‘Bertie’s Children’: what the 18-year-olds of Ireland think

The 2016 election will let them vote for the first time. So how do today’s 18-year-olds feel about politics, sexuality, boom and bust, and the future?

Born into the boom but plunged into an economic bust during their teenage years, Ireland’s 18-year-olds will be able to vote in a general election for the first time in the coming weeks. They do so against the backdrop of a recovering economy.

They could be termed Bertie’s Children, born in 1997, the year the former taoiseach took office and the beginning of a 14-year period of Fianna Fáil-led governments. Until they were 10 they lived in a country of plenty. But after the devastating crash and the international bailout many families experienced financial stress and hardship. How did that affect them, if at all? What do they think of Ireland, and its political parties, now? Will they vote? And, if so, for whom?

The Irish Times has sought the opinions of eight young men and women born in 1997, from a variety of backgrounds and from across Ireland.

Richard Layte, professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, is a director of the Growing Up in Ireland study, which the Government has commissioned to follow the lives of a group of children and their families for several years.

Although those in his study's sample have yet to turn 18, Layte has been informed by the research of Glen Elder, whose seminal Children of the Great Depression examined the lives of those who experienced the Depression-era United States as children.

“Glen Elder wanted to see if there were some benefits of recession,” says Layte. “They did indeed see a ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ effect. American kids from middle-class households, and from working class homes too – those who experienced some recession but hadn’t been dropped off a cliff – they actually seemed to benefit from it. And it made them a bit more robust. It made them more able to survive other experiences later in life.”

He says Elder’s work showed that men, in particular, who grew up in the Depression showed an aversion to risk in later life. “They went for the sure thing in their careers. It was shaping their choices.”

A common thread among the 18-year-olds who have spoken to The Irish Times is an emphasis on education as protection from future recessions. Many see another bust as inevitable but regard a good education and a money-saving habit as necessary shields against economic shocks.

Clive Byrne of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has noticed a difference between those leaving school during the boom and 18-year-olds of recent years.

“The younger people would have changed, certainly in the last five years. Before that you would have had the Celtic Tiger era, when the children saw no bounds to the possibilities of their lives, and many would have become ‘mé féiners’.

“It would have changed ever so slightly in the last five years because of the downturn. In recent times people would have been far more willing to get involved in social-outreach programmes and would have been more concerned about issues such as housing the homeless.”

Áine Hyland, emeritus professor of education at University College Cork, agrees. “The biggest change would have been that the students coming in the mid-1990s were coming in confident there would be employment for them. There was a great confidence they would be employed in Ireland.”

A number of The Irish Times's group of 18-year-olds are involved in organisations such as Foróige and Youth Work Ireland, which include social programmes.

Clive Byrne also points out that more young people are staying at school as long as possible.“Since the economic downturn our second-level retention has gone above 90 per cent. Those kids who start in the system are there aged four and stay through to the end.”

This was not the case in the early years of the 21st century, when the retention rate was just 80 per cent. Many dropped out to take jobs that were unskilled and so left themselves vulnerable once the crash came.

Opinions about the effectiveness and value of politics vary, as does engagement with the political process. That is to be expected among this age group, who rarely express a strong preference for a party or candidate in the upcoming election.

In the last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll, taken in November, people aged between 18 and 24 favoured Sinn Féin above all other parties. Thirty-one per cent chose Gerry Adams's party, against 19 per cent for Fianna Fáil, 23 per cent for Fine Gael, 2 per cent for Labour and 25 per cent for Independents and others.

But for Bertie's Children the standout political event of their formative years was last year's marriage-equality referendum. Even though none of the eight young adults The Irish Times has interviewed was entitled to vote last May, all say it was an event that ushered in historic change, made them proud to be Irish and was a marker for the kind of country they want Ireland to be.

