The poor - how terrified we were of them


Last week the middle-aged were forced to recall the Ireland of their youth, where respectability was the only ideal

LAST WEEK was a terrible time to be a middle-aged Irish person, and presumably this week isn’t going to be much better. Because we remember the orphanages, the industrial schools – whatever inaccurate term was applied to them – the prisons that they kept the poor children in.

The poor children. That is not the poor children, as in “the poor little children”. That is the poor children as in the children of the poor. The poor – how terrified we were of them, when we were children. We were too stupid to realise that all the grown-ups were terrified of them as well.

The buildings in which they kept the poor children were horribly frightening, huge barracks of places, with pale statues in the grounds. We never put a foot inside their gates, except as a dare. We knew they were prisons.

Once or twice you saw the long crocodiles of boys, 13 or 14 years old, who were in some sort of clerical training, and wore long black dresses down to the ground, and they would be coming back from swimming in the local baths with their striped towels rolled up under their arms. Even their towels looked poor. Their haircuts were dreadful. Their teeth were bad. And your mother said it was a disgrace, little boys like that living in a place like that. But you were thinking – and this thought was crystal-clear: thank God it’s not me.

The relief was dizzying.

The grown-ups told you that Jesus loved the poor; as far as you were concerned He was welcome to them. On the other hand, in your culture the sentimentality about the poor and about poverty was extraordinary. In your more heated moments you could fantasise about being poor yourself – fantasies that ended shortly after it was revealed that you were, in fact, a princess who had been mysteriously mislaid by her particular royal family.

And there wasn’t much you didn’t know about orphanages, actually, what with reading your comics, which came from England and usually had an orphan story on the go; and Daddy Longlegs, which came from America and ended, if memory serves, with the orphaned heroine marrying a millionaire.

And then there were the March girls, the sisters in Little Women, who were terribly good to the poor. They even gave their Christmas breakfast to the poor – of course the Marches had live-in help – and the poor were immensely grateful, crying and calling the March girls angels, as well they might. And then Beth March nearly died from a bout of scarlet fever she had contracted while nursing a child of a poor family, and all the sisters gathered round her bed, sobbing.

Your own family might do that as well, if only you could find a poor baby who would have the good manners to have scarlet fever. But of course the Marches were American and, you were broadminded enough to acknowledge, Protestant. Their dad was a Protestant minister.

The Marches in Little Womenwere the only people you’d ever read about who called themselves poor. They were short of money, even though they had a maid. Jo had to sell her hair in order to raise money in an emergency. You didn’t know anyone who was poor. The grown-ups would say that some rare person you knew was hard-up, but not that they were poor. Only the poor were poor.

The nuns said that they were poor. They had nothing at all, they said. It was a vow they had taken when they’d married Jesus. Sometimes their anger at your privilege would burn through, which at the time you felt was unfair, because you didn’t believe the nuns when they said that they were poor. Because the nuns talked of the poor, and of the nuns who were heroic enough to work with the poor, as exotic monsters who had somehow grown, and still lived, in the strange atmosphere of another planet, fortunately for us all.

No one you’d grown up with ever talked about class. Never. Never. Never. Everybody was the same. Not like in England, which was snobby. No, everybody was the same. And if everybody wasn’t exactly the same, well everybody could be the same if they worked hard. It was simple really. It was a republic. In Ireland you were either one of the Saved or one of the Damned; there was some hard swimming in between.

It would be years before you realised that you had grown and prospered on one shore and that on the other lay not just injustice and waste, but pornographic cruelty.

It would be years before you realised that the privileged in Ireland, from which you had come, far from having a history of uninterrupted sophistication and respectability, were only two generations up from the bog, and kicking the ladder down behind them.

It would be years before you realised that being Irish is about looking respectable and having money: that respectability, and the hoarding of respectability, is the only idea independent Ireland ever treasured. And that is why we were – and still are – so frightened of the poor, and continue to hide them as much as we can.