Monthly Archives: October 2015

They’d Got Each Other’s Backs


‘No Roof, No Floor’ – El Roto


By Estelle Birdy

We, my friend Orla and I, were out for a meal. It was early winter in 2012. I know that because I remember the main topic of conversation. Savita Halappanavar. It wasn’t too long after her death and we’d both been at the protests in the aftermath. We were angry for her and for us and for our children. We were upset for her husband and we were bowled over by his dignity and strength.  Green 19, on Camden Street, was the location for our dinner. For those of you not as hip as myself, it’s a trendy café/restaurant on Camden Street,with reasonably priced food and friendly staff. At the time, they had main meals for a tenner.  Camden Street is probably the biggest ‘going-out’ street in Dublin now. They bring in Portaloos on Saturday nights. At 4am, it’s like Armageddon. This was much earlier and much more civilised. We both had steak, as I recall, and a nice glass of wine each. Then,  at about 8.30pm, the owner, (an unusually unassuming but nevertheless full-on hipster, complete with Osama beard, unusual hats and a difficult looking bike), apologetically came and crouched down beside the table and said we needed to vacate it as he needed it back. He’d warned me when I booked, so that was grand. He moved us to some high stools at a bar area. Orla’s a filthy smoker, so we ended up outside. There’s a little table in the porch area, with a small table and a couple of chairs on the inside and a chair backing onto the street.  It was the first really cold night of that winter. We stuck the jackets on and we were fine, underneath the heater, cheeky little Portuguese wine in hand, bellies full, watching the world go by on the dark street. Then it started.

There were just a couple of them at first.  “Can you spare any change?” “Yeah, I’ll see what I have. Here you go” “Thanks a million” And they were gone. Then Joe arrived. Same thing, but as he was talking, I copped the accent and I said, “Are you from Dundalk?” He was, of course, from not far from my house at home. I don’t know what age he was. Younger than us anyway. He had a sleeping bag wrapped round him and he looked a bit dishevelled. Without the sleeping bag, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Fumbally café, (bar the fact that he wasn’t enough of a poseur). The three of us got talking. How come he ended up here? When was he last home? That kind of thing. A series of unfortunate incidents had got him to this point. Stuff that could happen any of us. When his brother hanged himself, he was the one to find him. He couldn’t get that picture out of his head. His mother died after that. He’d always been close to his mother. Then she was gone. Someone tried to set fire to him the night before when he was trying to sleep in a doorway in town. Threw lighter fluid on him and lit the match. He managed to put it out. Who was it? Just some randomer. People do that to you when you’re street sleeping. He did have a sister but she has kids and, he cast his eyes downwards, ashamed, “I’m fond of the drink”.

“Aren’t we all?” we said with our nice wine in front of us. “Whatever gets you through the night. If I were in your place I can guarantee I’d be fond of more than the drink to help get me through”

Suddenly, out comes red-haired Osama. “Come on, move on. Clear out”, waving his arm at Joe to get him to move away. We protested, “No, he’s a friend of ours. We’re having a talk. We know him.”

The owner said some more stuff, we protested some more and suddenly, he said, “Well sit down then mate, you’re blocking the entrance”. He sort of was obstructing the pathway out. He was kind of wide, what with the sleeping bag wrapped around him. Joe looked a bit surprised that he’d been invited to sit down, effectively, in a restaurant. He stayed with us for a good while, talking about home and the logistics of getting back there, only an hour’s drive down the road. It seemed like the most impossible journey.

