I got a stomach-flipping text on holiday far from home. “Hey, I heard there were gardaí outside your house the other night – everything okay?” asked a concerned friend a street away. She had found out through a neighbour on our street.
I panicked. Had we been robbed? But then I remembered I'm a journalist paying Dublin rent and there's nothing in the kip worth stealing. What would they take? My six-year-old duct-taped laptop that gives my legs burns? Then it came out that one neighbour had reported to another they'd merely thought the police were at ours but got it wrong. I was left slightly shaken, ordering a double rum and Coke at the bar.
I’ve been on the receiving end of well-intentioned (and also wrong-intentioned) rumour-spreading a few times. The majority has happened since I moved to Ireland, because this country’s currency, behind the official euro, is information. The greeting in my family’s part of Dublin is literally “What’s the story?” I live in terror of being asked “Any news?” I never have any.
My partner's family couldn't work out why people were staring at them. Yes, my partner's cousin was a striking-looking girl, and her father and my partner's best friend were tall men, but surely that couldn't be it
I am Australian and useless at picking up gossip. One acquaintance once asked me for “news”, which is to say titbits about my old roommate. “Um, I think she’s gone on holiday,” I tried. “Anything else?” came an insistent reply. “Well I think so, her room is quiet and she’s putting up cocktails on Instagram,” came my paltry offering. “How does she afford to go on so many holidays, last month she was in America, now in Spain? She’s still studying, what does she do for work? Do her parents help her out? What’s the story there?”
I had nothing, and it’s not because I’m morally superior, just extremely selfish. Unless things involve me I don’t really pay attention to other people’s lives. “I think she works part-time?” I ventured. The other friend sighed. I could tell she was disappointed I didn’t say “Actually, she sells pictures of her feet to foreign businessmen online.”
Looking back, I could have gone with that lie. People love to trade information, whether it’s true or not. You can exchange it without checking it’s legit first. It won’t knock down the market value if it isn’t; people are just delighted to have heard it. It’s a dangerous game of baseless inflation when it’s about other people’s lives. But occasionally the outcomes are harmless enough.
Like the time a small village thought an Irish celebrity was in the snug at a local pub. People gazed over the bar; the rumours whipped around the town. My partner’s family couldn’t work out why people were staring at them. Yes, my partner’s cousin was a striking-looking girl, and her father and my partner’s best friend were tall men, but surely that couldn’t be it.
Some people believe that because they know you threw up at Mass in 2009 they somehow have an eternal advantage. It doesn't matter what you achieve, they have that on you. Back into your box you go
My boyfriend’s mother likes to tell the next part laughing so hard the tears nearly fall down her face. “They thought she was Samantha Mumba and the two lads were her bodyguards because they were tall black men.” It seems a lack of multiculturalism in early-2000s rural Ireland led to the belief that any gorgeous mixed-race woman indeed had to be the Gotta Tell You singer.
There’s a malicious belief that knowing something about someone gives you power over them. Some people believe, for instance, that because they know you threw up at Mass in 2009, or broke off your engagement, they somehow have an eternal advantage. It doesn’t matter what you achieve, they have that on you. Back into your box you go.
“Did you know your mum had a baby before she met your dad?” said a woman to me once with a malicious smile.
Yes, my big brother is 41 and, despite my childhood pleas, was not locked into an attic and fed fish heads. Instead, quite annoyingly, he was allowed to roam about the house, eating all the leftovers and tormenting me. He asked me to be bridesmaid at his wedding and godmother to his children, both of which would have made for awkward conversations had I indeed not known he was my brother.
Still to this day I don’t know what that woman’s intention was or why she told me. But I do know she took a nasty delight in hoarding and then telling me this information.
When a religion teacher asked what I was giving up for Lent, Mam told me to reply with 'class-A drugs'. I was 12. But they never asked again
Mam is unfazed by biddy culture, as she calls it. She taught me a great defence. If someone is asking too many personal questions, you simply lie. When a religion teacher asked what I was giving up for Lent (a sneaky way of rooting out students who were just there for the low fees and not the strong Catholic ethos), Mam told me to reply with “class-A drugs”. I was 12. But they never asked again.
So it’s my own fault the neighbours were on alert about the law boys being in the house. When we moved in, more than one was very interested in my partner’s old van. What did he do? Maybe they were worried we would bring the house prices down going around in tracksuits and driving a Ford Transit.
“He does a bit of this and that,” I said. So, given the unmarked white van, I can see how that might translate into a drug dealer or a professional harbourer of stolen lawn mowers. At least we know we have lovely neighbours who look out for us. Next time we have drinks on the road I’ll just tell them the truth: he works in tech and we don’t have the money to pay the electricity on a hydroponic grow house.