The time for hiding from the lights was over. In so many respects modern Ireland was born in 1987. And central to that was the huge artistic and commercial success of The Joshua Tree...
Thirty years is a long time. With the pace of change constantly accelerating, you could reasonably surmise that it is longer now than it has ever been. The old line is that the past is another country. There are few places in western Europe where that is more true than Ireland. But it is also a fact that we know more now about what went on back then, than we had any hope of finding out at the time. The headlines were inescapable in 1987, as they are today, and they tell part of the story. But the intervening years have brought out into the open much that was deliberately suppressed or swept under the carpet, especially here in Ireland.
From this vantage point, we can look back at events that might have seemed disconnected then and know differently. There is a sense that a changing of the guard – which had begun ten years earlier with the launch of Hot Press and the success of The Boomtown Rats, among other things – had hit another critical juncture.
The year began with the collapse of the Fine Gael-led government, ending Garret Fitzgerald’s tenure as Taoiseach. An embattled Charlie Haughey led Fianna Fáil to a not un-respectable 81 seats in the ensuing general election. It was not quite the ringing endorsement that the party might have anticipated with the collapse of the FG-Labour coalition, and the economy in shreds. Meanwhile, the newly fangled Progressive Democrats took 14 seats and it looked as if a major new political force had been born.
The win was enough to put Haughey back in power, where he would remain for five years – surviving through a second general election in 1989, and a coalition with the PDs that was described as “a temporary little arrangement.”
If Haughey’s re-ascension to the office of Taoiseach seemed significant then, it is remembered now only for the collective failure of imagination it represented. How useless, stupid and misguided so much of the political huffing and puffing of that era seems now. Those tired old warhorses were about to be bypassed by history. The sirens were wailing as the ambulance raced to the hospital. Modern Ireland was about to be born.
CAPTURED THE ZEITGEIST
The North, meanwhile, had been grotesquely scarred by violence for over fifteen years, and they were still at it. In Loughall, Co. Tyrone, in May 1987, the British army SAS ambushed an IRA battalion and killed eight volunteers and a civilian. Seven months later, an IRA bomb hit the centre of Enniskillen on Remembrance Day, killing eleven.
Behind these scenes of carnage, however, the sands had shifted. In December 1987, in a Hot Press interview, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams acknowledged to Kate Shanahan that there was no military solution. It marked a shift in republican thinking and we knew it. That was the headline on the front cover of what was an historic edition of the magazine. John Hume saw the promise and picked up the phone. The talking had commenced that culminated in the Good Friday agreement.
It was against that quickening backdrop that U2 released Joshua Tree. It wasn’t the only cultural artefact with a rock ‘n’ roll edge that was released that year. Roddy Doyle’s debut novel The Commitments hit the shelves, and it was a story in which Hot Press also had a part to play. It became a best-seller – and went on to spawn the hit movie, directed by Alan Parker, four years later. Glen Hansard, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Bronagh Gallagher and The Corrs all starred in the film, before going on to greater success. But the fuse had been lit in 1987.
Roddy Doyle too, went on to forge a career as a literary titan. And he would take the opportunity, much later, to adapt The Commitments as a musical for the stage.
But the cultural event of the decade, undoubtedly, was the U2 album that transformed them from being a major band to the status of Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World. U2 fans don’t need to be reminded of just how powerful the album was, with songs like ‘With Or Without You’, ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, ‘Running To Stand Still’, ‘One Tree Hill’, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and more sending it racing into the upper reaches of Greatest Rock Albums of All Time lists everywhere.
It is almost impossible to recapture the excitement of the moment, so visceral was it to live through. The album shot to No.1 all over the world. The band appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The record started to sell in vast quantities – and it kept on selling, like there was no tomorrow. They had captured the zeitgeist. Hit the nail on the head. Struck a great, big, resounding E chord. Or even a D with the sixth string dropped a tone. They had smacked that baseball right out of the park and were still running while everyone else was wondering what to do.
