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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 13, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    The Words We Use

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    While we’re all focussing on the economy and politics, our civic culture is gradually crumbling away. Maybe not so gradually.


    O’Connell Street, heart of the city (Photograph by Cyril Byrne)

    Last week we read about a decline in profits at Clery’s, the famously long-established department store on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. A senior manager mentioned “social problems” and “commercial begging” in the city centre as a contributory factor, discouraging people from coming into town. To read what he had to say, click here.

    Last time I ventured down that way, a few weeks back, it was about 7.30 in the evening. As I walked from from O’Connell Bridge to the Luas stop in nearby Middle Abbey Street, I observed what looked suspiciously like two drug deals taking place. You don’t peer into these proceedings too closely or you will get a very robust reaction. Should I have reported my suspicions to the Gardaí? By the time they got there, in the event that they regarded it as an unusual occurrence, the druggies would have moved along. In any case, the entire centre city is sprinkled with individuals who look very much like drug addicts, drug-dealers or both.

    Last night on the way from the office to my car, I was verbally abused by a total stranger on Townsend Street. Hard to say if the fellow was drugged or just drunk, maybe a bit of both. He crossed the road towards me, reciting the slogan: “If you f*** with me, I’ll f*** with you!” It was mildly alarming but he obviously decided he did not like the look of me after all and moved away.

    At another level, where drugs and drink don’t feature in any obvious way, the old norms and rules are gone out the window. Over the weekend, I travelled to a sporting fixture down the country. After a short while sitting in the stand out of the rain, I realised the fellow behind me was bellowing obscenities on a regular basis. Not just the F-word but C— and B—-x as well.

    Don’t get me wrong: I can turn the air blue with the best of them on occasion. But I generally don’t inflict this type of language on total strangers and the public at large. There were women and children in the vicinity also as this man kept up his barrage against the Referee and the players.

    Knowing it would be a fraught endeavour, I finally turned around and asked him to stop swearing for the sake of the women and children (also for my own sake, but I didn’t think that would cut any ice.)

    I need hardly say that a robust exchange occurred which concluded with said gentleman threatening to punch me in the nose – “glasses or no glasses”. I pointed out that a little girl was sitting right beside him. “That’s my granddaughter,” says he.

    But at least the guy stopped cursing, which was a considerable relief. But there were chaps on either side of me who both effed and blinded their way through the afternoon – more quietly and less oppressively I have to say.

    Back to Dublin then on the bus. It was a very nice journey apart from one thing. A chap right in front kept swearing into his mobile phone. “Why are you effin’ callin’ me, etc., etc.”

    I used to think it was just Dublin people but my weekend foray showed once more that it was people from all over. The three sources of swearing at the weekend GAA fixture were all from different counties.

    Should the media take some responsibility for this, particularly television? When I arrived home on Saturday night, a comedian on RTE was getting a great laugh from a huge audience as he joked in quite explicit terms about the influence of porn on 12-year-olds  (too explicit for this Blog anyway).

    In previous decades the fight against censorship was a noble one. Practically every Irish writer of note was banned by the prudes and religious fanatics for what nowadays – and even then – seems very mild indeed. But the wheel has turned full circle, the pendulum has swung the other way. And of course verbal violence is often a stepping-stone to violence of the physical kind.

    The frustrating thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any solution. Any politician or public figure who tried to resist the tide of foul language would probably be laughed at and  become a staple of the stand-up routines.

    All I can say is, in the words of the character in the film Network played by the late Peter Finch: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it any more.”

    While I’m at it, I was intrigued by the Clery’s executive’s use of the phrase “commercial begging”. This points to a phenomenon whose existence I have suspected for a long time. Instead of the spontaneous alms-seeker down on his luck, we seem to have a small army of fellows who are, in fact, begging entrepreneurs. They are very polite too – as though they had gone to Begging School. It must be difficult for tourists as they are constantly accosted on the streets – and then, when you think of the prices in some of the shops and restaurants!

