Jonathan Corrie: an unknown life made headline news

The death of the homeless man in the shadow of Leinster House was big news. Behind the headlines it was really two parallel stories

Remembrance: candles in the doorway on Molesworth Street in Dublin where John Corrie was found. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Remembrance: candles in the doorway on Molesworth Street in Dublin where John Corrie was found. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

How far from Leinster House would Jonathan Corrie need to have died for it to have been treated as an individual tragedy rather than as a political scandal? A couple of hundred metres away? As far as Grafton Street? Maybe over on the north side of the Liffey?

It’s an unanswerable question. All we know is that John Corrie died on steps within view of the Oireachtas. That was the headline and the story. Before people even knew his name it offered an easy judgment. Before they knew anything about his life, his death was a national shame.

Over the next couple of days there would be a person behind the life and death. There would be a face and a voice. Interviews were found, his children came forward, reporters called to his family home, and his background was pulled apart and examined in a depth unimaginable at the start of the week. The life of a man for so long anonymous – from whom many people in Dublin must have averted their eyes over the years – had become the focus of the national gaze.

Yet the subsequent eruption of the homelessness issue appeared to be a culmination of many other factors, many of which had little to do with the life and death of the man at the heart of it.

It meant that in the media this has really become two parallel stories: one of a man whose life was troubled, complex and resistant to simple answers, the other of a political row in which his death was seen as crystallising a genuine homelessness crisis but which also further amplified the general rage about an “uncaring” Government (epitomised by one newspaper quotation that he was “left to die on the streets like a dog”).

The story also not only accelerated the annual “do a story on the homeless at Christmas” approach long familiar in the media but also, to an extent, exposed the shallowness of it. I say that as someone who has worked on such features, spending a few hours doing the rounds one Christmas, filing my piece, thanking my lucky stars it wasn’t me, then going on with whatever was next on my list of things to do.

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The recession has changed that focus somewhat. In the past couple of years especially, excellent journalists have done important work on homelessness throughout the year, covering both rough sleepers and the newly evicted.

Nevertheless, Christmas remains the time of year when homelessness and journalism are most likely to meet.

This week, though, thrust those voices from within the homeless services into the news in a premature and unexpected way. But despite the initial simplicity of the headlines, it also allowed a discussion of depth and complexity to emerge.

By Wednesday, from Morning Ireland all the way through to Tonight With Vincent Browne, the strands of the issue were being teased out in a way that was possibly unprecedented in Irish media.

It drew in issues around addiction treatment, mental-health services, counselling services and even the central truth that not all broken lives can be fixed.

Still, there was a sense that this more clear-headed discussion had to be patient and measured in order to be heard over the headlines.

Throughout, there remained the loudly voiced criticism that, because Corrie had died in the Government’s shadow, it must have let him down. Just like it has let so many down.

Some of those representatives of the homeless services even found themselves urging restraint against the chorus of demands for swift action, warning that hurried responses to crises tend to be less useful in the longer term. They were, in essence, asking that we react to the problem itself, not to those who may be using one tragedy to score political points or craft loud headlines.

By Thursday, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly had promised a bed for every homeless person on Dublin’s streets by Christmas.

But at the very start of it all was Jonathan Corrie himself. Few knew his name before Monday. Now, few do not. What a strange postscript to a tragic life it was. But, regardless of how much his death was an individual tragedy rather than a political scandal, only time will tell if it is to leave an unexpected legacy or if it was just another intense but temporary round of news headlines, a life analysed, and demands that something must be done. shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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