And here was the rub. U2 had pulled off the big one without the slightest help from the powers that be. Up to a point, they might have benefitted from the existence of a tax-free regime for songwriters. But in truth, that made little or no difference when it came to conquering the world. In that arena it was entirely down to the band’s own resolve.
U2’s phenomenal success provided a huge adrenaline boost for those of us in Ireland who believed that the old ways were redundant, and who felt that there was a different, better, more open-minded, internationalist way of doing things.
It was magical that the breakthrough fashioned by the acclaim accorded to The Joshua Tree, and its authors U2, coincided with the first ever qualification of the Irish football team for a European Championship, under the management of Jack Charlton.
The proximity of these two breakthrough moments was a marvellous accident. Or maybe it was more than that. Perhaps, the spirit that drove U2 was to be seen in a different form in the new–found organisation and resolve of the national team. Between them, these musical and sporting achievements lifted the country – not just in a straightforward psychological and emotional way, though that was important. But they also engendered a sense of confidence and ambition, which was new.
Would Ireland’s first female President, Mary Robinson, have been elected if U2 had not become the biggest band in the world with The Joshua Tree? We can never say for sure, but it is unlikely. Their success created in Ireland an appetite for looking outwards. For embracing a wider and a more modern, more open vision of what this country might be – and might become. It spurred an appetite for change and for re-direction. And Mary Robinson’s game-changing Presidency was just one of the multifarious positive outcomes.
Of course, the album was itself a product of the fact that Ireland was changing. It reflected the generational shift that Hot Press had fought for. And in that way, it – and everything that flowed from it – was a realisation of the ideas that had taken hold in the 1960s, encompassing civil rights, feminism, gay rights, freedom of expression – and so on.
But it would be wrong not to acknowledge just how pivotal The Joshua Tree was, in and of itself. And equally, just how pervasive U2’s influence for the good became in the wake of its success, as they offered Irish technicians, recording engineers, live crew and so on the opportunity to work at the very highest level and bring the skills they acquired back to their work with other Irish artists.
The success also focused the eyes of international talent scouts afresh on Ireland and a whole new wave started to flow through: not just those who came to light in The Commitments but also Sinéad O’Connor, The Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine and more.
Looking back from the vantage point of 2017, the first thing to be said is that Ireland thankfully bears absolutely no resemblance to the fucked-up little island out of which The Joshua Tree was forged. Although we should never take anything for granted, the North is becalmed. The dead hand of the Catholic Church has been loosened. Gay rights have been established, in a way from which there can be no backsliding.
We have survived the catastrophic economic collapse in a manner that would have been unimaginable without the benefits conferred on the Irish economy by the perception – triggered by The Joshua Tree and maintained ever since at least in part by U2’s continuing success – that Ireland is a place where culture and creativity are central.
There is a lot still to be done, before we can describe this as a truly egalitarian society in which the rights of all citizens are respected and treated equally. But we are far closer to that ideal than most. Irish life and Irish culture are the envy of innumerable peoples and nations across the globe.
There are times when we are too slow to acknowledge just how good things are in so many ways, by comparison. It is, of course, cold comfort to those who currently find themselves on the wrong side of history, and who are homeless or otherwise victimised by the austerity imposed in the wake of the crash. But the baser currents that have gripped our neighbours in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe to a greater or lesser degree, have so far been absent here and we are at least in a position to start to do something radical and constructive.
To a greater degree than ever before we are an internationalist society. We are culturally, as well as economically, open. We have embraced change. And there is no suggestion that we are less than enthusiastic about continuing to do so.
To imagine that all of that could have been triggered by any one event would of course be hopelessly naive. We are all caught up in movements that are far bigger than any one individual or group. But there is no doubt whatsoever that U2 have been one of the most important formative influences in the very different Ireland which exists today, compared to the battered and broken country that staggered into January, all of 30-plus years ago.
1987. It was a very good year. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight it was a pivotal one. Thank fuck the hinge held, the door opened – and we were all, metaphorically of course, free to fly. At last! No longer running to stand still, but ready – just a few years later – to let go of the steering wheel. And to carry each other. To carry each other. Now, we need to do more of the same. Only better.
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