    Another factor in city-centre decline, not mentioned by the man from Clery’s, is the phenomenon of unnecessary parking charges. Try to get on-street parking downtown on a Saturday and you will be put to the pin of your collar finding a space that isn’t subject to a substantial charge (€2.70 per hour, if memory serves). There is no justification for this – the streets are virtually deserted most of the time. The city-centre business people and their employees should kick up about this. And if they have already done so, they need to kick  up a whole lot more. There is a role for all those local councillors elected a few weeks back in a blaze of publicity.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      The key point in all of this is that of choice, all the individuals involved choose to speak and behave as they did.

      We even reached the point where simply expressing your dislike or disapproval is viewed as a form of censorship. Real censorship is preventing something from happening at all, expressing your own opinion about something that has already occurred is merely feedback. If someone says something that reflects negatively on them then the cry of “You’re oppressing me!” will go up.

      “I can do what I want” is the mantra of the day, or as it might be termed “the land of do as you please”. It’s probably not your cup of tea but Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta explores the progressive failure of citizens to take responsibility for their actions. The film is fun too, but a lot of the true meat of the ideas behind it are lost in the translation to the screen and a Hollywood screen at that. Anarchy requires a better type of person to succeed, a more responsible, a more honest with themselves type of individual than we currently have or are likely to have.

      There is an argument which I’m inclined to resist but which is all too seductive from the left and the right that human beings are not ready for democracy and the exercise of free will. The left would have us abdicate that free will to the state and accept single service providers who give us what the great and the good in the dreaded committee have deemed to be the appropriate options. The right would have choice available to only those they believe to be the right sort and deserving in some way.

      Look around us and see what we did as a free nation with the choices that were before us and tell me that all of the people or even close to a majority make good choices. And background and income levels are not so much of a factor as many might think. Selfishness is an intergenerational, class crossing mindset.

    • Vandala says:

      I know many people will be tired of hearing the perspective that follows, but I’ll throw it into the pot anyway.

      I left Dublin four years ago, chiefly because I found the aggression of people – both rich and poor – absolutely intolerable: I’d witness a half a dozen violent confrontations just walking around the city on a daily basis. What is striking about Irish people’s attitude to it is their complacency – they seem to shrug it off as if to suggest that every city is the same.

      Every city isn’t. I’ve lived in parts of Britain that have the reputation for being some of the most socially deprived areas in Europe and, still, it’s not a patch on the borderline psychotic behaviour you see in Dublin all the time.

      It’s blinkered of me to say this, I know, but sometimes it appears that most of the working class population are on heroin, while the middle class are so self-obsessed with their (now declining) wealth that they have lost any understanding of the value of manners.

      I was back home a few weeks ago and the situation just seems to be getting steadily worse. While it saddens me to imagine the prospect of never coming home to live there again – Dublin is my home town after all – it’s become an option I can no longer entertain.

    • Deaglán says:

      There’s a lot in what you say, Vandala. There is a lot of aggro in Dublin (and elsewhere in Ireland), along with a fatalism of the general population in response. This arises from fear of the consequences of getting involved and a feeling that there is no point in contacting the authorities in many situations. Why, for example, do we need to have bouncers on the doors of our pubs? In many other countries, such a thing would be inconceivable. What is it with this society? Is it the feeling on the part of many young people that you can’t go drinking unless you get fairly blotto? What is the origin of that? Is the apparent collapse of the Church’s authority and the decline of spirituality in our society leading to a decline in social mores? And why are there so few people over, say, 35 in town at the weekends? Are the people above that age afraid to go to the city centre on a Saturday night?

    • Aengus says:

      Young people go drinking to get blotto because they’ve been told that that’s what they are supposed to do – “everyone knows” that the Irish drink like fishes. What they don’t know is that in the 80′s, before the boom, Ireland had one of the lowest per capita rates of alcohol consumption in the EU. As disposable income (particularly for young adults) increased at a far greater rate than the price of alcohol, the availability of drink, and, more importantly, a concerted image making exercise that consistently told people that if they weren’t drinking, they weren’t having fun, led to the situation we find ourselves in today.

