Most Irish people will never see the country's privileged inner circle because officially, it doesn't exist. 

Once in Dublin in the 1990s, some years before the Celtic Tiger was first seen in our land, a very rich man in his late 20's leaned across a candle-lit table and counted his blessings in front of me.

His parents were multimillionaires, making the kind of money you rarely hear about in Ireland he told me, they had so many investments, so many interests, and portfolios, and since they were connected to all the main leaders in power, their path ahead was clear. 

Then he smiled at me with the kind of self-possessed smile I imagined a Catholic saint might make when assured of their martyrdom, the kind of smile that only those certain of their blessings in this world and the next can make. “Life is a card game and I'm holding all the aces,” he told me calmly, in case I had missed his point.

Who talks like this I wondered, looking at him. Well, here was my answer. He was young, manicured, in a well-tailored jacket and shirt, and he was full of something that you really didn't see a lot of in the Ireland of the period: optimism.

He had enough sense not to make a show of himself on the city streets of course, where envy and malice sprouted like weeds, but tonight he was at home in his parents' seventeenth-century mansion, protected by high walls and two hundred acres and by a gardener who he later revealed had elite foreign military training. He could afford to let the mask drop, so he did. 

At the time I was just out of university in the north and in contrast to this smiling man sitting opposite me my life was already hardscrabble, I was uncertain where my path led. I had hoped to live and work in Ireland but that looked increasingly improbable to me.

My growing sense that a comparatively small group of my compatriots had the power to embrace or reject me – and everyone else - was not being helped by what I was seeing and hearing now. What cards was I holding, I wondered? Were they all stamped for export? Was I?

The meal, which featured delicious home-baked soda bread, had been prepared by the second housekeeper. She brought each course without speaking and cleared the plates without being asked. She had worked for the family a long time and her eldest son was in the army, she later told me. She lived in a council house far outside the grounds and another son always dropped her off in his Ford Fiesta. 

I should probably say why I was in that house listening to that man delighting in his parents – and in consequence his own - good fortune. Another family member had wanted something from me so I had received an invite for a short stay. But this was all a dry-eyed transaction, not a friendship. It would never be a friendship. I was simply another stepping stone on their way to somewhere fabulous. 

And I'm not sure why the young man picked me to exult so openly in his own good fortune that night. Perhaps I was a marker on dry land that he wanted to row away from. All I know is that in one unguarded moment he allowed me to look through his eyes for a moment at an Ireland that I didn't know and would not be entering, then or ever. 

Most Irish people will never see this man's Ireland either. Officially, it doesn't exist. They may occasionally wonder what goes on once you pass the gate lodge and take the long approach up to the main entrance but sooner or later their natural deference will kick in like a tripwire, keeping them out. 

I left that house later and never returned. A year after that, I left the country. But the arrival of social media in the 2000s meant I unwittingly kept track of the man and his movements after that night. I didn't look for him, he just kept popping up in my Irish news feed. New businesses purchased, new premises acquired, handshakes, contracts, profits. He had stayed slim, he has started wearing glasses, all the tailored jackets remained. The smile was the same too. 

The smile that said can you believe I own all of this? The smile that said I win and you lose. It's strange to think of how that smile endured through all the booms and the busts, staying constant through every challenge, like a sanctuary lamp in a church. When I think of Ireland now that smile is often the first thing I think of.

How long it has endured. How it has never really dropped.

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