- 09 Jan 20
The story of vital sub-cultures needs to be told. This then is an appeal to all Teds, Teddy girls, Mods and Modettes to play their part...
It's July 1954 in Dublin. On Merrion Row, a strange creature has been spotted. His long hair is quiffed back in a DA (duck’s ass); he wears indecently narrow drainpipe trousers; he’s clad in thick crepe-soled shoes called brothel creepers (the name of these brogues an insult to morality in itself); a colourful waistcoat; and a long draped jacket with velvet collars. The ensemble is completed with a quirky bootlace tie. To somewhat bemused onlookers, it seems as if the young man has stepped out of a time capsule from the Edwardian period. Within three months, bemusement has changed to hostility as the Teds are accused by the media of causing fights in Dublin ballrooms, cinemas and theatres.
The Teddy boys have made their Dublin debut.
Twelve years later in October 1966, TDs in the Dáil express concern about a number of beat clubs located in the Dublin-Dún Laoghaire area. It has been alleged that single reefers and cigarettes tipped with drugs are being peddled in the clubs. Even more worrying, shot coffees – otherwise known as espressos – are being sold in them for 5/- a cup. In response, a group of caffeine-addicted teenagers walk down the Dublin streets to Leinster House, protesting at the perceived crackdown on their music venue. The girls wear miniskirts, the boys are neatly dressed, almost to the point of extremity. One of the placards they carry reads: ‘It’s a Mod World’.
The Mods are making their voices heard.
What was it about the Teds and Mods that sparked so much concern among Irish society in the 1950s and 1960s? Young people dressing in distinctive clothing and gathering in groups was nothing new – in nineteenth-century Manchester there were youth subcultures called the scuttlers, in Birmingham there were the peaky blinders, while in 1930s and 1940s Dublin there were the animal gangs. Youth has always been a focus of both hopes and fears for the future in any given society, but one distinctive thing about the Teds and Mods is that they were subcultures operating in the era of the teenager. The teenager was a capitalist construct of the 1940s, designed by American market researchers to tap into the spending power possessed by young people. As such, the emergence of the teenager meant that young people were viewed as financially independent actors, partakers of a conspicuous consumer culture, and capable of making rational decisions even if they were paradoxically susceptible to manipulation by the advertising industry.
This had profound implications for societal responses to these highly visible youth subcultures which were perceived as deviant. Regarding the Teds, initially fashion crime due to their ‘flashy’ clothing was the only type of criminal activity attributed to them. But they soon became synonymous with violence, vandalism and delinquency. This negative newspaper coverage was aided by international cases such as the ‘Teddy Boy Café’ murder trial in Auckland which resulted in a Ted, who was originally from Belfast, being given the death sentence. He was duly executed in December 1955. The same month as the New Zealand trial was wrapping up, in Dublin on Christmas Eve the Teddy boys were accused of holding up traffic on O’Connell Street and spitting at passers-by, while on New Year’s Eve they engaged in rowdy behaviour at Christchurch Cathedral by smashing glass bottles and throwing stones at the Gardaí. By this stage, local managers and doormen of Dublin ballrooms had apparently taken the initiative to ban any male in Teddy boy clothing from entering dances. The Teds had officially become public enemy number one.
This attempt to control and define youth space based on notions of respectability would also be repeated over a decade later in response to the Mods, though this time control was exerted formally rather than informally. The venues in which the Mods gathered, beat clubs, were seemingly infiltrated by undercover Gardaí dressed in ‘mini-skirts and Teddy boy clothes’ according to a Dáil debate from 16 April 1969. At least one beat club was prosecuted for permitting underage drinking – since the Dangerous Drugs Act 1934 only outlawed cannabis and cannabis resin, it did not cover the substances Mods were allegedly taking. The prominence of these subcultures in the public consciousness had declined by 1962 in the case of the Teds and by 1968 in the case of the Mods, but both subcultures would later enjoy a period of revival. By the late 1970s, there was a resurgence of the salience of the Teds in public consciousness; this was aided by the emergence of British rock ‘n’ roll bands inspired by fifties’ music, also the publication of James McKenna’s play on Irish Teddy boys, The Scatterin’, in book format in 1977. The Mods also enjoyed a resurgence following the movie Quadrophenia in 1979 which was named after a soundtrack of The Who; in particular the revivalist Mod scene converged on the popular venue Bubbles located on Adair Lane between 1981 and 1987 which played mod, Northern Soul and occasionally ska music.
The Teds and Mods, through their music and style, were undoubtedly two of the most vibrant youth subcultures in post-WW2 Ireland. Subcultural studies, however, have been criticised for focusing too much on urban working-class males, and there is some substance to this criticism. Granted, the Teds and Mods were mostly urban and predominantly working class, but it is important to note that there was gender diversity within their ranks even if this is often overlooked. Teddy girls and Modettes did exist, but their stories have been relegated to the sidelines of history. Phil Cohen, one of the most influential voices of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which flourished in the 1970s, highlighted three forms of analysis that are essential for any in-depth study of subcultures. The first is historical analysis; situating subcultures such as the Teds and Mods in their historical context and trying to understand why these particular groups emerged at a particular time and attracted a particular societal response. The second is structural analysis; linking these subcultures to wider social, economic, political and cultural change. The final, and most challenging, element is phenomenological analysis; namely understanding the meaning and values shared by members of the subculture from the perspective of the members themselves. No subcultural analysis can be complete without listening to the lived experiences of Teds, Teddy girls, Mods and Modettes, from the original 1950s/60s cohorts and from the revivalist 1970s/1980s elements.
On this basis, this article ends with an appeal to all Teds, Teddy girls, Mods and Modettes and acts as a follow-up to the advertisement on p.18 of the recent Christmas issue of Hotpress (Vol.43 Issue 20). If you are interested in sharing your memories and experiences of being part of these vibrant subcultures, please contact: Ciara Molloy, PhD Candidate, UCD Sutherland School of Law, Belfield, Dublin 4; [email protected]; 0871330982; @CiaraMolloy6.