The group are: Eabha Cronin, from Washington Street in Dublin 8, a first-year dentistry student at Trinity College Dublin; Fintan O’Dwyer, living in Templemore, Co Tipperary, studying the Leaving Cert Applied at Templemore College of Further Education; Mary Doherty, a Leaving Certificate student from Carndonagh, Co Donegal; Mark Farrell, from Grange, Co Sligo, who works in construction with his father and is saving for third-level education; Luke Kane, from Kilmacud, who goes to a south Dublin secondary school; Seán Devers, a Leaving Certificate student at St Muredach’s College, in Ballina, Co Mayo; Molly Gallagher, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, who is working in retail and intends to re-enter third-level education next year; Aishling O’Keeffe, from Nad, Co Cork, studying for her Leaving Certificate at Scoil Mhuire in Kanturk, Co Cork.

What do you remember about the boom?

Mary: We have been away now in a long time, but thereused to be holidays abroad and there was a bit more money for shopping in Derry at the weekend, whereas now it's not as much.

Mark: We used to always get a good few things at Christmas, but as I was growing up it got smaller and smaller. I didn't mind, but when I was about 14 I came to the realisation that money was tight. It finally clicked as to why everything was getting smaller.

Seán: Everyone used to be going on holidays once a year. I remember Mum used to work and you could ask for anything. I might see something in a shop window; they'd walk in and they'd buy it.

What do you remember about the bust?

Eabha: I didn't know any different. In my family we've been fine. It was never a huge deal, but you notice some things and the people around you. People don't go out and splurge as much. Lifestyle changes. You'd notice it when you were in the start of secondary school or end of primary school, and you were in Dundrum or wherever, and there would be more people there. Your friends would just have more change in their pocket, and that started decreasing.

Mark: You wouldn't ever really notice it, but there would be days when my dad was stressed. When I was younger you didn't really pass any heed. You'd just leave him be and see if he cheered up.

Fintan: I saw a big, big difference. Local shops were closing. People were getting frustrated; there were no outlets. What support is there for them?

Mary: The whole development that came out of the boom didn't really hit us, because we were so far away. A lot of estates went up, and ghost estates; there's nothing in them. There are still a lot of empty shops and charity shops. There is a kind of a whole generation missing. There was a stage in particular over in west Donegal, Gweedore in particular, where three teachers left in one week because they couldn't get jobs.

Seán: I remember we'd be walking through the sitting room when the budget would be on and you wouldn't have a clue. You'd see your parents looking glum, and you'd be like: "Why is Mammy sad?" And then you'd try and cheer up your parents, because that's what you do.

Molly: I don't really remember it as us having loads of money, but I remember, when the crash came, that things tightened up a lot. I just remember everyone saying there is a recession. I didn't really understand it. I noticed we weren't splurging on our shopping any more; we were getting the practical stuff.

Aishling: The bust didn't really affect me. We were always fairly stable; both my parents are working. I grew up on a farm. We have about 100 cows. We all know how to milk cows, how to drive a tractor; we've all done the silage. We've all taken part.

Do you think things are getting better?

Mary: Even up here, [in Co Donegal,] places are opening up and staying open. There is a wee cafe that has opened. It was in a van and then it was a little tiny shop. It's expanding as opposed to closing.

Mark: It is starting to pick up, but it is very slow. In the boom times my da could have had two or three jobs at a time, and he could have had six people working for him. Now it's down to me, another fella and another fella and my dad. Even when I go into [Sligo] town I see the pick-up.

Molly: Things are better now than they were a few years ago, but I think our generation are going to find it a lot harder than our parents did. Coming out of college, there aren't that many jobs. If I went through college and I finished I'd probably still be working in retail. It's very hard to get into a good career.

Aishling: Yeah, you can see every day there's more jobs being created.

Are you interested in politics?

Fintan: People think politics isn't a big thing, but it is. You are buying clothes in Penneys or Dunnes Stores

and you are paying VAT. Those decisions impact you then. A lot people want change, but they don’t want to do anything.

Mary: We never see the benefit of it [in Co Donegal] . What are you voting for? What have they ever done? I have never seen anything they have done, anyway. There is not many who have much of an interest. The marriage referendum changed it a lot for young people. They saw what was happening. For a lot of people it was, like, 'Marriage is not the same as religion.' I wasn't old enough to vote. I really, really wanted to. So happy. I was so glad it went through.

