Another time, another census

 

RADIO REVIEW:THE CENSUS painted a familiar picture. The country was racked by economic hardship, blighted by emigration and in the grip of social upheaval. This was a snapshot not of contemporary Ireland, however, but of life a century ago. Unsurprisingly, as Myles Dungan and his guests analysed the 1911 census on The History Show(RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), a common refrain was that some things never change.

Morning Ireland

The archivist Catriona Crowe and the historians Paul Rouse and Will Murphy used the census information to re-create the contours of Irish life at the time. But as Dungan’s guests got down to detail it was clear that everyday life in Ireland has changed utterly. The professional and middle classes, as well as the Anglo-Irish elite, employed huge numbers of servants: there were 28,000 servants in Dublin. The poor, meanwhile, lived in unimaginable poverty. Rouse told how 26,000 families lived in the tenements of inner Dublin, with 20,000 of those inhabiting single-room dwellings. In such conditions infant mortality in particular reached epidemic proportions. One family, the Connors, had 11 children, of whom six died prematurely. Meanwhile, 16 of the capital’s worst slum landlords were employees of Dublin Corporation. “Nothing has changed,” Crowe remarked ruefully.

There was little hint of the upheavals that would soon overwhelm the country. The most prominent agitators against the census were not militant nationalists but suffragettes, many of whom boycotted the survey. Indeed, when

King George V visited Ireland that year, he met with little hostility, according to Murphy: aside from a dissenting pamphlet by one James Connolly most people were “curious”, with large crowds greeting the monarch. History is not pre-ordained: Dungan’s fascinating show was a salutary reminder that one never knows what is around the corner.

Future historians may be able to build up a similarly vivid portrait of our era using last week’s census, but for some it was an arid exercise. On Monday a listener to The Ray D’Arcy Show(Today FM, weekdays) texted in to complain that the questionnaire did not ask how long he had struggled to find work. It was a view shared by guest host Anton Savage, standing in for D’Arcy. Savage carped that the population survey was “frankly stuffy”.

Luckily, Savage had the results from the show’s online “alternative census”, apparently filled in by more than 15,000 people, on hand. Casual drug use is seemingly widespread, with 70 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women saying they had tried marijuana. The same proportion of respondents admitted blacking out from alcohol, while only 1 per cent had never drunk. A quarter, meanwhile, had been unfaithful to their partners. It was hardly sensational stuff but nonetheless seemed to confirm how much Irish society has changed.

What most surprised Savage was the survey’s suggestion that 88 per cent of people were still happy, despite the downturn. As Savage marshalled proceedings wryly (he is, seemingly, one of the 92 per cent of males who enjoy the “extra freedom” of boxer shorts) it provided a breezy yet enlightening glimpse of modern Ireland.

Wednesday’s Today with Pat Kenny(RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) provided a more less heartening illustration of contemporary mores. The economist Jim Power and the mortgage broker Karl Deeter were in the studio to discuss AIB’s tentative debt-forgiveness proposals for distressed mortgage holders.

Power was sceptical about banks forgiving the mortgage debt of those in arrears, as the taxpayer would ultimately have to pay, and cash-strapped businesses would lose out on funds. He was worried about the issue of moral hazard: why the debts of some should be written off while others, perhaps more prudent, continued to pay.

“Jim, you’re doing a fine job of telling us what’s wrong with it, but not giving us a solution,” said Deeter. Power, who pointedly remarked that mortgage brokers deserved blame for the downturn as well as banks, proposed setting aside some debt for five years, which would incentivise people to “make their situation better”, rather overlooking the possibility that jobs may still prove elusive.

It was reminiscent of Norman Tebbit’s advice that the jobless get “on your bike”. Power, who in 2007 was defending the bank system, seemed less bothered by the moral hazard of the bank bailout than by a bailout of homeowners. But, as Kenny said, “We are already paying for other people’s mistakes.” Maybe so, yet old-regime figures such as Power continue to frame public debate on our woes, lecturing on the prescriptive measures needed. A census, at least, lets people speak for themselves.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

Radio moment of the week

On Monday Ivan Yates invited Esther Rantzen, the sometime presenter of That’s Life!,on to Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) to explode the myth that people over 50 are grumpy. Instead she ended up proving it. She was happier at 70 than ever before, she said, but still found time to complain about teenagers using their “terrible text machines” and about modern women’s footwear. By way of a closer, she didn’t mind “saying to the woman in the local sweet shop that I’ve been waiting half an hour for you to finish your conversation in Swedish so I can buy this chocolate bar”. If this was Rantzen being happy, what must she be like when she’s grumpy?