Communion money, 99s, the GAA disco, the Gaeltacht – coming of age in Ireland involves many rites of passage that have lasted down the ages.
And then, there are those largely lost on the winds of time, highly beloved of only a couple of generations of Irish people. Long before the internet and iPads, Ireland’s youngsters, often living deep in the darklands of two-channel tellyland, got their pre-teen kicks from a coterie of British comics.
There were the side-splitting antics of Beezer and Topper, childhood icons galore in The Beano and Dandy, and fantastical tales of girl heroes in Bunty and Mandy. They each had young readers enthralled for decades (The Beano, the only surviving title, was first published in 1938). But in the 70s, 80s and even 90s, these comics reigned supreme on Ireland’s newsstands. In many cases, they didn’t stay on the shelf for too long. These comics are currently being distributed free with Saturday’s Irish Independent and are sparking treasured memories for our readers.
Marie Kenny, a county council employee from Longford, recalls leaving nothing to chance, and the local newsagents in Killoe would reserve Bunty each week for her.
“They were that important a part of your life at the time. Back then, you might get to watch an hour of telly before 6pm and a few cartoons on Saturday, so comics were definitely the big thing,” she recalls.
“And I do remember the excitement of getting the comic every week. My friend would get Mandy magazine, so we would swap each comic book over. Even to this day, we still swap magazines, except it’s now Red, Prima and Good Housekeeping.”
Growing up in Sligo, life coach Oonagh Charleton also had Bunty on reserve each week in the local newsagents: “You’d just gobble the whole thing up. I’m close in age to my sisters and they were younger than me, and the youngest one was reading Twinkle comic at the time, so I’d read that, because comics were just such a mega part of your Saturday.”
With its tagline ‘A Girl Like You’, Bunty, aimed at girls under 14, was a ‘starter’ magazine for girls: among its most popular strips were The Four Marys (about a group of friends in an all-girls boarding school), The Comp (about a set of girls in a mixed-sex comprehensive school), Luv, Lisa (about a young girl who wrote about friends, boyfriends and school in her diary) and Bella The Bookworm (a strip featuring a young girl who loved books). Other strips proved to be slightly more high-concept: Little Moe The Eskimo was about a young Inuit girl supplanted into a British school, while The Survivors was set in the year 2084.
Steamboat Jo, meanwhile, disguised herself as a boy and ran away from an orphanage in the Deep South of America. For reasons best known to its creators, Bunty (and Mandy) featured a generous amount of Victorian orphans, or modern girls who suddenly found themselves in Victorian workhouses after a school trip gone awry. On the one hand, they acted as fine companion pieces to children’s books authors like Charles Dickens. On the other, though, the ‘What If’ strips helped to foster lively imaginations. Detectives, nurses, mill workers, tennis stars… there was pretty much nothing these young heroines couldn’t do.
For Margaret Madden, who grew up in Malahide, her first brush with these comics engendered a lifelong love of books and reading: so much so she now reviews books for a living. And like many young Bunty/Mandy fans, she followed a careworn path through to Judy magazine, then Jackie, then Smash Hits, before moving on to Just 17, and later, Cosmopolitan.
“I just really connected with Bunty, so much so that I would enter their competitions every week and even joined the Bunty Club,” she recalls. “I saved up my pocket money so I could arrange for the sterling postal order. You’d get the odd free gift, like a piece of nasty plastic jewellery, but you did feel really special.”
As was often the case with comics aimed at young girls, Bunty’s fantastical comic strips provided a safe way into challenging topics, from friendship and family to bullying and feeling ‘different’. Most of them had an overriding message: just be yourself.
“They had this cool, feminist agenda that I only realised later,” notes Charleton. “I do remember one strip in which the character couldn’t fit into her trousers, and she started getting into a sweat about losing weight with dieting. She was doing exercises, picking through lettuce leaves, but at the very end she’s flying because she’s thought to buy a bigger pair of trousers. I remember thinking, ‘why would she be dieting? We’re all growing here’. There was this lovely, subtle, subliminal message going through them.”
Psychological studies have shown that reading from an early age improves empathy, as it sharpens the mind to process other people’s emotions. It’s something Charleton says she can only now fully appreciate. “It was a doorway into another world that was socially important,” she says.
“You’d read about the middle class experiences, and then there was that consciousness of extreme poverty and hardship on the other hand. I do wonder if it’s what future generations of kids might miss out on.”
For those who bought wholesale into Bunty and Mandy’s (left) girl power, there were countless others who preferred the arguably more anarchic Beano and Dandy.What the Beano lacked in Bunty’s character-driven stories, it amply made up for in pure adventure, mischief and hi-jinks.
And their leading figures, from Desperate Dan to Dennis The Menace, rightly became pop culture behemoths.
A self-confessed tomboy, Dubliner Emily O’Callaghan, who works in marketing, recalls her father bringing home The Beano every week for her delectation.
“I tolerated the Dandy if Beano was sold out but it just didn’t have my heart in the same way. Those Bash Street Kids, Roger The Dodger and of course, Dennis The Menace were my favourites and I would look at every detail of every drawing,” she recalls. “I later used to go into Forbidden Planet on Dawson Street and stay for hours reading all of the American comics and sometimes buying them in their dust jackets. I still have a shoe-box of them stored away, some are in perfect condition and first editions. What a geek. I wonder if they’re worth something.”
Waterford native Richard Kervick, who works in healthcare, was such an avid fan of Beano that he ended up a member of the comic’s fan club. “It was great to be a part of,” he recalls. “Ultimately as a child you want to be one of the gang; accepted. You felt you were in cahoots with Dennis and Gnasher. This was before social media or mobile phones; to me it was a more tactile world where we interacted more.
“You could lose yourself in the comics, and it led me in to a lifetime of reading and attempts at writing. ”
Comics for youngsters still exist of course, but are no longer the pop culture staple they once were. Adding insult to injury, many pre-teen comics have jumped in price from a pocket-friendly 10p to, in many cases, a steep €7.
“Comics are still a part of my kids’ lives, and I can’t get over the plastic gifts stuck to the cover, like squirter guns and kitchen sets,” says Charleton.
“I find the modern comics gimmicky, and the kids certainly aren’t buying them for the characters or stories. The kids have definitely missed out on all that.”
The comic series continues: Dandy is free with tomorrow’s Irish Independent and Beano with next Saturday’s paper.