Seán: I have an interest in politics on certain topics, and other things I wouldn't care about. The marriage referendum . . . I wasn't old enough – I was only 17 – but I was out there, making sure everybody I knew was out there voting Yes. Everybody in the country has the right to marry the person [they] love.

Molly: I wouldn't really follow the elections, but the likes of marriage equality, I followed that. I was a few months too young; I was raging that I didn't get to vote, because that was a part of history. I think it made a lot of people proud to be Irish, that Ireland was changing in a good way.

Eabha: The marriage referendum was a really big one. There were massive campaigns over that. The water charges and things, they were brought in for a reason; they are a logical thing to bring in.

Seán: Nowadays you can say "I'm gay" and nobody actually cares. Well, young people don't care. You could walk into our school, someone could be gay and you wouldn't even know.

Mark: I wish I could have said Yes, but too late, too late. My girlfriend turned 18 in the April, and she just got registered and voted. That was a big thing. Our generation are more open. Having seen the Yes vote, I was happy for my friends who were bisexual, homosexual.

Aishling: It's major for the country, the first country in the world. It's a good step; it's a big step. I know a lot of people it would have affected. This Government will be remembered for it. It was a big step.

Luke: It is very important what happened with the marriage referendum last year. That was very important, because it is showing, in a sense, that it doesn't matter who you love, once you are happy with the person.

What else should change?

Mary: I think the abortion one needs to be dealt with. I think I am pro-choice, but I am not too sure. I can see both arguments, but I think I am pro-choice. It's the church that's ruling that, and that needs to change.

Luke: If someone comes out as trans, or someone comes out as gay or lesbian or whatever, there is no big "What?". There is lack of education. In schools, maybe in fifth or sixth class, there should be a lesson or a talk on gender identity or sexuality. From as far back as I remember I have always wished to be a boy, and I never really came out because there was no one around me, but I felt like I was the only person in the world who felt like this. Now it is really great to have that facility [in BelongTo, a support organisation for LGBT youth]. I have only had two people who don't accept me. You do hear some horror stories. I know people whose parents won't accept them. They say it is just a phase or whatever.

Will you vote in the election? If so, how?

Eabha: I have never voted before. It's growing, my interest. There are general ideas of parties I like. You know, like Labour. I like the idea of the Green Party: they have good intentions. Fine Gael, they're not doing too bad at the moment.

Luke: I'll probably look into it a bit more. It depends as well. I might have to research it.

Fintan: Certain politicians promised things they didn't come through on. I haven't decided yet. I do have my eyes on a party. Definitely there is a party that sticks out there for a lot of young people now. There is a lot of crony politics still out there. If Sinn Féin answers that . . .

Mary: A lot of people would say vote for the local man, because it is better to have a local TD than not have a local TD, but a lot of people say they vote for Sinn Féin because they are good ones to get in touch with. I will definitely vote. It's not that I haven't thought about it; it's just that there is not enough effort with young people to get them involved.

Mark: I was looking into Fianna Fáil for a bit. Fianna Fáil are for getting rid of water charges, and a lot of families are being put under pressure for the water charges. Other than that, I haven't really looked into it.

Seán: [The Fianna Fáil TD] Dara Calleary does a lot for the town of Ballina. I'd vote for him rather than the party. I have to admit Enda Kenny's done a good job in mopping up the other fellas' mess. But I'd still vote for Dara.

Aishling: Well, they haven't come canvassing at all yet to my area, but the two most local would be Áine Collins and John Paul O'Shea. They'd be the most local to me, but I don't really know who I'll vote for yet.

Are there opportunities for young people?

Fintan: There are so many opportunities out there in the world, and you just have to reach out with both hands and take them. Hopefully I'll get to do law and politics in WIT. We have a guidance counsellor, and through social workers we're sorting things out at the moment. I need to leave my carer when I'm 19, and that hasn't happened. I am in the care of Tusla and the HSE. I left home when I was 16, more over a disagreement than anything. Roscrea didn't really have anything for me; the prospects for Roscrea would't be great. It was in the news there last year with the drugs problems. That is something I didn't want. There is a high level of suicide there. Two friends took their lives; it wasn't a friendly place to be around. I'll be 19 in June, and there is absolutely no housing available in Templemore or Tipperary for young people. The guards is something I want to do; definitely I will look into it. But when you compare the guards to the dole, why work? Why not sit on the couch and go off on your holidays every year? I wouldn't be that type of person; I want to make something of myself.

