A colleague used to tell of an experience of a history teacher in a Dublin secondary school. Discussing the Great Depression and the unemployment of the 1930s, the teacher was somewhat taken aback at the response of some of the students.
“My dad took up golf when he stopped work.”
“Yeah, so did my dad. He joined the golf club”.
“No, no, no. These are not people who chose to stop work, these are people who were forced out of work. Their jobs disappeared. There was no demand for what they were producing so their employer had no money to pay them so they were made redundant”.
“Well, why didn’t they just get another job?”
The teenage students could not comprehend the reality of former times. Like Marie Antoinette suggesting that the peasants who had no bread might eat cake, they believed that the appropriate activity in the absence of work was to engage in a more exotic alternative.
Only people in their eighties will remember the grimness of the Great Depression, and what followed fifty years later in the 1980s was gentle in comparison to the poverty of the 1930s, but it was very different from the Ireland we now experience. Yet however recent memories of unemployment in Ireland are in the minds of many, they will not figure in the minds of those who are of school age. The children of the boom years have grew up in a country and in a society changed utterly from twenty years ago. Similarly, new arrivals find it hard to imagine a city that was not always buzzing with building work and roads that were not filled with shiny new cars. A Lithuanian friend said that it could not have been as bad as the experience of her people under Soviet rule, that point I did concede.
There was always a danger in our complacency, a danger in a society that assumed that, if one did not work, one played golf instead. Bad times are now catching us unaware; the jobs that came in quickly have moved out quickly; the houses that were a dream come true at €500,000 have become a nightmare at €250,000; the new Irish who kept our service industries running in the boom times are so welcome in recession times. Listen to pub conversations and the racism is frequently explicit.
In the Bible, the Old Testament prophets would warn the people not to be complacent, not to take things for granted, not to make assumptions. The Biblical warnings were not popular and did not endear the prophets to their listeners, but they did help the people to understand and cope with their times. In the new Ireland, where the voice of the church is a muted, reticent shadow of its strident and arrogant past, there is also no-one left who might have provided a narrative, a story by which people could make sense of their times. There is no-one left that can help us understand, when even the history teachers meet with such answers, there is no meaning in the story.