Customers passed us by, coming out of the restaurant. We didn’t notice any of them except one party of three people. Two glammed-up women and a primped-up tube, (as myself, Joe and Orla might say) As he passed by, he made sure to audibly sneer, lest we might miss the fact that he was sneering. He even let out a disgusted snort. Joe didn’t notice. At least, I hope he didn’t. They went out onto the street and were trying to hail a taxi. Now, I’m not one for criticism of people’s style of dress but I’m giving this man the respect he deserves. He was in his mid to late 30’s with overly ‘done’ hair, greased back. Much scummier looking than Joe’s, for example. His beard was groomed within an inch of its life. He was wearing a faculty scarf. I don’t know which faculty but it was a college scarf and frankly, at that age, there is absolutely no excusing that. His trousers and jacket were too tight for him. Intentionally so. You know the look; trousers that look like they belong to your twelve year old brother? The colour of the results of untreated feline colitis? Too tight at the arse and around the crotch, so they’re pulled up above your ankles to show off your craaaazy socks and expensive leather brogues? All of this would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the fact that he placed himself on the street in our direct line of vision. So that he could keep looking back with a head on him like the *Eagle from the Muppets; snorting and sneering. He had the look of a fella who might have had lots of snorting experience.

We kept talking to Joe who, thankfully, had his back to the street.  He was spared this epic performance. I don’t know how long this man kept this up but it seemed interminable to us. We couldn’t say anything though, or give it away with our facial expressions, for fear that Joe would turn around and see what the Eagle was doing behind his back. I gave Joe some money. We chatted for a while longer. Then off he went into the dark. I’ve never seen him since. When he left, myself and Orla stared straight ahead out into the blackness of the street. My jaw was so tight it hurt. “Did you see that arsehole behind him?” I said. “See him? I wanted to…..”. Out of respect for the polite amongst you, I will leave it up to your imagination what she wanted to do to the adult man whose sneeriness made his lips meet his nose. She had that white line around her mouth. That’s the dangerous time. The Eagle was lucky that a taxi had swept him away.

After Joe left they just kept coming. All men. Of all ages. There was the one who laughed about how he wouldn’t make it to 40 because you can’t live like that for that long. He said he expected to die in the next couple of years because that’s just the way it is. He was in his early 30’s. “No one lives past about 45 on the streets. It’s too hard a life” he said. There was the neat and scrubbed older man who, tight mouthed and angry, asked us for money. He politely said thanks but he looked a bit like he hated us. I can’t say I blame him. I could be wrong but he looked like he hadn’t been on the streets too long. He could have been a Dad at our kids’ schools.

There was the one who, when we really had given away every bit we had in our pockets, said, “That’s ok. Listen, thank you very much for looking me in the eye and talking to me” We asked him what he was on about because we hadn’t loved him up or anything. He was young and handsome and sad. People just talking to him as an equal human being was important to him, he said. He’d been put in care when he was two and no one acknowledged his existence again until he was given his social welfare card when he was sixteen. Those were his words. Succinct. I wish he had stayed longer to talk.

There were ones with few teeth and the tell-tale gauntness or the moon- face. The ruddy and cut up faces of the drinkers. The clean- scrubbed faces of the ones holding it together, with neat back packs and ironed looking shirts. The ones who marked themselves out from a distance with a sleeping bag. It was like a tsunami of homeless men. Not a tsunami of ‘the homeless’. There is no monolith to see here. Every single person, different from every other with something interesting to talk about and a story to tell. Homeless people.

There’s a hostel on Camden Street, so presumably that’s where they were all heading. Eventually, their numbers dwindled. I went across the road and got more money out, went to the bar in the restaurant and ordered two more glasses. The owner, eyes downcast, just like Joe’s had been, said, “Sorry about that earlier. I shouldn’t have been so hard” I said, “No problem, we knew him, he’s from home.” He said, “Nah, I’ve never had any trouble with him. I shouldn’t have gone on like that. I’m sorry ok?”

He was genuinely ashamed of himself, or so it seemed to me. He seemed awkward. He’s a nice fella. Not many people running a business like that would have asked Joe to sit down. Joe wasn’t there to hear the apology though. I got the apology, but then, I wasn’t being thrown out.

Myself and Orla sat there, like we’d been hit by something hard. We didn’t even look at each other. She just said, “Hhmmm”

There was no need to say anything. We had had a privileged evening.

