The first thing my American husband noticed about Ireland was that service industry workers, the people at the lower end of capitalism’s totem pole, looked different.
“They have dignity,” he said simply.
What a starling thing to say, I remember thinking. Because I vividly remember him saying it on our first trip to Ireland together in the late 1990s. By then Ireland was already a multi-ethnic nation with a growing workforce to match.
But what my husband noticed was that working class people carried themselves like they belonged to something larger than a faceless company or a weekly paycheck. They looked like they belonged to a nation, he said.
It fascinated him. “Everybody talks to each other,” he said. “No one acts like they’re above anyone else. People look right at you, instead of through you. How did that happen?” he asked me.
I wasn’t seeing the place through a stranger’s eyes so it took me a while to see what he was seeing, and longer still to find an answer.
“It’s the welfare state,” I said eventually, surprising myself. “There’s a social net to catch you if you’ve lost your job or are down on your luck, and what it says is we value our neighbors and we’re all in this together in some sense.”
He looked at me skeptically. “What does it cover?” he asked.
“It can cover living expenses, food, rent, health, education, child support, pensions and so on,” I replied.
His eyes widened. “Can they actually live on it?” he asked me.
“Thousands have to,” I replied.
In many cases it is often the only thing standing between them and total destitution, I added. For most people there’s no shame in it. It can help you get back on your feet. It also helps to protect the whole nation, I added.
After that it took me a long time to convince him that Ireland wasn’t a socialist country. It’s really not, I insisted. I think you could more accurately call it a socially conscious nation, I said.
There’s an Irish saying, “I scath a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” I told him. “It means we all live in each other’s shadow.”
He liked that sentiment, but he said it was completely un-American. In America you look after yourself and then you lock your door and you do your best to stay out of other people’s shadows, he said.
No one in America has time to worry about the welfare of other people, he told me. That’s because they spend all their time worrying about themselves.
But now he was in Ireland where the languid pace of life had a beguiling rhythm that made him question the pace of his life at home in the U.S.
“People take time here,” he said. From the pouring of a pint to the elaborate greetings and leave-takings, the Irish really liked to dawdle.
“It can be every bit as cutthroat when your back is turned,” I told him, afraid he would leave with a misleadingly benign impression.
“I mean, you should see the knockdown fights they have over a contested will or who inherits a house.”
He acknowledged that, but he said at root we had a different idea about human dignity. We gave it more than lip service. We clearly valued it.
People wiping counters in restaurants looked like they believed they had as much right to speak their minds as people who drove Mercedes. They didn’t pursue, life, liberty and happiness. They embodied it, he said.
We had already noticed by the end of the 1990s that in the U.K. and the U.S., being poor was becoming a life sentence more than just a condition. And since then poverty has increasingly dictated how they live, how long they live and – in an alarming new development – it may even dictate how they will die.
Since 1999 the U.S. population has grown by one-third, but our prison population has grown by 800 percent. Contemplate the implications of that. Each year, as the social safety is further yanked away by acts of Congress, the prison business has absolutely boomed.
It’s time we started discussing how the two factors are linked. America could stand to learn that we do all live in each other’s shadow.
Tossing generations of the urban poor into prisons enriches a few at the expense of many. Those shadows may haunt us all in years to come.