JOSEPH O’Connor played his part in President Michael D Higgins’ ‘Glaoch’ initiative at the weekend when his specially commissioned radio essay about Ireland was aired.
Yes, in keeping with the theme of the occasion, it was a celebration of Ireland, but true to O’Connor’s form and that wonderfully rabid independent mind of his, it wasn’t your ‘Mise Éire’ view of things through tricoloured tinted glasses.
Instead it was his usual honest commentary. The emigrant’s tale was there in the way that they hanker for home, but the subtext was equally about the emigrant who didn’t do so well and that for them home was too far away and always tantalisingly out of reach – at least that was my interpretation of passages of his ‘Glaoch’ contribution.
That element of what O’Connor touched on reminded me of an essay penned nearly a century ago by man from Ennis called Paul Hayes – he was a former Clare football captain in his day, indeed 100 years ago last month he led Clare’s footballers into battle in Croke Park for the first time ever in the Croke Cup final against Dublin.
Clare lost heavily that day and a few months later – not because of the result – Hayes emigrated to America, never to return.
Hayes always had a hankering for home, however, as his essay, which many presume to be autobiographical, seems to clearly indicate:
“Back home in Ennis where everybody knew him he was called ‘Buck’. That was bad enough. But out here in New York nobody ever called him anything which was worse, simply because nobody knew him.
“Near Avenue A where he lived on the top floor of a tenement, one dollar a week was stamped indelibly upon his room where the dampness had rotted the paper from the walls.
“A blue spot over the narrow bed was the only touch of colour which relieved the dinginess. It was a football jersey which he had worn years before when he played with his team for the honour of the street and the championship of the town.
“He stood up and looked out through the window that no one ever cleaned, out upon a courtyard that was strung with lines of clothes. The outlook was wretched, just like his own life. It depressed him and he turned his back upon it.
“The only bit of colour left to him was the blue jersey, and that was fading. The sight of it there up on the bare wall awakened within him a great longing to be back home again wearing it with the boys.
“But that was absolutely impossible; it could never, never be. The light went out on the December sky; it faded slowly along the surface of the East river and died utterly within his dreary room.”
Whether Hayes’ essay was autobiographical or not, it still serves as a stark reminder that emigration isn’t always about fame and fortune, something this whole ‘The Gathering’ frenzy seems to have forgotten about.
Ready and hearing all the hoopla about the diaspora, you’d swear that every emigrant who bade farewell at Cobh, Collinstown, Rineanna, Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire made good and great and is now queuing up to line the Irish exchequer’s pockets again.
All the while back at ‘Ranch Ireland’, more and more is being taken from people’s pockets by way of levies, universal social charges, household charges, not to mind the impending property and water taxes.
You can be sure that ‘The Gathering’ doesn’t really do it for people on the margins – those without a job or without the prospect of a job; it doesn’t really do it for the disabled who have been hit recently with the announcement that their mobility allowance is going to be cut; it doesn’t really do it for the elderly who have had their carers’ allowance cut.
The list goes on.
All this, however, must be tempered with the realization that Ireland’s welfare state still remains much more caring than others, with the one across the water being the most obvious point of comparison.
In terms of the amount of money that’s doled out, you do better on welfare in Ireland than you do in Britain, but still it was strange that a press statement regarding welfare entitlements in Britain should come into The Clare People last week.
It was from Senator Tony Mulcahy, who certainly had his eye on the ball when telling eligible pensioners out there that there was money to be got from the British ‘Welfare State’.
Basically he was relaying the news that Clare people who had emigrated to Britain, but had since returned home were eligible to hoover up a UK Winter Fuel Payment Allowance that could be worth of up to £300 a year. “I am keen to highlight the significant change in the qualifying criteria given that it’s likely to positively affect many Clare people who have returned from the UK and who are not aware of this payment,” said Senator Mulcahy.
Surely, it should be the responsibility of the Irish State to look after its pensioners – and in this case that’s the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government – and not to have those pensioners looking for some crumbs from the British Welfare State. Welfare should begin at home, after all.
Paul Hayes would say that, if he were alive. Joseph O’Connor would say it.

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Joe Ó Muircheartaigh graduated from University College Dublin in 1989 with a degree in history and politics. After completing a Diploma in Journalism at The College of Commerce, Rathmines in 1991, he embarked on a career in journalism. Joe spent four years with Clare FM from 1992 and was with The Clare Champion from 1996 to 2005. He has won two McNamee Awards for GAA journalism and has published two books. Contact Joe on [email protected]

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