Last year, I was walking into town during the day. It was freezing cold. That kind of damp cold that penetrates your warm jacket and gets into your bones. I was just thinking how much I was feeling the cold, when I passed by the ATM outside Break For The Border. There was a queue of a few men and one woman standing at the ATM. Almost at their feet, there was -what looked like- a corpse. I reversed a few steps when the scene before me sank in. I looked at the man lying on the ground, a yellowish grey, his body contorted into a silly position on his bag, with stuff spilling out of it.  I looked at the queue of people. I asked (what I thought to be) the obvious questions in the circumstances. “Is he alright? Is he alive? Is he breathing?” as I bent down to the maybe-dead-man. The men in the queue, all well- dressed officey looking types, became entirely engrossed in the fabric of the jacket of the man in front of each of them. I started to wonder was I actually dead. Such was their huge interest in matters of cloth and their apparent inability to hear or see me. Only one person in that queue could hear me, a woman, “I don’t know”, she grimaced with tears in her eyes. She looked distraught and relieved that I’d asked and horrified that this was happening. I felt sorry for her. The look in her eyes. She just didn’t know what to do.

I touched the corpse’s hand and found that he wasn’t quite dead yet. He was cold but he moved slightly and groaned. He was off his face. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t open his eyes. I said, “If you stay here, you’re going to die. Do you understand me? It’s freezing. He couldn’t really open his eyes, he was so out of it. I left and went round the corner and called Focus to get advice on what to do. The woman on the line told me to do nothing else. That their outreach teams would be doing the rounds and they’d get to him in due course. She said there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t going to call an ambulance because he’d likely not go with them and I wasn’t going to call the Guards because…I wasn’t going to call the Guards. I went back and told the corpse-man that someone would be round soon from Focus. Not that he responded too well but he did manage to look at me. Sort of. He murmured some animal sounds. I hoped they meant, “Yeah, grand so.”  I zipped up his jacket and he conked out. A man in the queue snorted at me and the almost dead man. Everyone else, (part of an entirely new queue of people) was very interested in everyone else’s back. They’d got each other’s backs.

Earlier this year I was working with a group of people who are part of a community drugs scheme. I was chatting to one of the women in the class afterwards. She’d often be a bit out of it during the class. This wasn’t an altogether bad thing.  She was really enjoying it and she got a lot of the relaxation and meditation, she said. I could boast about my Yoga Nidra skills here but I fear Methadone was a bigger factor in her enjoyment levels. She got sneered at by some of the jumpy, aggressive young fellas in the class. So, we were talking about her maintenance programme and how she had got her methadone down a bit. She was glad to be making progress she said. She nodded her head back towards the room where we’d just done the class and said, “There’s a stigma around heroin users. The others look down on us”

I said, “Are you telling me that other people with drug problems look down on you because of your drug problem? Are you fuckin’ serious?” I’d had a bellyful of the aggressive pill-poppers in the class that day.

“Yeah that’s just the way it is. We’re just junkies and scumbags. But ye know, people say that ‘this drug is a gateway drug’ or ‘that drug leads you to heroin’. I didn’t even drink before I started. I never smoked a joint. Never took anything. I smoked heroin for the first time and a couple of weeks later I was banging up”

Before heroin, she had been pregnant. She was really happy, she said, looking forward to having her baby.  It was discovered late in the pregnancy. Something was seriously wrong with the baby. She wouldn’t have survived outside of the womb. Her baby died inside her. She had to carry the baby for a period of time. I can’t remember how long she said. Then she was induced and had to give birth to her dead baby. She lost the will to live. She said that it probably sounded stupid but she couldn’t get over how horrible it was. How excited she had been one day and the next day everything was terrible. She said she was like a zombie. Then she was at a party and someone says “Here, try this. It’ll make all your pain go away” And it did. After that she lost everything. Her family, her home, her friends, everything. She said she had done things that she never would have believed herself capable of before. I could imagine. Someone had cut her an extra wide smile at some point. She was a big soft baby of a woman.

