Skateboard Mecca? Early skateboarding in Ireland

In my last post, I looked at the first game of American Football played in Ireland in Croke Park in 1953 and the Irish reaction to this most American of sporting endeavours. In this post, I will examine the arrival of the skateboard as a mass-market product in Ireland in the late 1970s, as part of a growing trend of the Americanisation of Irish youth culture. Sociologist Tom Inglis noted in his 2008 work Global Ireland: Same difference that:

The global flow of culture [in the 1960s] coming from the States was overwhelming. There was a feeling that it would not be long before most people in Ireland would be sitting down in their living rooms to watch American Football television with a packet of popcorn in one hand and a Bud in the other.[1]

As I indicated in my previous post, the flow of cultural exchange between Ireland and the United States has a much older, more tangled history than is sometimes realised. Nonetheless, Inglis’ words have a certain degree of truth about them. Where once much of the fear of foreign influence into Irish social and cultural life was a barely masked contempt for mass popular cultural forms emanating from Britain, in the period following the end of the Second World War, Irish popular culture, like Britain itself, was dominated, influenced and led by American popular cultural forms.

While many Irish continued to emigrate to the United States following successive decades of economic underperformance following Irish independence in the 1920s, the cinemas of Ireland were replete with American life as imagined on the silver screen. American music could be bought cheaply in Woolworth’s, and with the advent of state television in Ireland from 1962, much of the programming contained reruns of American shows. Thus the imaginary of many Irish people in the 1960s and 1970s was one in which the United States loomed large, as a symbol of plenty, of freedom and conspicuous consumption where identity could be bought and moulded by the individual.

At the end of 1977, a new product came on the Irish market that ever since its first appearance in toy shops, has aided many young Irish teenagers to adopt a stance of outsider-dom, individualism and anti-mainstream posturing: the skateboard. As both Becky Beal and Charlene Wilson have written about the recent mainstreaming of skateboarding as a lifestyle sport:

Skateboarders negotiate this mainstreaming in several ways. Importantly, one of their main strategies is to continually distinguish themselves from the mainstream.[2]

From the beginning in Ireland, skateboarding as an activity was both decidedly anti-mainstream while all at once the product of the mainstream acceptance of American cultural forms as the predominating mode of expression of teenage angst. This apparent contradiction – its emergence as a non-mainstream lifestyle sporting activity in Ireland with its origins in a mass influx of the skateboard as a product for the Christmas market – reflects the wider contradictions inherent in skateboarding as a practice that the work of Beal and Wilson points to.

The Biggest Rip-off? The Skateboard arrives in Ireland

When searching for the skateboard in the digitised archives of Ireland’s newspapers, the skateboard’s first appearances in the press come in the guise of the Christmas present of December 1977. Despite the skateboard’s long history as a kind of DIY object, and its – admittedly contested – origins in the United States since the late 1950s, the prosaic reality of the skateboard in late 1970s was that it was in the news more as a consumer choice story than herald of teenage rebellion. Consider this piece from the Irish Press in November 1977:

A leading Irish importer said last night that he was being forced to sell children’s skateboards at exorbitant prices, because British manufacturers were cashing in on a skateboard craze. Mr Hector Grey, a leading importer and exporter of toys in Dublin, said that a shipment of skateboards would be arriving at his shops within the next week. Each board would be retailing for between £7 to £8 each.[3]

Only a few short days later we see this advertisement appearing in the pages of the Irish Independentclippin
Suddenly, the seven and eight pound price tag doesn’t seem as exorbitant. Indeed, as the consumer affairs correspondent of the same newspaper reported around the same time:

The normal price range from £10 to around £60 moved from the beginner to expert class and needed the knee and elbow safety pads and helmet.[4]

No sooner was the arrival of the skateboard to Irish shores a consumer affair than it equally became something of a safety scare. As Christmas approached, the consumer affairds correspondent of the Irish Independent, John Foley, had moved on from worrying about the price of the boards to the potential safety hazard the skateboarding craze had created, and the worry it would cause for parents:

Parents who can’t tell a stoker from a slick or a wheelie from a walkover may have extra problems this Christmas. But if their children are demanding skateboards, they will quickly learn these and the other jargon of the latest craze… Care in using the board is stressed. The British Safety Council has produced a special Skateboard Safety Code. This warns that children under eight years should not be allowed to skateboard without supervision and skateboarding must not take place on roads or pavements.[5]