    • Liam says:

      Maybe the layout of the city is the problem. Is there too much social housing near the city centre compared to other cities?
      Other than that being an over-35, I’m not afraid being in the city centre in the evenings , but it is just more hassle and cost paying for parking. It has been years since I’ve had a meal in Dublin city and I prefer to go to the out-of-town cinemas.

    • Deaglán says:

      The shooting of the postman in Finglas marks a new low. Residents in the immediate area are getting no deliveries for the time being – who can blame the postal workers? http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/0714/anpost.html

    • paul m says:

      It would help Deaglán if you pointed out that it was an air rifle that he was hit with and not a fatal bullet. The phrase ‘shooting of’ usually lends weight to the idea that a person has had a fatal or near-fatal injury from a handgun.

      As for the violence in the city centre and the drug dealing you talk of – there was mention of a raid on locations around the city recently that was documented in the press, where the Gardaí lifted 80 people including those who had been dealing at locations near O’Connell St, the boardwalk and at the Custom House. This is a shocking state that the dealers had become so blasé as to pick such heavily-touristed areas to conduct business.

      So what does it say of the policing that is going on in the centre at the moment? Retrospective instead of proactive?

      As for the general public’s passivity, the determining factor here is the stories getting back of those who gotten involved to help out and have received near-life-threatening beatings for their efforts. A friend of mine chased someone from a shop who had robbed the till and was unable to catch the thief, when he eventually stopped running two lads on bikes went by him and were calling out to the lad who had just robbed the till. If he had caught the thief (broad daylight, city centre) he most certainly would have been hopped on by the two others as well as the culprit himself. Gardaí were called but the whole issue was a lost cause by then.

      But then if we go like the police state of the UK where CCTV outnumbers the population we would invoke Dan Sullivan’s V for Vendetta.

      Consequence seems to be the main problem here. Those who drink become violent and attack others give no second thought to their consequences. And there aren’t really any to make you stop and think. What we have is a very liberal system of punishment for attacking or robbing another individual. We hear of court judges giving probation because the client has recently enrolled in [insert plea bargain reform programme here], even though this is a second offence and, as we have seen, increasingly many of those on probation have gone out and reoffended.

      Case in point: the man receiving 14 years for attacking, beating and robbing the octagenarian in her own home, then returning to the scene to try conceal evidence of his presence. He was on probation for other assault crime. The biggest con in this situation is that he will receive parole for his good behaviour inside and possibly only serve a quarter of his time inside. So where is the incentive to take responsibility for your actions I ask you?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, at some point doesn’t a community have a responsibility to shop those who did this and to ensure that the authorities can prosecute them?

      I won’t win any friends with this notion but in a sense I’m merely playing devil’s advocate (he’s a hell of a client!). Since this happens again and again with buses and other public services and what we will hear is that “most of the kids round here are good kids”.

      So why not separate out the bad eggs? We know that most of the kids are good kids, the problem is that bad kids and, frankly, their parents, are indulged far too much. Perhaps what we need is a new form of housing specifically for those that won’t accept basic norms of behaviour. And this housing would involve restricted movement and access to the outside world. The Soviets did this sort of internal exile with dissidents as I recall.

      We could take one of the towns in the midlands that has been badly hit with empty housing and with some decent perimeter walling – CRH have some valuable experience with this from the Occupied Territories – we could make this a win-win for everyone!

    • Deaglán says:

      Can’t say I would fancy the internal exile on the Soviet model, Dan!

    • Vandala says:

      There’s very little discussion about what motivates these so-called “bad eggs”. It’s far too easy to blame it on the gargle – the kind of aggression we’re talking about is just as likely to happen when people are sober. Instead, I think we should be looking at:

      1) The decimation of inner-city working class communities in the 1970s.

      2) The lack of authority figures, particularly for young men. Absent or feckless fathers who couldn’t give a damn about instilling some notion of right and wrong.

      3) The lack of Irish role models in general. Most of the people we’re talking about have no other heroes other than charlatans from gangster rap.