There’s a line in the film Mississippi Burning where Gene Hackman’s character, FBI Agent Rupert Anderson, quotes his father. He’s explaining to the younger, FBI agent, about how things work in the Southern States. His father was a farmer and his father’s near neighbour, was also a farmer.  A black farmer. The black farmer does well for himself and then some white people come and burn his place down and destroy his crops. Just to show him like. In explanation of how he lived beside this man for so many years but did nothing to defend him, Agent Anderson’s father said,

“If you ain’t better than a nigger son, who are you better than?”

It’s the line that always stuck with me and when I hear, variously, “What about our own?” “I don’t give them money, they’ll only spend it on drink or drugs”, “They need to be moved out to the outskirts of town, they’re putting the tourists off” “Some of us pay our mortgages, why should I subsidise those who don’t?” “Same sex marriage devalues my marriage”, “Knackers”, “Scumbags”, “Junkies”, “Sluts”, “Slags”, “Whores” or just a big obvious, curled- lipped snort, all I really hear is, “If you ain’t better than a nigger son, who are you better than?”

In a world where we’re told that hierarchies and invisible ladders are real things and that that is ‘just the way it is’, I’m just not feeling any rung beneath my feet and I can’t see anyone above me either. This culture of ‘better than’ is making me sick and I can’t be the only one. Given the right set of circumstances, I could be anyone of these people. Been at that party, had someone I loved die, been too fond of the drink. Maybe, if I hadn’t messed up so much and had so many weaknesses and been just about perfect,  I could even have been Mr. Snorty Eagle or a Jacket Fabric Obsessive. Maybe.




*Orla recognised this style of head as being like the Eagle from The Muppets


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Notes on Ciudadanos

Jordi Évole, presenter of the debate, with Albert Rivera and Pablo Iglesias

Jordi Évole, presenter of the debate, with Albert Rivera and Pablo Iglesias

The other night, the leaders of Spain’s new political parties went up against each other in a televised debate set in a bar, with both of them sat at a table sipping coffee. It was shown on a private TV station and if you want to watch it online, the TV station seeks payment. In appearance and rhetoric, Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos seems a more convincing political leader than Pablo Iglesias of Podemos. If you go to the Ciudadanos website, the policy outline appears progressive: they say they will expand social security; they say they want a quality universal public health system; they say they want a free, universal and secular education system; they say they want a judiciary free from political influence. They describe themselves as drawing on Enlightenment values that include ‘progressive liberalism’ and ‘democratic socialism’, and call for greater citizen participation in representative institutions. Though Podemos claims that it emerged from 15M, Ciudadanos could, with equal legitimacy, and were it not for the fact that it has been around for nearly a decade, claim the same thing. Both parties are an attempt to channel the deep rejection of Spain’s political order and the search for some kind of new dispensation that characterised 15M. One could take the original Democracia Real Ya! statement that heralded the 15M explosion and map each of its statements to some aspect of Ciudadanos’s stated ideals.

Ciudadanos has been around for a lot longer than Podemos. It formed part of a pan-European alliance with Declan Ganley’s Libertas in the 2009 elections, and caused a split in its ranks by so doing: one of its high-profile members resigned based on the anti-abortion stance taken by Ganley and other groups in the alliance, but Albert Rivera persisted. Like Ganley, his US defence contractor associate, Rivera too is opposed to ‘crony capitalism’ and claims he will replace it with a more ‘reasonable’ form of capitalism.

In contrast to the claims about universality the party makes on its website, public pronouncements from party officials make clear that this does not apply to immigrants. This kind of ambiguity appeals to a particular mindset in Spanish society: people who are guided by the vague ideas about social justice cited by all parties including the Partido Popular, but who often veer into resentment towards people gaming the system for their own ends. Ciudadanos supports Spain’s membership of NATO, and its website also says it will make sure Frontex has the necessary resources to control immigration flows.

