Child's bedroom signals 'the wolf has finally moved in'


ON WEDNESDAY night, MP Mac Domhnaill of Tralee, Co Kerry, sat down to write a letter to this newspaper, which was published yesterday. It opened, “As I write this letter I am hoping that sleep can provide me with some escape from the anxiety and pain that the economic situation is wreaking on me and my family.”

Mac Domhnaill continued, “At this juncture, seeing as the part-time work on which I depended has entirely ceased, I have found myself and my loved ones having to cope with a new torment – hunger. Today I have had nothing to give my children only bread and cereal.” The letter ended, “The wolf that I have been keeping from the door has finally moved in.”

Speaking by phone yesterday from his home in Kerry, Mac Domhnaill explained what “tipping point” had led him to write the letter. “We have a running joke in our family: ‘What’s got more calories, the cereal, or the cereal box it’s in’?” On Wednesday evening, his wife noticed a large piece of cardboard had been torn off the box of the Lidl brand cornflakes that have become a mainstay of the family’s diet since Mac Domhnaill lost his part-time job in June. She discovered it in their seven-year-old daughter’s bedroom. Tiny scraps of the cardboard were in the bowls of a doll’s tea set. Their daughter had eaten the remainder of the missing piece.

“I feel that one of our family has been dehumanised by our circumstances,” he eventually manages to say, after he has recounted this story.

Mac Domhnaill worked full time in the public service for 10 years, until the job ended due to cutbacks. He then worked part time for two years. That job ended unexpectedly in June. His wife does not work outside the home, and he has always been the sole earner. Since June, the family has been supplementing social welfare payments with savings.

“I didn’t envisage ever being in this situation. My whole culture and rearing taught me that if you do a good Leaving Cert, and go to college, that you will be all right. I have an MA; I’m fairly highly qualified. I didn’t realise having worked so hard, and trying to do the right thing as much as possible, that I would find myself like this. Neither myself nor my wife drink or smoke. Even when I had a job, we always lived quite frugally.”

In 2003, the family bought a house in Tralee for €130,000. There is still a mortgage of €80,000 on it, and monthly repayments are €780. Mac Domhnaill receives €188 a week from social welfare, and a monthly children’s allowance of €280. Their total income per month is €1,032. Out of this, they have deliberately chosen to continue to pay their monthly mortgage in full. He speaks of a deep and relentless fear in falling behind on those payments.

“Every bit of my dole goes straight into the mortgage. I don’t want to go near the bank about renegotiating the mortgage,” Mac Domhnaill stresses. The remaining €252 pays for everything else for two adults and two small children – with most of it going on food and utility bills.

The family spent a lot of the summer reading, borrowing books from their local library. The last novel Mac Domhnaill checked out was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

He figures out the family has been living on about €35 a week for groceries. “We have a freezer, but there’s nothing in it any more.” They have applied for the Back to School allowance, but a sense of pride and a desire to try and support themselves unaided have meant they have not made any other movement towards seeking additional help from charitable organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

“My wife and I have discussed it. We have not wanted to do this. But we are looking at it now, because now we are in the middle of a crisis. We’ll gather up courage to approach people who might help us.

“It’s not just my family who are suffering – this has to be more widespread in the country. People are not eating as well as they should. And they are under great stress. I have a fear for the mental health of people in these situations, including ourselves. We’re not self-pitying. So far in our lives, we’ve contributed to society, and to our country.”

Mac Domhnaill wrote the letter because he hoped it “might facilitate a discussion”. As for what tomorrow will bring, he no longer worries about the future. “I don’t have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow any more. All I can worry about is today.”