      4) The political system, with all of the cronyism that comes with it. The fish rots from the head.

      5) Functional illiteracy…still shockingly high in Ireland. There’s nothing like being unable to read to shut you out from society.

      6) Heroin. Not only its devastating effect on individuals, families and communities, but also the fact that, for many, selling the stuff seems like the most sensible way to achieve the lifestyle mentioned in 3. Also, the economics of drug dealing aren’t that different from 4.

      7) Borderline personality disorder. I’m not much for diagnosing the oddities of personality as a “dysfunction”, but the levels of distortion we are talking about here cannot be explained in rational terms – zero empathy, zero conscience, limited to no cognitive functions, chronic lack of self esteem, no ability to manage frustration or embarrassment, extremely violent tendencies, etc. Call it evil or call it this:


      The point is, if you have a conversation with the kind of people we’re talking about, you’ll find that they view the “civilian” population as “rats”. The rats are the people that are preventing them from getting on in life – supposedly depriving them of a home, a means of income, a lifestyle. So, it’s absolutely fine to show them who’s boss. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t even create any kind of solidarity – an honour amongst thieves. Instead, the “bad eggs” are thoughtlessly violent, foolishly so, and everyone else is terrified of them – you can’t reason with a psychotic.

      So, this kind of two-tiered society has evolved, particularly in Dublin, where these smug middle class kids casually dismiss northsiders as “scumbags” and “scangers”, and both “sides” hate each other with a kind of fury I have never seen before. In the meantime, the rest of us, who are just trying to live a relatively quiet life, have to sufffer the indignity of dirty looks from bouncers when we go in to buy bread in the Centra.

      The ship is going down and it’s every man for himself.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Obviously, Deaglán, as a member of the intelligentsia and provided you remained a party member in good standing you would be ok. Subject to a periodic review of course.

      Also, Paul M, it’s Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. I merely read the thing.

    • Deaglán says:

      There has to be a halfway house between authorititarianism and surrender. Tony Blair’s formula, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was quite good. Whether he lived up to it, is another matter.
      The decline in the spiritual authority of the Church against a background of increasing globalisation and integration into Greed Is Good international capitalism probably have a major role in our problems. The cheapness of offlicence drink is another factor.

    • Liam says:

      What about the general nature of the welfare state, when else in history have the indolent been indulged to such an extent that whole generations can go through life without working? It would seem logical that dysfunctional behaviour would be the norm.

    • Francois says:

      Many excellent points made already, though I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea of internal exile!
      I think it’s a multi-layered issue. On one level, there is a section of society that is relatively disadvantaged compared to the professional and university-educated middle classes. On another level, a huge and growing number of these people grow up without the influnce of a father-figure and the discipline that that is proven to bring to a child’s life. In such situations it’s much less likely for a child to learn the norms of discipline and respect, and to grow up with the behavioural problems we see everywhere today.
      Another aspect is, alluded to by Deaglán , is the vacuum of moral guidance since the decline of influence from the Church. For all its undoubted faults, it also provided a framework for society to hang on to. And in its current decline nothing else has stepped in to fill the gaps. There is certainly no sense of leadership from politicians, but perhaps even if they did try to lead the way, I’m sure many would take offence. For many these days, they are their own god!
      Finally, on a more immediate level, the abuse of drink undoubtedly has a huge role to play in the violence and nasty atmosphere that is apparent to anyone who spends time in the city centre, especially late at night. This is born of our attitude to drink as a society, and is probably something we can tackle in the relatively short term. There should be an immediate ban on all advertising of alcohol. There should be an immediate ban on the sponsorship of sporting or other cultural events – we need to get away from the self-mythologising of certain stouts for example! These efforts will have an influence on the very young in our society straight away. We also need to end the cosy relationship that the vintners association has with several holders of public office – for example, the defeat of the café bar bill a few years ago was a shameful exercise. The vintners association should have no part to play in the formulation of policy in this area, and should not be invited to the table with their vested commercial interests.

