Hi-de-hi, campers! 70 years since Butlin’s came to Co Meath

When Mosney opened in 1948, objectors feared it would become a new ­English ­colony and den of vice, but it proved to be a stronghold of family values for Irish holidaymakers and war-weary Brits alike

Family fun: Food was the big draw for guests at Butlin's Mosney
Family fun: Food was the big draw for guests at Butlin’s Mosney
An aerial view of Butlins, Mosney, Co. Meath taken during the 1950s

Butlin’s Mosney opened its gates 70 years ago in the summer of 1948, in the face of loud opposition. Over the decades it would become a beloved national institution and a treasured part of countless Irish childhoods, but it was never originally intended for the Irish at all. Businessman Billy Butlin opened a camp here to lure British holidaymakers seeking respite from severe wartime rationing which persisted across the water well into the 1950s.

Objectors, of which there were many, feared and loathed it as an enemy camp, an attempt to plant a new English colony on the east coast only a generation after Ireland had won its freedom. Against that, there was the alluring promise of large-scale job creation and a steady flow of tourist money into an economy that was on its knees.

Butlin’s was not the first holiday camp in Meath, but it was wildly different from the one that opened in the county less than a decade earlier. With its swing hops and fairground rides, and its all-singing, all-dancing Redcoats, Butlin’s Mosney was to its rival down the road what glorious technicolor was to black-and-white.

With war clouds gathering on the horizon, the government in July 1939 voted through £1,500 to start up “a Gaelic holiday camp” at Gibbstown, Co Meath, which would “provide young people in Dublin and district with the opportunity of spending a period in the Gaeltacht without travelling long distances”.

This Gaelic holiday camp lacked the single most important ingredient for teens who’d often be away from home for the first time – the chance to mingle with the opposite sex. Boys and girls were accommodated, but not at the same time. Parents who could scrape together £2 per child for a fortnight’s stay were told “the day will be spent at games, excursions, picnics, visits to the Gaeltacht houses, etc, and at night ceilidhs, concerts, storytelling, etc will be held”.

Local Fine Gael TD Captain Patrick Giles was passionately in favour of bringing up the young people to speak Irish. In fact, he believed that the whole future of the country rested on raising children to speak no language other than Irish. He summed up his staunchly held views with the statement: “We have too many sissies in this country.”

A sissy, for Giles, was a soft city-slicker corrupted by “the cinemas and books that come in from abroad”. His simple argument was that if future generations of Irish people didn’t understand a word of English, they couldn’t be turned into sissies by trashy foreign movies and books.

It’s safe to assume that Captain Giles must have choked on his porridge in late 1946 when he opened his Irish Independent to read the headline ‘British Holiday Camps To Be Built In Ireland’. The report revealed that Billy Butlin was well advanced with plans to open camping facilities for some 2,000 holidaymakers from Britain, to be waited on hand and foot by Irish workers who would be further weakened with what Giles called “the slave mind”.

Butlin announced: “I hope to charter a boat which will sail from either Fishguard or Liverpool each week, taking all my holidaymakers together.

“This camp will be entirely different from my other ventures. It is not my aim to transplant a bit of Wigan to Southern Ireland. I am going to provide a real Irish holiday for those who want it. All the staff and the bands will be Irish. Food will be a speciality. The holidaymakers will be fed as it is impossible to feed them in England.”

And food was the key for British visitors still facing years more of strict rationing – plentiful steak, pork, chicken and butter, and as many sweets, chocolates, cakes and ice-creams as the war-weary British visitors could gorge on.

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A few months earlier, a reporter from the London Evening Standard had joined the big influx of British tourists arriving for the first full summer season following the end of the war. He recorded that some had come for the horse racing, others for the golf and fishing, while some were on the lookout for cheap Irish properties. All, however, had come for the food.

He wrote: “We discovered – like every other visitor from England – that we would not be hungry again during our visit. I have never understood calories, but apparently after six years of life in austerity Britain, the digestion just cannot take real food and ask for more. This is the common experience of most British visitors.”

Billy Butlin’s plans quickly came to fruition and Mosney opened at the same time as a rival Irish-owned camp began taking guests a few miles down the coast at Red Island in Skerries.

Captain Giles vented his anger in the Catholic Standard in an outburst headlined ‘Holiday Camp And Morals’. “Holiday camps are an English idea and are alien and undesirable in an Irish Catholic country – outside influences are bad and dangerous,” he vented.

Unable to prevent Mosney from opening, Giles and some allies in the Catholic hierarchy secured the concession that a church would be built right outside its main gate, with a chaplain as the moral policeman in residence.

Holiday-camp residents were also to be denied the Irish pub experience. The Dáil voted down a private member’s bill to grant licences in 1949. This was in the face of arguments by some deputies that in the absence of pubs, holidaymakers would hold private “bottle parties” in their chalets instead, which could degenerate into occasions of sin.

Butlin’s Mosney was an instant hit, and by the start of the 1960s was deeply woven into the social fabric of a hinterland stretching from Belfast to Dublin and beyond. It, and a handful of smaller holiday camps, provided regimented entertainment for the social class described by one columnist as “the frayed collar worker”. Another writer countered accusations that these camps were dens of vice, arguing that the choc-a-bloc schedule of daily activities meant that “the first prerequisite of casual liaisons, boredom, is absent”. He concluded that the family-friendly holiday camps were strongholds of family values.

At the height of its popularity in 1968, Butlin’s Mosney advertised its great strength: “The all-inclusive holiday with no extras to pay”. The appeal for kids and their parents was neatly summed up in a single short paragraph that read: “Butlin’s is fabulous for the children. You can relax because they’ll be enjoying themselves completely with their friends the Redcoats, or taking in all the free rides in the amusement park that would ordinarily cost two shillings or one shilling, or perhaps boating on the shallow lake or skating on the rink.”

Remarkably, the advert left out all mention of the single thing about Butlin’s Mosney that impressed kids the most – the big underwater window on to the swimming pool was a fabulous feature associated in young minds with the lair of a scheming Bond villain.

Butlin’s sold Mosney as a going concern in 1983, but with affordable sun holidays coming in, the old-style holiday camp was on the way out.

Indo Review

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