Back to the future – 1965

The solid economic foundations that were laid in Ireland in 1965 are still paying dividends. Here is a look back at that year of change and ambition. 

As we face towards the New Year, naturally enough we think about what we have achieved during the year just past, what remains undone and our plans and aspirations for the future.

ThinkBusiness has been doing the same, except it has decided to take a much longer timeframe in which to review progress, right back to 1965. What impresses us most from our brief review were the solid foundations that were laid then, on which Ireland’s future prosperity was based and the general far-sightedness displayed at a time, which can seem very remote and irrelevant to today’s world.

Setting the scene

To set the scene, 1965 was the year the US first committed combat troops to the Vietnam War; Alabama state troopers confronted civil rights demonstrators, at Selma, Alabama; Singapore became an independent state, and Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) made a unilateral declaration of independence. Winston Churchill and Nat King Cole died and Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train robber, escaped from Wandsworth Prison.

The Beatles performed the first stadium concert in history, at Shea Stadium in New York and My Fair Lady won eight Oscars, including best picture and best director. Liverpool won the F.A. Cup, beating Leeds 2-1 and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their championship match. Mariner 4 flew by Mars transmitting the first images of the Red Planet and Aleksei Leonov did the first spacewalk.

Ireland too was taking crucial steps to the first meeting between a Taoiseach (Sean Lemass) and a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (Terence O’Neill) in over 43 years. Fianna Fail was re-elected to government and Liam Cosgrave was elected leader of Fine Gael. For good or ill, this was also the first year that Ireland entered the Eurovision Song Contest with the entry I am walking in the streets in the rain, performed by Butch Moore. Galway and Tiperrary were victorious in the All-Ireland Football and Hurling Championships respectively and a much-loved drama series, The Riordans, about a farming family, aired for the first time on RTÉ.

The population of Ireland was slowly recovering from the low point of 2.8m reached in 1961, after the massive emigration of 400,000 people during the 1950s. The numbers at work were just over 1.05 million, with 35% of people employed in agriculture, 26% in industry and the rest (40%) in services, retail, etc. Average industrial earnings were £10.50 a week (€13.30). Altogether, only some 385,000 were liable to pay income tax. Internationally, income per capita in Ireland of $647 a year compared to the UK ($1,262), France ($1,272), Italy ($701) and the USA ($2,506). Free secondary education had yet to be introduced and there were just 13,240 university students in Ireland.

“Homeless families were being accommodated in Griffith Barracks in Dublin and there was disquiet about the rising cost of housing”

Outside the ECC

Economic growth was less in 1965 than it had been in previous years (2.5% vs. an average of 4.5%) in part due to the balance of payment difficulties. Whole industries were being reorganised to face competition from abroad, as Ireland dismantled the protectionist barriers that had been erected since the 1930s. Ireland was still outside the European Economic Community: it had expressed an interest in joining in 1961 but French opposition to UK ambitions to join delayed Ireland’s goals until 1973. But in other signs of Ireland’s increased openness to the world, since the early 1960s Ireland had progressively being lowering tariffs on imports and engaging in negotiations on a free trade agreement with the UK. This agreement was to be signed in 1965, with Ireland joining the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1967.

The Government had targeted foreign direct investment into Ireland with some success – in the five years to 1965; some 60 new foreign companies were attracted to Ireland, creating a base on which successive Irish governments were to build. While most of these were in well-known industrial sectors, some proposed investments were exotic to say the least – one proposal was for an underground city to be located in the west of Ireland to provide shelter from nuclear fallout! By 1970, over 350 overseas companies were to have set up in Ireland, attracted by an abundance of English-speaking labour and the exemption from corporation tax on export earnings.

“The Beatles performed the first stadium concert in history, at Shea Stadium in New York and My Fair Lady won eight Oscars”

The homeless and the rising cost of housing

Some of the concerns of the time have a resonance today – homeless families were being accommodated in Griffith Barracks in Dublin and there was disquiet about the rising cost of housing. There were calls too, to compensate householders whose homes in Dublin, Donegal and Kerry had been damaged by recent floods. Preparations were being made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, with proposals that each school in the country be given a framed copy of the Proclamation of Independence, along with the Tricolour.

These resonances aside, what is striking about the review of 1965 is the confidence that government, business and people had in the future and the willingness to accept change. It is also noteworthy how much of what we now accept as routine in technology and the modern world, was created then. 1965 was the year that the optical disc (now the compact disc) was invented, along with hypertext, which is used to link the internet together. It was also the year that the US Navy confirmed that its warships were using navigational satellites to pinpoint their location, ushering in the modern communications age.

The question for us in 2015 is what will be our legacy and will we in our various ways show the same courage and resolution as those in 1965?


Main image is courtesy of the Connolly Collection/Sportsfile.