Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Summer of '81

1981 was a year in which open season seemed to have been declared on celebrities. It had, in fact, started on December 8 of the previous year when Mark David Chapman decided for some mad reasons, logical only to himself, that he had to kill John Lennon. In January Protestant gunmen serious injured Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the fiery Catholic Northern Ireland politician who, as the youngest ever Westminster MP (elected at the age of twenty-one), had livened up the British parliamentary scene by turning up in a miniskirt, punching Reginald Maudling, the Conservative Home Secretary, in the mouth and giving birth to a child without bothering to get married.

In March John Hinckley Jr. shot the newly elected U.S. President Reagan and two months later Mehmet Ali Ağca had a go at the pope. At the end of May, the Bangladeshi president Ziaur Rahman was assassinated and October, dissident Egyptian army members killed president Anwar Sadat.

Although I registered all of these events at the time, the one that had the biggest significance for me was, of course, the death of Lennon, closely followed by another death in May, that of Bob Marley. When I think back now on that year, and particularly that summer, the strains of No Woman, No Cry are always there in the background.

The summer of 1981 was one of adventure for me, one I’ve described to myself in retrospect as The Great European Tour. I’d been in the Dominican Order for four years and had spent the last two years at University studying history and philosophy. I was twenty one years old and deeply uncertain about my future within the Church. So I decided, with the agreement of my student master at the time, to take an informal summer off to see if I could find some clarity.

It started with a month doing a volunteer work camp in Amsterdam. The basic idea of the work camp movement in Europe involved spending a couple of weeks working on some kind of social project for your board and keep. The project I’d found in Amsterdam was a pretty left-wing one, involving the renovation of a social centre for Moroccan guest workers and asylum seekers, which had been trashed a few months earlier by agents of the Moroccan secret police. We were housed in a building which belonged to some student organisation beside the Vondelpark.

The organisers of the whole thing were a very earnest, politically engaged Dutch couple who were, I think, somewhat disappointed at the level of commitment of the participants. We were around twenty young people from eleven different countries and most of us regarded the whole thing primarily as an excellent opportunity to spend a month in summer in Amsterdam with other young people who were also interested in spending a month in summer in Amsterdam. We had nothing against doing a bit of work every day (from Monday to Friday) but our enthusiasm for things like workshops to raise our political consciousness and discuss the exploitation of the working class by international capitalism and fascist police states was, to say the least, lukewarm. Our lack of enthusiasm was abetted by some of the Moroccans we were working with, who were more than ready to show us the town and help us have a good time. After the first few workshops had been basically sabotaged by people passing around joints and turning the music up louder, the idea was quietly abandoned.

There were some exceptions. A German medical student who was both pretty but also pretty idealistically intense. Then there were the two Czech girls, who kept very much to themselves and didn’t speak much of anybody else’s language anyway. In the course of the month we discovered that they were actually both married factory workers and stalwart party members who had been given the trip to the west – along with international student cards – as some kind of reward for party fidelity and being heroes of production or something like that. Their conversation was generally limited to phrases like, “You must come to visit socialistic countries,” and I think they were actually scared of and shocked by the laid-back attitudes of the majority.

That laid-back attitude manifested itself within a couple of days in a dispute about our working times. There was a minority who wanted to start early and finish early. Then there was the majority who wanted to start much later and finish early. We solved that by compromising on a two-shift solution – I was a firm member of the group which tended to turn up for work around eleven in the morning.

We’d found other avenues of interest, a major one being the legendary Melkweg [Milky Way] beside the Leidseplein. It was a pretty relaxed place; live music, a market, a hash shop, a theatre, a tea-room, a cinema. It was there, one evening a couple of weeks after I’d arrived in Amsterdam, that I realised that you couldn’t always easily get away from the wider world. I was waiting for the Cocteau Twins to perform when a couple sat down beside me and I heard the harsh twang of Northern Ireland accents. It wasn’t that I felt at all homesick; still I was happy to hear voices from home. The guy went off to get drinks and I engaged the girl in conversation. Her boyfriend soon returned.

“Hey, Johnny, this fella here’s from Dublin!”

He looked at me disapprovingly, his mouth forming a thin line. He reached out his hand to his girlfriend and nodded sharply.

“C’mon,” he said, pulling her to her feet. She looked back to me apologetically as they disappeared into the crowd.

Northern Ireland was very tense that summer; it was the height of the H-block hunger strikes. The IRA prisoner, Bobby Sands had died in May, five more were already dead at this stage, but compromise wasn’t part of Margaret Thatcher’s vocabulary. Johnny and his girlfriend were obviously Protestants and he wanted nothing to do with anyone from the Republic of Ireland.

The work-camp finished at the end of July but my tour was only starting. I had an InterRail ticket, valid for the month of August, which gave me unlimited rail travel throughout the continent and so I joined that great horde of young people with backpacks from all over the world who were exploring Europe. I’d planned it so that I had a number of destinations which I could aim for where there were people I knew where I could spend a day or two, have a shower and sleep in a bed before moving on to the next destination.

The Lofotens
I visited Denmark. There was a girl there I’d got to know on the work-camp. We’d had a holiday affair in Amsterdam which had been very pleasant, but both of us had had our reasons for not taking it too seriously. There was an Irish Dominican priest doing summer work in a parish in Bodø, in the north of Norway and so I took the long train journey to cross the Arctic Circle, just too late for the complete midnight sun (though it never got dark). The two of us visited the Lofoten islands for a few days, where all the young Catholics – not very many! – in Northern Norway were gathered. Years later, I heard that he was under investigation in a child-abuse case; he disappeared, his clothes were found later on a beach.

