I have a friend who is about to lose her home. I cannot tell you the reasons why. Perhaps the landlord wishes to take it back; perhaps he (or she) wishes to raise the monthly rent. Perhaps the house must be sold. There are a myriad of reasons why one woman and her family must leave their home. I know that she is desperate, living in limbo, paying her rent week to week, gathering her five growing children about her, a mother hen without the father husband who walked out the door some years back, leaving his excuses in his wake. The woman works a job, runs a car, sends her children to school, to university. I know she has been searching, searches still, makes the calls, sends the emails, goes to the viewings. But because rents are so high—at an all-time high, according to the latest statistics—because homes to rent are so scarce—at an all-time low, state the same figures—because she carries the entire burden of wage-earning on her back, I know she hasn’t found a new home yet.
During the Great Famine and after, Irish painters and sculptors, beholden to the international art market, to the British establishment, did not depict their history, certainly not as it was unfolding, because of the political connotations that could be construed. There is the work of the painter Daniel MacDonald (an exception), but when we seek visual representations of the Famine, it is the black and white engravings published in the* Illustrated London News* we tend to know best. There is the one I am looking at now, published in 1848, an eviction scene.
I think you will know it. Even if you do not, I think you can rehearse its choreography.
A woman is on her knees before the top-hatted bailiff, who sits astride his black stallion, one arm raised in demonstration of his power, the eviction notice held in the other hand. There is the child, ragged, barefoot, clinging to the mother, and there is the tenant father, hands clasped in supplication. Around them, a small crowd gathers, the soldiers who stand impassive, there to reinforce proceedings, the other onlookers who chat among themselves, with only one woman standing head in hands weeping. The bailiff’s men are busy, already dragging the thatching from the miserable roof, pulling a protesting neighbour from the stone cottage, driving off the tenant family’s donkey. A second image, published with the article that condemned Irish landlords for their behaviour, depicts the stricken family following its eviction, taking shelter now in a roadside hovel, hedging for a roof, the floor the open ground beneath. During the height of the Famine around 350,000 of the poorest tenants and squatters were driven out of their homes by landlords seeking to avoid insolvency but also to rid themselves of what was known as a ‘surplus population’. In large part, these smallholdings were converted to pasture. The evicted died, or if they could, fled the country, abandoning all they had once known. The British government refused to criminalise the landlords for their actions. Such a move, suggested former Lord Chancellor Henry Broughman in a speech to the House of Lords in 1846, would mean that ‘property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of the land if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord’s undoubted and most sacred right to deal with his property as he wished.’
The Illustrated London News, unlike much of the British press, took on the Irish cause, used words and images designed to encourage its readers to emote, to feel (moral if not political) outrage. But even it wearied, as the hunger dragged on endlessly, and the desperate people, stark-eyed, beseeching, kept on emerging. It assured its readers it did not exaggerate—our Artist… cannot be supposed to have taken an extreme view…—but it adhered equally to British stereotypes. The ragged Irish. The peasant other. Its small readership in middle-class Ireland concurred. Those are indeed the other, and we could not be them. Not us. Never.
Cork, 2017. There is a woman sleeping in her car with five children. You will have seen the photographs in the newspapers. Many voices are raised in protest. How can more than 3,000 children be classified as homeless in our 2017 society, no longer a place of widespread want? (It is, instead, a place of widening disparity.) Other voices turn the protest backwards. The woman in the car with the five children is someone who left a house provided for her in an isolated region of County Clare, so she could return to Cork, close to family, to friends. She is, I read in some online comments, a symbol of our entitlement culture, using the plight of her children to scam the State, the hard-working taxpayers. She needs, they write, in her single mother, five-children status, to take some *responsibility *for her actions.
In the Famine, there was a general theory that the starving, evicted Irish could have stayed in their homes, would have had enough to eat, had they shown interest in work, rather than handouts, had they made an effort to raise their indolent backsides up off the ground. There is the cartoon, which ran in Punch in 1846, showing John Bull offering a poor Irish man some food, and also a spade, encouraging the man to go out and earn his own living. The gendered nature of the Famine images has been highlighted by the academic Margaret Kelleher—the victims are often female, the observers male. It is lone parents, single mothers (so often) who feature in the stories written about the homeless crisis in Ireland; it was single mothers who were hidden until the 1990s in the nation’s institutions, blamed for their sexuality, for their rising, rounded bellies, for their moment of pleasure—was it worth it now, was it?—for their poverty, for their vulnerability. Strange, this blame, how it lifts and settles, lifts and settles again.
Dublin, July 2017. On a Saturday morning early, blue sky slips out from under grey clouds, revealing an expanse of snaking hoarding surrounding a disused furniture store, one of Bargaintown’s seven outlets around Dublin city and county. Work is paused for the weekend: a lone security guard sits listlessly behind the 8-foot walls, catching perhaps my curious eye as I cup my face into a slim gap in the fencing, trying to imagine how they will convert, as they say they will, this warehouse used for the storage of beds, tables, chairs, into a space where a group of families—40 people overseen by the Salvation Army—will sleep, eat, cook, convene in what will be known as a Family Hub.
