Having been brought up in the class-ridden UK of the 1980s, I assumed that the Irish were somehow less consumed by their place in the social order. Living and working in Limerick over the last 20 years has changed my mind. Our city is a fractured space, with deep divisions evident across many walks of life.
In terms of the urban geography, for a city of its size, the gulf between the poorer areas of the city and the more affluent neighbourhoods is truly shocking. As something of an outsider, the language used to describe those more deprived areas of the city is also disturbing. I am sure you can all reel off the descriptors I am talking about. This kind of apartheid extends beyond home addresses and includes schools, where a sophisticated and opaque set of norms ensure that nice middle class kids do not have to share classrooms with the riff-raff.
For a long time, the University of Limerick – out in the affluent suburb of Castletroy – turned up its collar to the city. How many times over the years have I heard the argument that the University is held back by its connection to the city – and how many times have I heard a working class Limerick city accent in our University? Thankfully, this is changing. The middle class of Limerick talk about their own city much like London football fans chant about the North of England – deprived and depraved. At times, it would put you in mind of the large US cities where visitors are advised not to walk through certain areas of the city, even in broad daylight. We say the same here – and this is a city of just 100,000 citizens. Somehow this extraordinary situation has become our normal.
It’s all there to see on a Saturday morning on William Street. The uniforms marking out the social position of our young people: the white trainers, the grey trackies, the tied-up hair, the fake tan. My favourite piece of working class resistance is the outside pyjamas, the ultimate jibe at the middle class. You want feckless – I’ll give you feckless. They know how they are perceived. The averted eyes, the almost imperceptible reach for the handbag. Meanwhile, in the Milk Market, all is good in the world of artisan food and fair trade coffee.
Social spaces are created to attract and to repel, to draw in the right type of clientele and to exclude others. It’s much more than simply the ‘price point’, although that is an important part of the messaging that screams you’re not welcome here! Its goes deeper still. The privileged have many strategies for enforcing exclusivity. Think about the dissonance created when working class accents are employed to describe art or philosophy. Say “dialectic materialism” in a strong Limerick accent and you can only be having a laugh. The Rubberbandits are an interesting intervention in this regard.
Still, the dress code at the opera house, the social niceties of the theatre and of course, the dreaded superciliousness of the wine waiter as he checks out your attire before suggesting a suitable red, all represent a psychological trip wire for the less well-heeled. The never ending re-runs of Only Fools and Horses play to our appetite for laughing at poor people getting beyond their station, with Del Boy’s tragic attempts at injecting a bit of class into his life, be it the crème de menthe in the dodgy boozer or his sad forays into the French language.
The well-meaning, but somewhat heartless proposal to impose minimum alcohol pricing will mean that we may all have to move on to crème de menthe, or a decent Bordeaux perhaps. Yet another stressor in the lives of the poor imposed by middle class professionals. An evidence-based intervention, apparently…
Darren McGarvey’s recently published book Poverty Safari argues that these high levels of stress are the defining characteristic of poverty. The precarious existence – where there is very little light at the end of the tunnel – breaks people down. Our brains can only deal with a finite amount of stress before we start to get ill. Many of these stresses are related to poverty: not being able to provide for children, not managing to pay bills, falling into debt, living in areas of high crime and having tenuous jobs all add to the toxic mix. We would do well not to think of this as a minor problem or something that exists at the margins. Independent think tank Social Justice Ireland puts the number of people living in poverty or managing on less than €208 a week in Ireland at 750,000. Children growing up in poverty or at risk of poverty are extremely vulnerable to the stress poverty carries in its wake and so we are likely to be dealing with the legacy for some time to come.
This week saw the announcing of a major investment in Limerick by European financial institutions. Some €185 million is to be invested in the city to transform the Opera Centre. The plans look impressive, but, that said, we need to create an urban environment that is welcoming to all our citizens.
The economics may suggest high end retail but the legacy of a divided city suggests that the redevelopment should produce an urban environment that is inclusive and welcoming of all social stratums. On a personal level too, I think we need to be more mindful of how we treat the less fortunate, or the myriad (at times unconscious) ways we seek to make others uncomfortable. It could be as simple as when we are out and we hear that accent we respond in a way that does not send out the message that ‘you are not welcome in my presence’. The liberal left are quick to judge those who they see as creating a less-than-hospitable environment for women or people of colour – but we – and I include myself here – are often guilty of seeking to exclude the poor from our lives.