Originally, my family lived in north London. It wasn’t fancy. We had the upstairs half of a house. The toilet was downstairs and only accessible through the back garden. My mother looked after me and my sister, but also did piece work: which, to put the glossiest possible spin on it, was an early form of working from home.
Sitting in front of the television, she put thousands of ink refills into thousands of biros. Or she clicked together pieces that made the internal workings of the Stylophone, which was a kind of mini-organ and arguably among the top 10 most annoying musical instruments of all time.
While she did that, my father worked in various factories at various jobs that we didn’t always know the details of. Certainly not my mother. She registered my birth, and on the part of the certificate that asks for Father’s Occupation, she filled in “Refrigerator door fixer”.
It wasn’t Angela’s Ashes, but we were working class. In time, my father got a different job, did a management course and we moved to Swindon, in Wiltshire, where we lived in a council house. Compared with where we were before, it was a palace. But we stayed there only six months: we moved to a different part of Swindon to a semi-d; the key difference being that my parents owned it. We had scraped into the lower middle classes.
When we moved back to Ireland, my parents bought another semi-d, but never seemed happy with it. For them, the ideal was to own a detached house; which they finally managed to do, though it was only after my sister and I had grown up and moved out. By then, they didn’t really need the room. But it made them firmly middle-middle class.
My parents never mentioned class, yet seemed unconsciously driven by where they came from and who they felt they should be. Because she had gone to a boarding school and had a brother who had spent a year in Trinity, my mother always felt our life in Willesden was an aberration, while my father felt that his family were stupidly trapped by a working-class mentality. Once in Edinburgh, we arranged to meet my uncle and aunt for dinner in one of the older hotels there. But when we arrived, they were waiting outside in freezing March weather. My father later explained that this was because his mother, my grandmother, had once been a cleaner in that hotel. My uncle and aunt didn’t feel they deserved to be inside.
How much land?
In some parts of this country, it might be less immediately obvious, but class divisions are every bit as insidious. The content of a person’s character or how hard they work is never as important as their accent, their address, who their parents are, their education or how much land they own.
And over the years, I’ve met so many people who are haunted and sometimes tormented by these ideas of status: because their family owned the local shop, or the big farm. Or that they didn’t, and were lorded over by those who did. The early circumstances of their life are so deeply ingrained they seem inescapable, no matter how much material success or familial love they go on to acquire.
Theoretically, most of us would love Ireland to be a meritocracy: where every child starts from more or less the same position. The greedy and the powerful will always come up with self-serving arguments against that. Yet it also seems bolstered by a dark human need to put things into hierarchies: the Gore Vidal idea that it’s not enough to succeed, others must fail.
There does seem to be a growing political awareness of our class divisions. From bitter experience, we know that economic booms benefit those who are already booming; and the inevitable bust hurts those who were already busted. It will be interesting to see how many vote for that again.