up on Ireland's shore. When it finally did arrive, it was in the Trojan horse of the Tiger. Now, the smoke and mirrors have been discarded and the world is reaping the whirlwind that blew up over 25 years ago on Wall Street.

Let's hope things don't get as black this time around. At least these days we have cheap drink, 47 kinds of coffee and access to therapy by picking up the phone to talk to Joe.