Whereas Iglesias has a vaguely counter-cultural air, Rivera is polished and business-like. I wasn’t aware of Rivera’s personal history before writing this article, and while writing it occurred to me that he reminded me of the law students at a private university whom I met when I lived in Madrid. These were people who were fundamentally right-wing in outlook, and who dressed in the de rigueur garb for the well-to-do in Spain: Lacoste polo shirts, Barbour jackets, loafers and so on, but who were able to combine this conservative aesthetic with an openness to debate, espousing convictions rooted in classical liberalism. They enjoyed and welcomed debate on social and political matters, especially when these entailed a radical challenge, because they were firm enough in their faith, and their social standing, that they would cope comfortably, even if, on the whole, their way of seeing the world was not altogether different from their Aznar-voting parents. They could agree on certain things from a radical perspective, perhaps founded on the confidence that such things would never become a reality. These are not the kind of braying halfwits one might find in their closest analogues in Britain or Ireland. I checked: Rivera is a lawyer, educated at a private university. Iglesias, on the other hand, comes across like the kind of people I used to know who studied in the politics faculty at Madrid’s Complutense university (he was, after all, a lecturer there) and whom I would accompany to parties in okupas. Their respective worlds are not so far apart, and it strikes me that the staging of the debate in a bar, in a sit-down encounter, appeals to a middle-class, university-educated political sensibility that dreams of seeing these currents collide. The spectacle of politics unfolding on these terms must be particularly appealing to educated middle-class twenty- and thirty-somethings whose expectations of upward mobility and just reward for their years of study have been dashed in long years of social and economic crisis. Perhaps many of them feel such encounters as a sign that their generation is finally being given a shot.

Rivera will appeal to people who think government is first and foremost about having technically competent officials in place, skilled managers rather than skilled orators. The uncomfortable reality for Podemos’s leadership is that the very terrain they staked out in the political arena -an opposition to corruption, a commitment to transparency, participation and social justice, young and untarnished leaders- has now been occupied by a competitor that promises the same but without the threat of radical change that Podemos’s associations with Latin America and the Spanish radical left inevitably suggest. What is more, Podemos’s competitor is viewed favourably by Spain’s business and media elites, who on the whole are not wedded to any political party in particular, and will see to it that Ciudadanos’s glaring contradictions go unquestioned.

The TV encounter garnered record audiences, with some 5 million tuning in to watch the leaders of two political parties that are not even the main parties in Spain currently. You get the sense that the contest between Ciudadanos and Podemos could soon become the foremost political contest in Spanish society, provided Podemos keeps its radical origins well hidden, its proposals moderate, and its key spokespersons at the forefront, presenting a semblance of democratic debate. People may even argue that this represents meaningful political change generated by 15M. It is a superficially attractive image. But this is a spectacle shorn of the mass open participation and horizontal democratic forms that characterised 15M and many of its outworkings. With its unerring fixation on figureheads, it is in fact geared towards de-mobilisation and passivity and hence likely to stabilise, not re-order. It is, on the whole, a dismal spectacle.

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Yes I Know, But…


What distinguishes the residents of Rockville Drive, who, in the wake of the Carrickmines fire, mounted a protest against emergency accommodation for Travellers who had been left bereaved and with nowhere to stay, from residents of other comfortable housing estates throughout Ireland?

Very little, I imagine: something similar would happen in a great many other places up and down the country. There is a generalised opposition to living beside Travellers, rooted in racism, classism (consider how the insult ‘knacker’ applies both to Travellers and to urban working class people), fears about property prices, fears about what living next to Travellers says about them. If it appears strikingly cold-hearted for residents of an area to oppose giving other human beings some temporary place of shelter, it’s only because this kind of situation doesn’t come to the fore very often in national media. The attitude is there all the time, and it is widespread. If we focus on the intransigence and failings of these particular residents, as if this were a kind of aberration, we lose sight of this point.

