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A stolen iPhone on a Dublin street - Celtic Tiger passed some city folk by

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Amien St, Connolly Train Station

For some time, I’ve been meaning to write about the section of Dublin’s north inner city I pass through on my way to and from work. It is not an area that tourists tend to see much of, except perhaps from the windows of an Air Coach from Dublin Airport into the city center, but it’s a place that I have become well-acquainted with.

 A recent unfortunate event there awakened me in a very personal way to the problems of the area and prompted me to write, albeit despairingly, at last.

I was speaking on my iPhone while walking down Gardiner Street toward Connolly Station on Amiens Street to catch the train home to Wicklow. Because it is not what anyone with experience of city life would regard as safe, I am typically wary and watchful of my surroundings. This time, however, I got engrossed in a conversation about the “ins and outs” of the Irish presidential election taking place that very day and let my guard down. That proved a big mistake.

It all happened incredibly fast. I had the phone held loosely to my ear. In a flash, I felt a hand clasp mine, snatch my phone and I then saw a bicycle flying down hilly Gardiner Street. By the time I could scream a less than creative obscenity at the thief, he was well out of range of my voice. My wife, with whom I had been speaking at the time, told me that the phone stayed on for some minutes thereafter and that she could hear the thief having a good laugh about the coup he had just pulled off.

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The beloved stolen iPhone
I bumped into a Garda (Irish police officer) on nearby Talbot Street and, simply to vent my shock and frustration, described to him what had transpired. He responded that smart phones are being snatched on a regular basis in broad daylight in the north inner city. I was subsequently told that thieves can count on reselling the phones for between €50 and €75; that they typically use bicycles; and that I was wise not to attempt to resist because the primarily teenage thieves are not averse to violence and often work in teams. My shock, frustration and, speaking honestly, embarrassment at what had just happened eased when I realized that it could have been a whole lot worse.

After those emotions wore off, anger rapidly began to set in. While I consider myself a progressive when it comes to crime and punishment, I’d be lying if I said the thought of the young thief being run over by a Dublin Bus careening down Gardiner Street after he swiped my iPhone didn’t cross my mind. And a sense of outrage crept in when a neighbor later told me of hearing an admitted mobile phone thief comment on a Dublin-based radio talk show, “if someone’s stupid enough to be talking on their phone on Abbey Street (in the north city centre), they deserve to get it robbed.”

To fully comprehend sentiments like these, one needs to understand the environment that those who voice them grow up in. The section of Dublin’s north inner city I traverse daily is a world away from the stunning coastline, lush greenery and buzzing towns that draw tourists with Irish roots and none to Ireland. It is just as far removed from the opulence and grandeur that can be found a geographic mile away, across O’Connell Street Bridge in the vicinity of Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green.

Residents of the area, with few exceptions, did not hear the Celtic Tiger’s roar. Many of its children are themselves having children and appear manifestly unprepared for and unable to cope with all that parenting entails. Public drinking and the use of heavy drugs are commonplace and little, if any, effort is made to disguise either. Violent physical confrontations and extremely heated, profanity-laced verbal exchanges – between men, between women and between men and women – are a regular occurrence on the streets.

The statistics bear these harsh truths out. But it is shocking to witness them and understand how real all of it is at first hand.

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That said, there are countless good people in the area. Though generally not prosperous economically, they do the best they can for themselves and their families. Their sense of community spirit is obvious. It is definitely an ongoing struggle for the overwhelming majority of parents who are trying to do the right thing for their own children and are often stymied by a myriad of obstacles, some of which are effectively beyond their own control. A lack of formal education, a troubled past and even a postal address or distinctive accent can all prevent access to opportunities.

Moreover, there are numerous community groups and organizations working with those who live in poverty in this section of the north inner city. Through a variety of excellent initiatives and innovative forms of outreach, they are making a real difference in the lives of the residents involved. Some residents, however, are beyond reach. They are among the most disadvantaged, marginalized, disaffected and vulnerable people in Ireland.

This is not new or unique. The area has been battling the aforementioned problems for several decades. These problems are not confined to Dublin; they exist in other Irish cities and in cities throughout the world. But the theft of my iPhone, a quite trifling incident in the grand scheme of things, brought the reality of life in this section of the north inner city home to me in a very real way.

 How awful it is that these problems continue to plague the area in 2011 and how awful it is that the human casualties of these problems, which are so much bigger than they are, look at life very differently than most of us as a result.

A final, sad, but in a way understandable, observation I’ve made is that most outsiders walk the same Dublin streets I do with their heads down, seemingly numb and oblivious to the human tragedy that perpetually unfolds around them. They must see, yet they are apparently determined to keep their distance from, the suffering. Maybe they succeed. I don’t.

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