It’s that time of year again! The ideal family Christmas is played out on TV and film. The adverts stay with us year after year, the Coca-Cola Christmas truck, the ‘Penneys got a whole of things for Christmas’ jingle, the little blond girl eating the cornflakes saying ‘Ho Ho Ho’. The feelgood movies on TV and the competition for the best TV advert. Who wins this year, ‘Paddington’ or ‘Kevin the Carrot’? The pressure mounts to host the best Christmas dinner, to give the best Christmas gift, to be the perfect host or to be the perfect guest. Newspaper articles and radio broadcasts remind us of the true meaning of Christmas and implore us to disregard the commerciality while at the same time advertising the very products and lifestyle they suggest we disregard. And who can blame them? They need to earn a living, same as the rest of us. How else can they do that but sell the products and the lifestyle we all aspire to.
In Ireland, we have become accustomed to raising a glass at Christmas time to our friends and family who live on foreign shores. Since famine times our ancestors have left these shores in search of a better way of life. We at home have toasted them and have missed their presence in our lives. It was a Christmas morning tradition in our household for my father to make a telephone call to his brother in Canada. The call was made from my uncle’s house (we didn’t have a phone) and the call was planned and timed, (international phone calls were a considerable expense). We all stood around the phone in the hall of my uncle’s home singing Merry Christmas, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins. My uncle cried into the receiver while singing with us together with his wife and children, all Irish born but Canadian raised. He hung up, wishing us the very best for all of us, and praying that the year ahead would be the year he would manage to get home for a visit to the land of his birth.
In recent years the world has become a smaller place and our younger emigrants are no longer completely cut off from those they left behind. Nowadays, with Skype and facetime, we can talk to our loved ones oversees on a regular basis easing the pain of separation slightly but never replacing the physical presence of your offspring or sibling, their scent in your nostrils and their bodily warmth in your arms. Cheaper travel has meant that our loved ones can now travel home more regularly, or we can visit them in their far-flung homes and admire their new-found way of life. Do we envy them? Do we envy their bravery, their get up and go? Do we envy their lifestyle, their opportunities in the lands they have chosen? Or do we pray for their return to these shores? It is this time of year we suffer these mixed emotions. We miss our loved ones and want them with us, but do we really want them to abandon the life they have chosen for themselves?
Even if we could entice them back here with amazing job opportunities and promises of a lifestyle to match, where would they live? We have a housing crisis. We are not building enough housing for our already growing population. And we are certainly not building affordable housing. It is quite simple really. In 2016 the average industrial wage was €45,611, p.a., the average house price was €240,000 or €352975 in Dublin (where 39% of the total population live). How can the average person buy the average house? He/she can’t. What? Let them rent, Do I hear you say? let them rent. The national average monthly rent amounts to €1198, while if you are one of the 39% who lives in the capital, the average rent you will pay amounts to €1774 PER MONTH. How can you pay that kind of rent on the average wage and save the minimum deposit of €35,297 you need to buy the average house. Of course, you could move out of Dublin to buy a cheaper home and commute. You can join the thousands of others who spend 3-4 hours of their day travelling to and from work and pay the extra €200 plus on tolls, and did I mention parking? Or you could take the train, only an extra expense of €200 to €400 a month depending on how far into the commuter belt you go. Although don’t expect a seat every journey. Of course, that is if you are on the average wage. We have nearly full employment we are told. But have we? Are all these employed people on the average wage or, are a large percentage of them on the minimum wage of €18,759 p.a. According to OECD data, 25.1% of the employed in this country are low paid (earning less than 2/3 of the median income). How can you pay rent on that wage? You certainly won’t be considered for a mortgage. But, I hear you say, if you can’t afford to buy and you can’t afford to rent, the state will house you. After all, this is the 21st century and we are a first world state who cherish all of its citizens equally, aren’t we? You would think so, wouldn’t you? But no, As I write there are 5,524 adults and 3,333 children homeless. 3,333children without a home! At Christmas. Think about it. And it is common knowledge that this is not an accident, this is government policy. How sick is that? How far away from the aspirations of those who wrote the proclamation?
A year ago, a group of people took over Apollo House, a derelict building, and within days had established quality, respectful accommodation for homeless people. Volunteers provided facilities to those people which offered them a degree of respect which officialdom denied them on a regular basis. Thousands of Irish people reacted and supported Apollo House. The public showed the government what could be achieved in a short space of time and with minimum expense. Our government reacted by allowing the residents of Apollo House to be evicted and that building to remain standing a year later, unoccupied, undemolished, a testament to the failure of our government to cherish all citizens of this state equally.
And what about health care? Our health service is in chaos. Even with the large salaries, our well-educated emigrants can command, health insurance can only cover whatever our health service can provide. Those who are accustomed to the high medical insurance costs in America would undoubtedly have no issue with the premiums requested but would expect the same high level of health service provided in America for that cost. They certainly won’t get that here. As for those who currently live in Canada! The Canadians believe in providing universal health care for all their citizens and at an affordable price, a concept we need to learn in this country.
I started writing this blog tonight thinking about the meaning of Christmas in our country and the absence of loved ones at this time of year. I ended up finding myself thinking about the reasons people leave this island and the reasons we could entice them to return. I found myself ashamed of this republic. Our constitution promises to honour all of our citizens equally, but we have failed and failed badly. Our children continue to emigrate to find a better way of life and who can blame them. I think I might join them.