Sinking by Inches
Last year, the Society of St Vincent de Paul spent €6.1 million giving people in Ireland food. This year, it says that requests for food are up 50 per cent, that calls in general are up 35 per cent and in Dublin 50 per cent, and that 25 per cent of callers are new clients, many of whom were contributors to the charity at the church gates last year. These new clients are people who, ‘like the rest of us’, as one of their volunteers, John Monaghan, says, ‘were living on 110 per cent of their salaries’; this year, something in the working situation has changed, and they cannot manage their usual debts, mortgage, car, credit card. Monaghan is also worried about the effect of the recent budget on welfare recipients who, he says, will lose between 22 and 43 euros per week. Many of the cuts are aimed at the young, at carers, and at the parents of young children. Families have already lost 2 per cent of their benefits with the loss of their Christmas bonus and this means that people are not able to meet increased winter costs for heat, lighting and clothes.
This time last year the sky was falling, and then it didn’t. You wake up after the credit crisis and pat yourself down, and find everything the same, more or less, as it was before. Twelve months later, you look back to see that the sky did not fall so much as sink by inches.
I don’t know if Ireland does recession differently from other countries. We have a long and proud history of poverty, I don’t know if that helps. When I was growing up, you never asked another Irish person what they did for a living, and you never turned a beggar from the door. These are lyrical and dangerous clichés, of course (though incidentally true): Ireland was by no means a classless society. Even so, I do see differences from other countries in the play of rage, entitlement and delight around money: who has it, who deserves it, who gets cross.
The banking crisis that hit in September 2008 played out over the winter, and the sums of the bail-outs were so large, 3 billion here, 3.5 billion there, that the mere €179 million loaned by the speculator’s friend, the Anglo Irish Bank, to its own directors seemed almost acceptable, for being easy to understand. Usually, to get the truth in Ireland, you need a tribunal. The figures were so dizzying, the truth so quick and appalling, it was, in its way, quite an exciting time. In the week of the big snow, the first in February, the country was beautiful and still and full of dread. It wasn’t until the thaw that emotions became ordinary again and fear – the shouty, panicky kind – set in, with people on the radio fighting about public sector pay, and media personalities crying for Ireland on national TV.
For a while, it got quite personal. ‘Fuck them,’ says a friend about the public sector. ‘They’re not losing their jobs, they’re not losing their pensions. Fuck them.’ My entire family works in the public sector. During the boom, the worst you could say was that they were a bit boring. I don’t think they have done anything wrong. I find myself shouting back at her.