Modern Ireland: meet the families

 

A report this week identified various family types now common in Ireland, the products of social changes including immigration, marriage breakdown, lone parenthood and sexual identity. Here, we look at some lives behind the statistics


Helena Murphy (37) grew up in inner-city Dublin.

Although many of her classmates left school early, she did her Leaving Cert and got a well-paid job as a law firm PA. At the age of 27, she had an “unplanned” daughter, who is now aged nine.

‘WE ALL GROW up with the dream of the fairy princess wedding – when I was seven years old I didn’t dream of being a lone parent living in the inner city on a very small income.” Three years ago, Murphy took voluntary redundancy and has been applying for jobs ever since. She has taken courses in accountancy and law, works part-time on a community employment scheme, does volunteer work and receives State support.

“All lone parents are tarred with one brush – we are all tosspots ‘sucking the State dry’ . . . I claimed for the first time only three years ago. I worked from the age of 16 and I was self-sufficient. Mary Hanafin can’t say I’m taking money off the taxpayers because for 21 years I was the taxpayer.” She would love to be part of a two-parent family, but has little opportunity to meet anyone. “I’m lucky if I get to go on a night out once every four to six weeks.” Some weeks all her money goes on repaying loans. A mobile phone is a luxury she limits to emergency use.

“You’re the mother, father, doctor, nurse, ambulance driver, solicitor, protector — you have 20 different jobs rolled into one and it is very stressful.”

THE MUSLIM FAMILY

Report finding:Muslims in Ireland now have larger families than Catholics

Faheem Bukhatwa, a Muslim from Libya and lecturer at Griffith College, Dublin, has lived here for most of the past 37 years. He has five children aged from four to 16.

‘I didn’t plan to have five children. It happened – my wife wanted more children,” Bukhatwa says. Muslim women use contraception if they choose to. While it wasn’t the case with him, Bukhatwa thinks large family size is a reaction to economic disadvantage. “People may feel the more children they have, the more secure their future will be.” He predicts that as Muslims here become more financially secure, future generations will follow the pattern of the average Irish family, with 2.1 children.

Many Muslim families here are disadvantaged, he says. “They are immigrants trying to better themselves [who] probably don’t have the language, the qualifications, the means and the contacts to obtain the jobs. But after a few years here, once they understand the health, the social and the economic system, then automatically they’ll be just like every other family in Ireland.

“Women have more rights in Muslim marriages than their husbands do,” he says. While the husband is required to financially support his wife and family, a woman with a career or who inherits money has no obligation to share her income. Women also keep their own names. Bukhatwa’s marriage, arranged in Libya 18 years ago, has worked out well, though Muslims sometimes marry people they have met socially.

“There are a number of differences between Muslim and Irish Catholic families, but in general, life is a struggle and the daily routine – getting kids to school, moving along, and getting food on the table, and all that comes with it – sicknesses, dealing with teenagers, the problems are the same.” Faheem’s family prays five times a day, with children taking part as they reach adolescence. Many Muslim women wear headscarves by choice; there is no obligation. Some husbands try to convince their wives not to, because doing so can attract bullying.

Muslim families try to be alcohol- and gambling-free. “Each of these problems can cause havoc in a family, so these are two problems we don’t have to deal with. We try to integrate as much as we can within the society – my children go to Catholic schools, and they are members of sporting clubs. My kids’ contact or socialising is not limited to Muslims – I’m against segregation.”

One of his daughters had to change school after she was pressured to participate in Catholic prayers. “I would like more schools that are multicultural, where everyone feels it is their school . . . that’s something the Government should spend time doing, trying to integrate new arrivals into Irish values.”

THE LONE IMMIGRANT MOTHER

Pamela Chiriseri (36) from Zimbabwe is a UCD student, a part-time development worker at Respond Housing Association, head of Womb (Women of Multicultural Background) in Balbriggan and a lone mother with three children aged five, six and 12.