    • Deaglán says:

      I’m sure the vintners would have a different perspective! If any of them are reading these comments, they are very welcome to respond.
      As I write this, another violent rape case involving an elderly victim is being reported on the radio. The easy access to drugs and drinks on the one hand and the decline in moral leadership in the country on the other are probably the key factors in our social decline. Maybe we need a latter-day Father Matthew to lead a crusade.

    • Eoin says:

      I think that the Educational system is a huge problem in all this.

      Students are not being taught how to critically think about life and the world.

      I think we are a lost ship in the ocean morally/socially, a society where we don’t know whether to shake hands with friends, or hug them, or just say hi. Here i think the loss of our language also meant the loss of our customs…or were we always without culture?

      We have come from a cold violent past, my parents don’t talk about their lives, more about the price of cabbage. Embarrassment to express true emotions is so sad, adults more like kids

      But we can change it. We have to re-align ourselves with our old customs before the English language came and rediscover ourselves and incorporate it into our education system.

      The answer lies in our language

      Eoin, County Cork

    • dealga says:

      Some random opinions:

      My instinct is to be naturally sceptical of any claim of a decline in morals. It is a truism that every generation seems to accuse the society it lives in of that.

      My instinct is also to dismiss the arguments of those who wistfully look back to a better time when neighbours could leave their doors unlocked and all the rest of that guff.

      The fact is that right up until 15 years ago the Irish people most likely to be guilty of anti-social or criminal behaviour – young adult males – were also the most likely to either emigrate or fight and die in wars. Furthermore such attittudes ignore the domestic violence and abuse of children that was both rife and unreported, specifically because of the sort of society we had. Finally the Ireland of the 1800s and early 1900s were particularly violent times. A low murder rate in the middle decades of the last century is used to pretend that all was rosy in the past and that only now is the fabric of society breaking down. It’s true you might not have risked being mugged at 2am in the city centre in 1966 but you were far more at risk of being a victim of an abusive father/spouse or priest.

      It is also too easy to label a particular social class of people as being uniquely guilty of anti-social or violent behaviour. Education and wealth are not a guarantee of good behaviour (and a lack thereof not a guarantee of bad behaviour) yet that is exactly what is sub-consciously assumed.

      There is also a silent tolerance for violence in this country and that’s not a new thing. Look at the reaction to any dust-up in Gaelic Games and Rugby. Look at the animalistic responses of approval from rugby fans as two men collide with organ pulverising force. Look at the ambivalence shown towards those willing to settle their differences with their fists and the respect shown ‘hardmen’. Look at the history of faction fighting. Simply put, too many of us have a sneaking regard for those who scrap.

      My belief is, however, that we are suffering a decline in civility, in manners. Too many people are not as courteous as they should be and let pre-existing prejudices and intolerances colour their dealings with others. There’s nothing wrong with being civil, regardless of your private opinions of the person you’re dealing with. Too many of us are too quick to label other people as ‘things’ rather than people.

    • Deaglán says:

      Obviously we have to guard against idealising past eras in comparison with our own. But the murder-rate must be a lot higher now than, say, 40 or 50 years ago. A single murder could convulse Irish society in those days and the media would be full of it for weeks on end. The casual taking of human life now is particularly shocking. Do these young men see themselves as real-life versions of the Al Pacino character in Scarface? Have some movies, albeit unintentionally, contributed to the glorification of gangsters as role-models?

    • Paul says:

      Excellent post Deaglan – agree with everything in it – from the menance of venturing down O’Connell Street to language used at GAA matchtes. I’m originally from rural Munster and the use of language when I go home shocks me – it’s worse than Dublin because it pervades all classes. I’d have to think twice about bringing my young nephews/nieces to matches and my mother is often uncomfortable at them.

    • Deaglán says:

      On the day in question, Wexford were playing Roscommon in football and Limerick in hurling. I had supporters of all three teams sitting on each side and behind me – all effing and blinding!

    • John Heavey says:

      Hard not to attribute the cynicism and alienation from society to our corrupt, venal, visionless politicians especially FF. Haughey started the rot. In a generation of swine the one-eyed pig is king.

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