Irish Lives: the ‘Downturn Diaries’ revisited

In early 2010 The Irish Times asked a group of people to record their fortunes in recession-hit Ireland. Some were badly hit by the downturn but hoped things would get better. Others were just starting out in careers and feared having to emigrate. So how has reality matched up to expectation? These are the accounts of three of the original participants


Maura O’Keeffe
Widower, 69

A few years ago I had money saved for a rainy day. But all those rainy days have come and gone. Whatever savings I had are long since depleted.

Everything is so expensive over the past few years: property taxes, septic tank fees and water charges are on the way. Then, there’s the cost of oil and petrol.

It’s not a surprise to hear some older people are just going to bed early, to avoid spending money on electricity and heating. I do lots of things to economise. I’ll cook enough in one go to make food for few days worth of meals. I don’t go in the car to shop as much to save on petrol. The Government isn’t helping. They’re propping up the banks and then making us all pay. They think that by knocking bits off entitlements and raising taxes we won’t notice. My health has been deteriorating over the years. I’ve had problems with my shoulder and my arm. My back gives me a lot of trouble, but I’m still on my feet, thank God.

I can’t get a bus – I live in the countryside – so I’m reliant on the car. It’s a 15-year-old. It does about 25 miles to the gallon, so I try to use it as sparingly as possible.

They say unemployment is falling. Of course it is – look at all the young people emigrating. The sad thing is that many leave and they won’t come home. They’ll get married and find jobs over there.

We’re facing into another budget and there’s talk about cutting the pension. If they do, the grey-haired brigade will be out in force – just like we were when they tried to axe the medical card.

I’m a volunteer on the Senior Helpline (1850 440 444) and you become aware of all the kinds of problems out there. You hear about loneliness and suicide. You hear about families trying to borrow money from their parents, who often can’t afford it. This can cause all sorts of problems. At least the weather has been good. It’s lifted our spirits over the summer.

Ashling O’Regan
Student social worker, 25

I’m glad to say things are really working out. I finished my master’s in social science at UCD and secured a job as a social worker. It’s a temporary post, but it has the potential of full-time work.

Emigration is the only option for a lot of people my age. A growing number of people in my class or friends have gone abroad to test the waters. It’s a fact of life, these days. It’s worked out for some, not for others.

As for myself, I’d prefer to stay at home. I would like to travel the world some day, but this is home.

Going back to college to do a master’s was tough. It was completely different to being an undergraduate. You’re paying for the course.

There’s transport costs, bills, rent. The list goes on. I found it much more challenging in that sense. On top of that, you’re trying to get some work on evenings, weekends or mid-term.

Looking back, I wonder how I got through it all. I suppose you just keep your head down and work through it. I’m now renting a place with friends, so it’s nice to feel independent and to share a place with like-minded people.

People say social work must be a very tough job. It is challenging, but it’s very rewarding as well. Sometimes, it can be the smallest of things – knowing that you’ve had a positive influence on a person’s life, whether they know it or not.

As for the future, I do worry about what it holds for the people I work with and for. There are a lot of vulnerable people out there and I worry about the impact of spending cuts.

The last few budgets have really affected people. It doesn’t sound like it will get any better. I just hope that policymakers make the right choices.

There are some ripples of positivity. It’s too early to see if they will amount to much. In the meantime, we’ve just got to ride the wave and hope for the best.

Ann Elizabeth Guan
Care worker, 56

I’m finally an Irish citizen. I’m been working here for almost 10 years on a work permit, which means you are reliant on your employer to stay here.

Now that I have citizenship, it means I have much more free- dom. I can move from job to job, without worrying that I will have to leave. Things are finally getting a bit easier. I have four children at home – all adults – who live with my mother. She is 84.

I have been spending money for their education, for food, but also to pay the mortgage on the house and help care for my mother. There isn’t the kind of social safety net at home that there is in Europe, so you have to pay for everything.

But my children are finished education and are now able to contribute money as well. It means I have enough now to save some money for myself.

Money can still be tight. I earn a modest salary as a carer compared to what I used to earn. It’s not much above the minimum wage, but I feel lucky. I’m working full-time, Monday to Friday.

So many people are unemployed, which is very difficult – especially for younger people leaving education.

The minimum wage is very important. It helps to prevent exploitation. It means people earn a living wage. That’s very important. I am careful how I spend my money.

I have a simple lifestyle. I stay home a lot, cooking and cleaning. I do a lot of sewing and knitting as well. I feel homesick sometimes, but my priority is my partner, who is an Irish man. My family at home in the Philippines are delighted I am now an Irish citizen, but they say to me, ‘don’t forget to come home, now!’

I will go home, but I see my future here now. Maybe one day my children might be able to come over and join me here.

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