Luke: Yes, definitely. Just because I am transgender doesn't mean . . . You know, there should be no barriers. There is no difference between being trans and being cisgender [someone who is not transgender]. There are loads of opportunities out there.

Is education expensive?

Mark: I didn't even apply for a CAO. I just worried myself out of it. What if I don't get the grant? What if I don't get the loan? Go to college and I don't know how to pay for it? The teacher begged me to apply for it. She was my career-guidance teacher, but once I explained everything to her she understood. I didn't want to put the pressure on my parents. I wanted to finance myself.

Mary: It is so expensive to go to college. It's the guts of 10 grand a year for four years if I want to go to Dublin to college. That's fees, accommodation – about seven grand a year – and then living in Dublin.

What would you do if you were taoiseach?

Fintan: I'd like to see more mixed minority schools. Direct provision is absolutely scandalous. They are living in mobile homes outside Athlone. They are getting €9.30- something a week.

Mark: I would put more money into the likes of public services: suicide prevention, mental health. Especially with our generation, because we all have the idea that everything is going to go pear-shaped again.

What difficulties are there for your age group?

Fintan: Ireland has a long history of mental-health issues, and I suppose it is a stigma. A lot of people will just tell you to man up. That's not the attitude to have, a men-don't-cry kind of thing. It's not easy to eat healthily. It's €5 for astudent deal in McDonald's but €5 for a punnet of strawberries in Tesco.

What has boom and bust taught your generation?

Eabha: Now that people know what can happen it has definitely made an impact on them. I suppose you learn from mistakes or from previous experiences, especially those it affected. I was a child at the time, so it didn't affect me, but I know about it now.

Mark: When I was younger, if I had money there'd be a hole in my pocket. I'd be wanting to burn it. But now, since two years ago I noticed everything starting slowing down, I started putting my money away.

Molly: A lot of people became dependent on welfare and kind of got lazy. A lot of people would just sit on the dole. In the boom everyone was happy to have a job, because they got better money and it was easier to have a job back then. But now people have grown lazy and dependent on people giving them their money rather than working on it. I think it was a benefit to us to a certain degree, because we learned how to be smart with our money and how to work for our money, and it wasn't going to come to us easy.

Aishling: A lot of people are more aware now you have to look out for everyone. A lot of people were just looking out for themselves. People know now you have to be careful. You're going to be accountable for everything you do. Things change.

Fintan: There are a lot of one-parent families nowadays, there were a lot of divorces at the time. It put pressure on mothers and fathers, yes, and their children, definitely.

Will we see another bust?

Eabha: That is how it works. There will be highs and lows and it will fluctuate a lot. But I think, in general, especially for the next time around, people will be more conscious of what they are doing, what they are spending, what's happening in the economy, because they will take more notice of it, because they have learned from last time. But some of that will go over people's heads, and they'll say: 'We'll be fine this time, we'll be fine.'

Seán: There's always a boom, and at some point it will just peter out and go into recession again. It's a vicious circle. You have to be prepared for it.

Aishling: Sure, the Celtic Tiger, nobody expected it. Everyone was happy out buying things, spending whatever they wanted and building houses like there was no tomorrow. Next thing the country was broke and people had nothing. It can turn at the drop of a hat, so you just have to be careful and mind what you have.

Do you think this Government has done a good job?

Mary: They've done their best. They have done what they could in the situation they were given. They took it up straight after a crash. They mightn't have done it perfect, but they did what they could.

Are you optimistic?

Seán: There definitely is a sense of optimism in my year about the future.

Eabha: It was bad, and you can tell it is improving, but people are still wary. They don't want to be too optimistic and go crazy, blow it out of proportion.

Mary: I am optimistic for my own future, because I know I will do what it takes to make it what I want.

Mark: Yes and no. We went from good to bad in such a short time: it could easily change. That's what scares me. That's why people of our generation expect things to stay good for a while and then go bad.