Some get up early to go to the gym, others because they slept in a doorway

Jennifer O’Connell: There are now two Irelands, co-existing within a few feet of each other

It takes herculean efforts in not thinking about the lives playing out in doorways, or tented villages. Photograph: Alan Betson

It takes herculean efforts in not thinking about the lives playing out in doorways, or tented villages. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

I had dinner in the Celtic Tiger the other evening. At least, it felt like that.

I was spending the night in Dublin, staying with a friend who warned me she’d get home late. So I took advantage of the rare quiet hours in the city, and wandered up Grafton Street, through rain that wasn’t quite falling, more caught in suspended animation.

The slow-moving, selfie-taking hordes heaved up the street, and I drifted along in their wake, enjoying the small miracle of an Irish high street with no shuttered up shopfronts, or closing down signs taped to its smudge-free glass.

But then the rain made up its mind, and started sheeting down. I took shelter in a noodle bar, the kind of place frequented by people wearing beards and unbranded hoodies, whose aggressively roomy backpacks take up a bench all to themselves.

Two women with high ponytails and soft wool sweaters slid into the next table and immediately ordered a bottle of prosecco. “We’re celebrating our engagement,” one announced. “Not to each other,” the other said, and they laughed.

Dublin is a place I don’t recognise, and yet I know I’ve been before

They started talking about their weddings. One of them mentioned a hotel she had viewed, which had coffee machines in the bedrooms, but no coffee pots. “I mean, why,” she asked, the “why” sounding like a low howl of despair.

Their food arrived. I got back to my book, and they got back to their phones. They ate mostly in silence until the bill came, and they abandoned their scrolling and swiping to the dreary task of dividing it up, item-by-item. “Why,” the one with this disappointing coffee machine experience asked, “does everything have to be so hard?”

Back outside, the city had taken on a different sort of character. The hordes had been swallowed up by warm hotel rooms and the buses that would ferry them back to the suburbs, where Netflix and big American fridges and Ikea sheets awaited.

We say we’re aghast at the reports of 10,000 homeless people, but we’re not marching in the streets about it. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
We say we’re aghast at the reports of 10,000 homeless people, but we’re not marching in the streets about it. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The people left behind belong to a different Ireland, an Ireland that hustles for beds in hostels, or sleeps wrapped in polyester sleeping bags and a stranger’s cast-offs. I walked past the American store that recently applied for planning permission to erect steel shutters in the doorway. Homeless people sleeping there, it said, was an “improper use” of the space.

If the noodle bar was like travelling back in time, to a place where people unselfconsciously drink prosecco on a Monday night and talk in loud voices about the indignities foisted upon them by expensive hotels, this was like venturing into another Ireland altogether. It’s a place I don’t recognise, and yet I know I’ve been before.

When people wonder what it was like to live in Silicon Valley, I sometimes say it was fine if you didn’t think too hard about anything. Trips into San Francisco, in particular, demanded herculean efforts in not thinking about the lives playing out in doorways, or tented villages. It involved not thinking about the streets with desirable addresses, where residents erect giant boulders to prevent homeless people occupying their footpaths.

There’s the Ireland that gets up early to go to the gym, and the Ireland that gets up early because it slept in a doorway

Long-term Bay Area residents get very adept at the not thinking. They step delicately around the sleeping forms, like they’re cleverly sidestepping an engineering problem. Sometimes, they’ll ask for their food to go, and maybe they’ll leave it at the foot of someone sitting on the pavement outside, a small token of penance. Most of the time, they just bring it home.

I never thought it would happen in Ireland. Maybe I should have. We turned a blind eye to the Magdalene Laundries, and the mother and baby homes and to the 170,000 women who had to travel to the UK for an abortion since the 1980s. We’re turning it towards asylum seekers. We say we’re aghast at the reports of 10,000 homeless people, but we’re not marching in the streets about it. We’ve the blind eye nearly worn out.

There was a girl outside a late-opening corner shop that Monday night. She had almost vanished inside herself, folded her body into such a tight little package, I nearly didn’t see her.

She was about the same age as the wedding planners. Her eyes were huge. The paper cup in her hand shook violently. Another woman stopped and asked if she could buy her a cup of tea. Some volunteers from an outreach services, heroes in hi-vis vests, arrived with a wheelbarrow of blankets, and persuaded someone in the shop to fill a hot water bottle for her. I took off my gloves, a small token of penance. It was barely better than a box of leftovers, but she thanked me all the same.

It’s not easy to think about any of this, but maybe we should. There are now two Irelands, co-existing within a few feet of each other. There’s the Ireland that gets up early to go to the gym, and the Ireland that gets up early because it slept in a doorway.

You don’t get to choose which Ireland you want to belong to. They’re both your Ireland. Turning a blind eye may be a coping mechanism, a salve for your guilt, but it’s not a solution.

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