No sooner had this appeared but the Irish Press ran a story about an American skateboarder, aged 13, who fell to his death while skating on a rooftop carpark, stoking further fears about the safety of the new craze.[6] Similar notices about the hazards of the skateboard appeared in most of these newspapers in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of that Christmas.[7]

Quickly, in these early days, the skateboard moved from the consumer affairs pages of the national newspapers to the business pages. This was driven by the fact that in many instances the legality and the public danger posed by the hordes of inexperienced skateboarders in Ireland to pedestrians. Just as the production, import and sale of skateboards that Christmas saw a burst of opportunism from those looking to cash-in, so too did the very early days see some people attempt to open the first skateparks in Ireland as commercial ventures. In January 1978, the Irish Independent reported that ‘both Dublin County Council and Corporation are to be faced next week with pleas to set up special skateboard parks to cope with the boom.’

One Corporation spokesman, however, said that “we have no intention of adopting it [a motion to spend £60,000 to build a skatepark] as we feel that there is no evidence there to indicate that this will be a lasting sport. It would appear to be a post-Christmas craze which is almost certain to die down.”[8]

In the event, with no will to provide a skatepark with public money, several businessmen raised capital of £100,000 to turn a former ballroom in Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin into Skate City, opening in February 1978.

Hill Street and beyond

While such early initiatives played a huge part in the emergence of skateboarding as a new craze in Ireland, it was a skateboard shop in Hill Street in Dublin that helped to foster a skateboarding scene first in the capital and then elsewhere that was more redolent of the non-mainstream culture of skateboarding in the USA. A recent documentary about that shop, eponymously titled Hill Street, sees proprietor Clive Rowen suggest that: “It had a sort of an underground thing to it… the drop-outs all skateboarded…”[9]

Rowen’s role as proprietor of what was first a bike shop and later exclusively a skateboarding shop, according to the film, was instrumental in providing a space for the subculture to develop in Dublin – the documentary is testament to this as several people talk about spending hours and hours in the shop and using the ramps which Rowen provided in front of his shop and, later, next door in a disused commercial unit. Rowen also helped to bring a tour of American skaters to Dublin in a famous exhibition which included the most well-known name in the sport, Tony Hawk in the 1980s. The fad label would largely stick to skateboarding in Ireland as its popularity waxed and waned – as an expression of American subcultural values, viewed as a public hazard and a nuisance, it received no support from official channels. Only since the early 2000s, during Ireland’s economic boom, has skateboarding received the kind of public support that was first sought after in the late 1970s. Now in Ireland there are close to thirty skateparks, many of them provided municipally in public parks or as separate parks of their own. Nonetheless, skateboarding as an activity, and as a means of differentiating oneself from the mainstream culture remains potent for many in Ireland. To quote Tom Inglis once more:

The number who realize their difference through consumer choice and lifestyle has increased. Instead of rituals, prayers, penances, and sacraments, they increasingly realize themselves through fashion and good, lifestyles and diets, sports and entertainment.[10]

For those Irish adolescents who don baggy jeans and tees, slip on their favourite, most worn-out pair of Vans or Etnies, and spend their spare time in skateparks or the best spots in town for street skating are simultaneously rejecting the mainstream of Irish life, and a broader popular culture while all at once engaging in that most Irish of pastimes: adopting American lifestyle choices as a means of expressing disinterest in and dissatisfaction with other available modes of identity.

David Toms is an occasional lecturer in the School of History, University College Cork. His first book, Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937, will be published in May by Cork University Press.

Notes:


 

[1] Inglis, Tom, Global Ireland: Same difference, London: Routledge 2008, p.161.

[2] Beal, Becky, and Wilson, Charlene “’Chicks dig scars’: commercialisation and the transformation of skateboarding identities’ in Wheaton, Belinda (ed.), Understanding lifestyle sports: Consumption, identity, and difference, London: Routledge 2004, p.54.

[3] Irish Press, 24 November 1977.

[4] Irish Independent, 30 November 1977.

[5] Irish Independent, 5 December 1977.

[6] Irish Press, 7 December 1977.

[7] Irish Press, 19 December 1977; 23 December 1977; 4 January 1978; Irish Independent, 23 December 1977.

[8] Irish Press, 10 January 1978.

[9] JJ Rolfe (dir.), Hill Street, Warrior Films, 2014 (DVD).

[10] Inglis, Global Ireland, p.180.

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