I don’t think it diminishes the issue of racism towards Travellers to note that the attitudes and the stances here extend, when it comes to housing, to the question of social housing. There are many owner-occupiers -or rather, people with mortgages- who resent the idea of social housing being built near where they live.

Fine, they say, people need to live somewhere, but why does it have to be here? Why am I working hard to live in a nice place when all these people get the same thing I’m looking for, but in their case they get it for nothing?

There is no point pretending that these opinions and beliefs are the preserve of a cold-hearted minority in such areas. Life in what Margaret Thatcher called a ‘property-owning democracy’ shapes you to think like this. Many people I speak to are reticent about forcefully voicing their opinions on these matters. If you could summarise their outlook, it would be “I know, but..”.

They say things like, “I know people should have somewhere to live, but.. why does it have to be us?” Or, “I agree that we need to look after people, but these people really are good-for-nothings. Or, “That all sounds nice and I agree with you, but there’s no denying these people bring problems.”

Such people seem very well aware that in the cold light of day their stance appears cruel and ignorant. So they present themselves as reasonable and compassionate on the whole, but regrettably pushed beyond a limit in this particular case. Tell them their opinion is racist or ignorant or selfish and they can flare up in indignation. It is as though you were applying a hot branding iron to their skin. They act as though getting caught in such an act would destroy their whole being, their whole sense of themselves, their standing in the eyes of others.

Life in ‘property-owning democracy’ means people cease to see accommodation and shelter as a right. They cease to see it -if ever they did see it- as the condition of possibility for other rights -to health, to education, to a decent standard of living. Instead they see it as just reward for their own personal endeavour, and, ultimately, an object of competition, an asset to be traded and hence, guarded jealously. As for one’s neighbours in this regard, it becomes seldom a matter of simply wanting to live in a pleasant community, but of living in a community that can be sold as pleasant. They see this way of the world expressed by their political respresentatives in government, by newspapers, by TV programmes, by family members, work colleagues… with no other horizon.

It doesn’t seem that hard, on the surface, to imagine a world in which the first response from residents of an area, following a horrific accident affecting Travellers, when told by their local council that their street would now be used for emergency accommodation, would be: how do we help get things set up? How do we make them comfortable and welcome and make sure their needs are met? In fact, if you actually believed the notion that there is such a thing as ‘Middle Ireland’, a world stocked with decent hardworking families who do their bit and look out for others, you may very well imagine that this is what would happen. It may be comforting, even, to imagine that such a thing exists. But when I talk with such people about, for example, why parents shouldn’t have to pay for schoolbooks, pointing out that it should be everyone’s responsibility to pay for these things, or why you shouldn’t have to pay for private health insurance because everyone should have access to the best of treatment as a matter of right, I see them recoil. I see them squirm, they look to the ground and I see that they feel such questions like a threat. And then comes the response: “yes, I know, but…”

I can get how anxiety to see a resolution in this case can lead people to focus their ire and disapproval towards those mounting the protest. Yet it is worth remembering that these people are acting out what people in positions of power and influence have shown to be acceptable. “Just a note to let you know that the McCarthy family will not be allocated a house in your area”, wrote Phil Hogan to constituents who did not want a Traveller family housed in their area back in September 2012. “Councillor Billy Ireland and I are glad to be of assistance in this matter.” Phil Hogan, who was Minister for the Environment at the time, did not lose his job. He was not brought to book for a racist abuse of power. He was appointed an EU Commissioner, paid over €25o,000 a year.

It’s easy to focus solely on moral reproach of the particular individuals involved. This has been the stance taken by certain Labour politicians whose attitude towards basic human rights and basic standards of housing and accommodation is ambivalent at best and utterly contemptuous at worst. This focus, on its own, can suggest there is a decent Middle Ireland out there full of right-thinking people who are categorically not racist and categorically not prejudiced toward Travellers. No such thing exists, and to pretend it does just reproduces the curtain-twitching individualism that keeps these problems alive.


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