Researchers at Maynooth University have noted some basic human needs: the need to feel secure, to have a safe home, a bedroom and regular meals. This warehouse, this soon-to-be Family Hub, will, according to the researchers, provide little of those basic needs. Instead, this warehouse will soon be a place, yet another place, where families, needing only the unwinding of the knot that has come to reside in their stomachs, will instead continue to sit with the pain in their bones, living with the controls, the restrictions that are a feature of institutional living. They will keep living in the in-between, always about to.
We all know the jingle: Hurry on down to Bargaintown! Where the prices are only famous!
Hurry in now. Stay in your room. Obey the rules. No friends allowed, no pets. No, you cannot leave your child with your neighbour. Did you leave your room? You must keep your child within your sights! Hurry on down to Bargaintown!
The researchers at Maynooth are most concerned about the institutionalisation of the families housed at the hubs. This country’s history with institutions does not bode well for these supposed temporary solutions to a crisis that they say cannot be resolved by the private sector, by the market with its profit motive, that can be dealt with only by a state willing to once again invest in large-scale social-housing programmes. But the Irish government, Lord Brougham-like in the Dáil, does not wish to consider such solutions. Property must remain attractive. Private investment continues to be facilitated. Capital must continue to be invested in the cultivation of the land. Families in the hubs, staring out at the cultivation of the land, risk entrenchment, then dismissal, as the media and the public move on to other stories, other objectives. The world keeps turning while the families—real people, real children damaged by institutionalised life—have become a ‘problem’, now held to blame for their homelessness, for a situation not of their making.
‘Did you let him put his hands on you?’ thunders the Reverend Mother Barbara, in the book Philomena, which tells the story of Philomena Lee’s lifetime search for her son adopted to the US from the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in the mid-1950s. ‘You are the cause of this shame. Your own indecency and your own carnal incontinence!’
I contact my friend on Facebook. Any news? There is no news. She is living on borrowed time. Another woman, another mother, tells me another story. It is the same story. As the clock ticks towards her eviction date, finding a home has also become her full-time job. As part of its report, titled Investing in the Right to a Home, the team at Maynooth spoke to policy makers, some of whom smoothly reassure that if you want a home, you will find a home. ‘If you really need somewhere to live you will be highly motivated to find somewhere… and you will keep putting in effort until you do. The local authority official behind a desk is not as motivated,’ said one. The policy maker forgets that the ‘highly-motivated’ home-seeker is the one who is put on the wait list, or told on the phone that ‘we are not taking children’. She is the person who wakes in the night, heart thumping, or make call after call on the bus as one after another the house owners say no to a prospective tenant in receipt of social housing support. She is the one who must miss attending a viewing, held only by daytime, because she is at work and cannot get away. She is the one who has to rehome the family pet, the children’s hearts’ desire, because of an impending move and unknown conditions.
‘Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones
these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bones
need toil, their characters no less.’
—Eavan Boland, ‘The Famine Road’
Thomas Malthus, upon whose assumptions Famine relief administrator Charles Trevelyan and the British government relied, believed that the poor were sinfully responsible for their own hunger, and that these sins could only be redeemed through hard work. The poor were thus split into deserving and undeserving, made to fight amongst each other, a fight to the death, to survive.
Watch us, as we turn in history, going around in circles, back where we started again.
I write some more. I think some more. I think about the fact that a long time ago, when I was starting out in writing, in journalism, the voices around me—the voices I heard—told me it made good sense to buy a house, to stop wasting my money on rent, to* invest. I think about the fact that I heeded those voices and that, some years back, I put aside enough money (it was hard) to buy that house, and that now, for various reasons, that house has become a rental property, an investment, if you like. I think about how I, too, have been conditioned to view housing in Ireland as a commodity, that I could (I try not to) lick my lips in satisfaction at the reports of *market rates and all-time highs. I think about how I reject this capitalist ideology and then I think about how I have contributed, as much as anyone, to the exact ideology I say that I reject, that I am part of the reason we are in the place we are now. Then, because my head is bursting, I reach for a song. It’s an old folk song, made most famous through its rendering by traditional band the Wolfe Tones. The story is that of the mass eviction of small cottiers and their families, 700 people in total, in Tonagh, County Meath, on a cold day in 1848. I read various renditions, some longer, some shorter. In some versions, the ballad is known as ‘Lough Sheelin’s Side’ but in the one I have found, it is called simply ‘Lough Sheelin’.
But our good dreams were too good to last
The landlord came our home to blast
And he no mercy on us did show
As he turned us out in the blinding snow
No one dare open for us their door
Or else his vengeance would reach them sure
My Eileen fainted in my arms
As the snow lay deep on the mountainside.