And I visited my cousins in Brussels. My uncle had moved there as a civil servant, nearly ten years earlier when Ireland had joined the European Community and I hadn’t seen any of them since we were all children. My cousin Gerry took me under his wing, showing me the city. We took to each other immediately and it was a marvellous weekend.

But that connection to reality, to the wider world, was there all the time, though I didn’t realise it. On June 5 1981, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that five homosexual men in Los Angeles had a rare form of pneumonia seen only in patients with weakened immune systems, the first reported cases of AIDS. Gerry was gay – as he told me during that visit – and had, that summer, just returned from a couple of years in New York, where he had been studying. In all likelihood he had contracted the virus there which would kill him little more than a decade later.

I was in France when I finally ran out of money. I hadn’t had much to begin with, but I hadn’t needed that much; my concept to save costs by taking long train-journeys at night, arriving at a different destination every day had been working fairly well. Frequently the carriages seemed full of young travellers; contacts and conversations were easily made. Sometimes I spent a day or two with a number of others, travelling together, exploring a town or city before going our separate ways. Occasionally I played guitar on the street to earn my lunch – I remember Oslo was very good in that regard. But the competition among buskers on the Paris metro was tough and my InterRail ticket was only valid for a few more days anyway. I spent my last night in France sleeping rough in the Gare Saint Lazare before taking a train to the Normandy coast to get the boat back to Ireland.

I still have many wonderful memories of that summer. Picnics and kisses and dope and live music in the Vondelpark. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Sitting in the wild beauty of the Lofoten islands, watching the sun just dip under the Northern horizon for half an hour around midnight. Discussing philosophy with Gerry in a Brussels bar. The great Gothic cathedral in Rouen. James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I read on dozens of trains.

As to whether I should leave the Dominican Order; that was a decision I deferred. I was still unsure. I had another year to go to my degree and my final vows were not yet due, I told myself. There was still enough time to go on thinking about it. Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right. Bob Marley’s words were ubiquitous that summer and, with the invulnerability of youth, I still believed them. That the man singing them was dead at the age of thirty six wasn’t relevant.

“In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means.
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
                                               Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill (1946)


Pictures retrieved from


  1. Oh, Francis! I laughed and oohed and awed (?) :-) Your adventures and your talent made for a most excellent read!

    I did not have such adventures at that age, being stuck in the United States and all that was going on my life, depression, low-self esteem and a lack of opportunity. I'm making up for it now, though! :-} In fact, we have two weeks planned in Amsterdam in about mid-July. Am immensely looking forward to it. Finally after all these years of wanting similar adventures to yours.

    Beautifully written, much enjoyed. And the song, well. Yeah. "Every little thing's gonna be alright". It was my lulla-bye in those years.

    Sending a hug,

  2. Your summer of adventure occurred 19 years later than mine and in different cities; but if time were paradoxical like a Möbius strip, we might have met somewhere. I’d have liked that. But in fact, when our lives were synchronised by the news of John Lennon’s death, I was entering something not unlike what you were escaping from. You were pondering your future in the narrow cloister represented by the Dominican Order. I had just gone from a bohemian software company called Zeus-Hermes into another kind of narrow cloister: Touche Ross & Co, Management Consultants, whose managing partner, as it happens, was a rather militant Catholic. I was quite indifferent to John Lennon’s death, and as for Bob Marley, I hadn’t yet heard of him. It was like Buddy Holly all over again, they both died before I discovered them and loved their music.

    If we were to discuss our respective pasts, I think we might find our trajectories criss-crossing one another, always going in the opposite direction, but both our tales, like poetry in Wordsworth’s definition, would take their origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.

    But I can relate too to Pagan Sphinx in the matter of ‘depression, low-self esteem and a lack of opportunity’---and rising like Phoenix in later life to make up for it all.

  3. By the time you spent your wonderful summer traveling around Europe by train I was in my mid-30's with my own 2 year European adventures many years behind. Instead, I was exploring the early years of adventure living in one of the strangest countries in the world, although most Americans think their land height of normality. John Lennon's murder was akin to losing a family member.

    By then I'd been a big fan of reggae for some years. Marley's 'Small Axe' was another favorite:

    If you are the big tree,
    We are the small axe
    Sharpened to cut you down,
    Ready to cut you down.

    For some reason I always found those lines comforting - something about light and goodness winning out despite appearances.

  4. Ah that was quite a sumer Francis. It makes me think of that time . It was an odd summer for me. I was 18, just left school and waiting to see if I got the grades to go to university.

    Looking back the concerns of the teenager seem minor but they were huge at the time.

  5. I was in my first year of med school when you went on your journey.

    And I remember it being a very stressful, uncertain time for me too.

    But...yes...being so young and in such good was also just...rapturous.

  6. I was ex-NI and probably selling dud weaponry to the Argentinian junta in preparation for the Falklands - a sleight-of-hand operation to cover banking tracks through a post-junta fire sale. Came back to help my local cricket club win the league after a period laid up by injury.
    Mad times, followed by going back to uni to teach. I could go with Marley if it wasn't for the wife-beating.

  7. Thanks for all the comments. :-)

    I find it interesting that all those who commented immediately made the connection to their own lives and what they were doing that year.

    I think such glimpses back - the Wordsworthian "emotion recollected in tranquility" - can be useful in many ways. They help us take stock, put form on and order the stories of our lives.

    For we are all constantly developing stories and stories need structure if the storyteller is to be able to tell it - even to him or herself. And much of that which we tell of the past has far more to do with who we are now than with what we were then.

    My daughters will be 24 and 20 this summer. I frequently find it useful in the development of this wonderful new stage of my relationships with them - encountering them as adults rather than "my little girls" - to cast a look back at what I was doing at their age.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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