Irish Studies

The Sixties and Youth Culture – A Distinctly Irish Experience

How was Ireland affected by the international youth culture of the Sixties? Author Carole Holohan discusses the pros and cons of life as a young adult in Sixties Ireland and reveals some of the surprising discoveries she made whilst writing her new book, Reframing Irish Youth in the Sixties.

How was the reformulation of youth key to social change in the Republic of Ireland during the sixties?

Changes in people’s expectations of young people and in their understanding of youth as a stage in the life cycle are a very significant element of the broader social changes of this period. Whether or not young people in your society work, emigrate or are in education tell you a lot about that society. The extent to which they engage in traditional or commercial leisure activities and the way in which adults in statutory, religious and secular agencies and associations respond to young people also gives us insights into how that society operates. Internationally, the status of youth changed in the post-war period and a new media environment, and greater political and economic connectedness in the West, facilitated a greater level of Irish interaction with new models and ideas. Like in other modern industrial societies, youth became a central focus and this was evident in the rhetoric of official, religious and civic bodies, and in the media.  Young people, long associated with emigration in the Irish context, were more likely to be viewed as an asset, rather than a burden, worthy of investment with a view to a more prosperous future. At the same time an international youth culture propelled the cultural significance of young people and intersected with commercial interests to produce separate physical and cultural spaces for young people. These developments suggested that authoritarian approaches by adults towards young people were inappropriate and ineffective, and the field of youth work adapted accordingly. Adult and parental authority was somewhat undermined, while cultural and market forces fuelled the independence of young people in certain areas of their lives. These shifts in how youth was understood worked in tandem with actual changes in the experiences of Irish young people and they directly contributed to changes in many areas of life, from the further commercialisation of leisure to changes to access to education.

How did the experiences of young people in the Republic of Ireland change in this period?

While at a rhetorical and planning level the position of young people changed significantly, the impact of these shifts in understandings of the position of youth impacted different sections of the youth population in different ways. For the social category of youth, the sixties marked a significant break with the immediate past – youth emigration was no longer chronic as it was in the 1950s and this was reflected in the rise in the number of 14-24 year olds engaged in non-agricultural employment and in education. Some trends such as the falling numbers in agriculture and domestic service were ongoing from the 1940s. Others such as the rising numbers in education and in white collar employment accelerated, while the number of young people in industry had actually fallen in 1950s. Young people were increasingly engaged either in waged employment or in education, the former granting a significant measure of independence, the latter providing for occupational opportunities in the future. However, there were definite winners and losers. Those without education and training would find it increasingly difficult to find employment as unskilled workers, with many continuing to emigrate. Others, particularly those with a secondary school or third level education, benefited from a more diverse employment market, often in Irish cities. The most vulnerable therefore gained least from the economic changes, while those with greater social capital, already destined for white collar work, benefited more.

Has your research on Irish youth revealed anything that you found particularly surprising?

I found that the received wisdom that Ireland is a place that is always lagging behind, imitating or catching up with its near neighbours is not always a useful way to consider the nature of social and cultural change in this society. While this can be true in certain areas, Irish governments, churches and civil society organisations were often engaged with forums where new ideas about the economy and social services were just being developed. International models would face adaptation of different kinds in different societies. The same pertained in the cultural sphere. Irish showbands should not be compared to the Beatles or the Beach Boys but rather the copycat bands of Western Europe who, similar to Irish showbands, adopted and adapted British and American music for a domestic audience. The Irish experience is often a distinct, though not exceptional, one. Using youth as a historical lens made this very clear to me.


Carole Holohan is Assistant Professor in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.