It is bitterly cold for Ireland in early-October. Getting into the car at 8.30 this morning, the frost warning was flashing on the instrument panel – the temperature outside was 3 degrees Celsius. The RTE weather man warned of ground frost in some inland areas in the forecast before the 8 o’clock news.
The crab apple tree is laden with fruit and the elderberries are abundant – plentiful berries were indicators of a cold winter in the folk wisdom of the past.
The chill will have frightened not a few people who are anxious about paying bills. The ESB raised prices by 17.5 per cent in August and Bord Gais followed suit with a 20 per cent increase; huge numbers for people already stretched by a cost of living that the government has failed to control. Last Monday’s Irish Times story that “Fresh rises in energy prices signalled” with its gloomy report that both utilities would be seeking further increases in the New Year will only deepen the worries.
The thought of someone sitting cold in their house always bring memories of the lady in the little village sub-post office. Go in the door of the shop with its bare shelves to buy a solitary postage stamp and she would appear through a doorway – an old green cardigan wrapped around her and a hot water bottle clutched to her chest; she and her elderly mother had sunk into a genteel poverty.
The old always suffer the most in cold winters. In part, it is because they are less physically able to cope. In part, perhaps, it is also a matter of fear. If your only means of support is your weekly pension, then you will be afraid of debt – if anything goes wrong, you will have nothing with which to pay, so you carry on setting a bit aside each week, when you can, and you carry on trying to make sure you do not touch your savings. Even when it becomes very cold, you try not to spend more than you had planned, even if that means extra clothes and filling hot water bottles, even if it means you have no comfort at your own fireside.
A government that can provide a €400 billion guarantee to banks who have made reckless and irresponsible loans in lending people five and six times their income makes no guarantee that people will not be cold this winter.
The people who will suffer most, as ever, will be the responsible. Those who worked hard and stewarded carefully what they had, and made the money go around as best as they could, are often the very people who are just above the thresholds for any assistance; like the sub-postmistress thirty years ago, they will do their best to get by.
All those lessons about working and saving and budgeting sometimes seem pointless.