CHIRISERI ARRIVED “traumatised” in Ireland in 2001 as a lone mother with a three-year-old son, living in Dublin hostels and “determined to start a new life”. Her application for asylum on the grounds of political and economic oppression failed, but she was allowed to stay because her two subsequent children were born before the 2005 legislation that reversed immigrant parents’ rights to citizenship on the basis that their children were born here. The father of her two younger children returned home to Africa “to study development . . . Hopefully he will come back.”

Through her voluntary work, Chiriseri has found a network of motivated immigrant and Irish women. “There were so many women in desperate situations worse than mine.”

An estimated 18,000 immigrant parents are trying to improve their education. “People are struggling, striving, they want to be competent so that they are not dependent on Government money, and for that they need third-level education that is recognised in Ireland.”

Her part-time job pays €350 a week and she receives €200 a week family income supplement, plus child benefit. Pamela can barely afford her private rent of €900 a month, while also paying €500 a month for childcare, food, heat, light and car insurance. She is “hoping for a miracle” so that she can cover the €6,000 annual tuition at UCD, where she is doing a masters degree in equality studies. Her son, now 12, is studying piano at the Royal Irish Academy on a scholarship he received after being seen performing on RTÉ television.

She doesn’t complain: “I am grateful to the State for helping me to get by. I am determined that by December 2010 I will be in full-time employment and fully financially independent.”

- Chiriseri’s research paper, “Access to third-level education for parents of Irish”, will be launched at the Bracken Court Hotel, Balbriggan on Thursday at 10am, along with a group discussion on immigrant women’s access to employment and education.

THE SAME-SEX COUPLE

Steven Mannion (26) and Eamon Farrell (41) were married in Vancouver, Canada, last summer

MANNION IS an artist writing his first novel and does all the cooking. Farrell is the director of the National Performing Arts School, which has 1,600 students, and is the brother of actor Colin Farrell.

“I’ve never had a problem with people because I was gay, I’m one of the lucky ones,” says Mannion. He and Farrell believe the Government’s decision to pursue civil partnership rather than same-sex marriage is “unacceptable and heartbreaking”.

Eamon says: “Our family is exactly the same as every other family, no more and no less interesting. We are practically the exact same as the majority of families in Ireland – two dogs, extended family, friends, godchildren, nieces and nephews, mortgage, bills and jobs.

“We want to spend the rest of our lives together within a committed, recognised relationship. This I believe is a common enough reason for straight couples marrying. Why should we be any different?”

“If you think about it,” says Farrell, “marriage, weddings and everything that goes with them are one of the primary structures in every child’s life. We play weddings with our friends, we play house with our dolls, some of us with Action Man, some of us with Barbie, but we all have the same goal – to be married someday.

“Action Man and Barbie in my house always ended up getting married . . . ‘Civil Partnership’ cake will never replace wedding cake – it’s way too bitter and tastes of inequality.

“Steven is the cornerstone of our family. We have lived together in our house for five years. He is my greatest fan and my most honest critic. He is my lover and my best friend. He is my priority in life, the person I always think of first. I strive to keep him safe, healthy and happy . . . and over the past five years the house we share with our dogs has become a very special place we call our family home. Wouldn’t you call him my husband?”

THE MARRIED COUPLE WITH ONE CHILD

Kelly McNamara (32) and Marc Bairead (33), both solicitors, met while in college and married in March 2007 after a six-year relationship. Kelly gave birth to Ellarose (1) in March 2008. They live in Tullamore

THE MAIN pressure on marriage with a new baby is “lack of sleep”, says Kelly. While juggling everything is certainly harder, she says her husband has been “excellent”, doing his fair share. Kelly is home all day with Ellarose, after the company Kelly worked for made her redundant in October 2009 as a result of the downturn in the building trade.

Kelly cherishes the months she and Ellarose have had together and “life is calmer”, but being a full-time at-home mother isn’t the way Kelly had envisaged her life, nor was a lifestyle based on one income. She is seeking employment in a competitive market where few jobs are advertised.

“It won’t be long before Ellarose will be ready for preschool and I want to be employable – I don’t want my skills to be out of date.” She and Marc would like a sibling for Ellarose, “but we don’t have any immediate plans,” Kelly says.