“I nearly died,” says May Fitzgerald (91), when she received her latest gas bill for €800.
“It’s been so bloody cold,” says the pensioner from Rathmines in Dublin. “Keeping yourself warm is very important at my age, it’s as good as a feed.”
She has also seen a four-fold increase in her electricity bills. While her bill for November and December was €25, it shot up to €100 for January and February. “That’s a lot,” she says.
Naturally, such financial shocks have altered her behaviour. “I’m being more cautious. I only turn on the radio at certain times because it uses up the electric,” she says.
The rising cost of food has also impacted Fitzgerald. “Stop the lights!” she says. “I like cooking, it’s my occupational therapy and it’s good for motivation too ... but look at the price of buttermilk, it’s gone up from 79c to €1.09.”
However, she is pragmatic. “You can cut your cloth to suit your measure,” she says.
To further assist with maintaining mobility in her fingers, she also knits for the Coombe hospital on a voluntary basis.
A widow, with three sons, one daughter and 11 grandchildren, she lives alone. “I would never impose on my family to help to pay my bills,” she says. “I don’t think that would be fair. They have their own lives to live.”
Fitzgerald worked in canteens “everywhere”. She and her late husband started married life in a one-bedroom house on Lower Rathmines Road. “The only loan I ever took out was for the house,” she says. “I never forgot the young man in the bank. He said he’d take a chance on us.”
The Government’s efforts to assist people do not curry much favour with her. “They are all talk and no action,” she says. “I won’t listen to them now, they’re only dribbling diarrhoea out of them.”
The sprightly pensioner recognises the critical importance of maintaining a vibrant social life. Fitzgerald, along with a group of other members of Friends of the Elderly, has recently been on a four-day trip to Wexford organised by the charity. “I’m going husband-hunting down to Wexford,” she said prior to departure.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Kennedy (80) from Phibsborough received a gas bill for €473. “I had to borrow €200 from my sister-in-law,” she says.
Her previous bill was €244 and she thought her latest bill “would be around that”. She lives alone; her husband died 19 years ago and she has no family. “My sisters-in-law have been very good to me,” she says. “One of them passed away in January, I miss her very much, but I’m on the phone regularly to my other sister-in-law.”
Kennedy has lived in a one-bedroom council bungalow for the past 29 years, in which she wears a house coat in the morning and again at night to keep warm. “I turn the heat on between half nine and 11 in the morning – and that’s it,” she says. “You need your heat, you’d get pneumonia.”
She is on a “golden rate” for her electricity, she says, and was €200 in credit on her last bill, with her most recent bill due at the end of this month.
I know the war in Ukraine is causing bills to go up but the Government is still not doing enough
“If the Government gave you the €200 instead of it being a credit, you could put it off the gas bill,” she says. “I would give it to my sister-in-law anyway, to pay off the loan.”
She also finds it “very hard” to pay for food. “I’m trying to save, so I’m buying the microwave stuff,” she says.
Kennedy worked in the canteen in the GPO until 2002, when she retired to look after her husband, who nine years previously had a tumour removed from his lung.
“I know the war in Ukraine is causing bills to go up,” she says, “but the Government is still not doing enough. Nothing is getting lowered. It’s clear that people are suffering. They should be lowering the gas bill and the cost of food.”
Fellow Phibsborough resident Sadie Nolan (79) says she is one of the lucky ones. “I have a State pension and a private pension, and my brother, with whom I live, has a decent pension. But there have been cutbacks,” she adds.
“We are watching the weather forecasting to see will we need to put up the heat,” she says. “One room in the house is kept heated and we stay in that room, while the other rooms are on a thermostat. Our house is big but I like it, and our neighbours. They say to downsize, but you don’t know who your neighbours will be if you do.”
She has seen a “huge increase” in electricity and gas bills and the cost of “basic” foods. “I find it strange that the cost of milk goes up at the same time in all the shops,” she adds wryly.
They’re all the talk, but they don’t do the walk. They’re in the fortunate position of getting automatic pay rises
Previously, she would have gone “into town” for dinner every so often. “But I wouldn’t now, it costs €18, €19 – that’s too expensive. Even getting a tea in town has gone up.”
She too gives short shrift to Government claims of assisting people in the cost of living crisis. “They’re all the talk, but they don’t do the walk,” she says. “They’re in the fortunate position of getting automatic pay rises.”
She is also critical of the Government when it advises people to put on the heat to stay warm. “It’s hypocritical, they’re not going to pay [for] it, you will.”
Janice Byrne (45), a self-employed goldsmith and single parent, says she does not know anyone who is not struggling,
“My latest gas bill was over €300, that’s double what it would be normally,” she says. Along with her 14-year-old son, she lives in an apartment in Inchicore, which she acquired through social housing. While her latest electricity bill was, to her surprise, in credit, perhaps due to the Government credit, she is uncertain what the next one will be like.
Byrne has also seen a big increase in her food bill. “I did a food shop for the week on Sunday and what would’ve normally come to €70 is now costing over €100. We get a takeaway once a week but that’s gone up by €10, €15 with some things,” she says.
I had to forego volunteering with Kildare Wildlife Rescue as that involves a lot of driving and I can’t afford the petrol
Her teenage son quickly grows out of clothes too. “I’m having to replace things more often,” she says. “I got him his school uniform before Christmas and he’s actually due to get new pieces but I’m trying to hold off until September as I can’t afford it at the moment, and he’ll probably grow out of it over the summer as well. His footwear also need to be replaced every couple of months.”
She has had to make sacrifices to have enough money to pay the bills. “I had to forego volunteering with Kildare Wildlife Rescue as that involves a lot of driving and I can’t afford the petrol,” she says. “I try to reallocate money and chip away at things.”
Like many others, she has begun to switch off all the plug sockets when leaving the apartment, with the heating timed to come on at certain times. “I’m hoping that will make a difference with the bills,” Byrne says.
Her business has also been affected. “The cost of materials and packaging have gone up so I’m having to increase my prices which means less sales,” she says. “People don’t have the money; jewellery is seen as a luxury item, which means I have to pay myself less money. So it all has a knock-on effect.”