RTÉ’s man in Belfast, Tommie Gorman, often recounts the story of his first meeting with the doyen of journalists, the late John Healy. Gorman was being interviewed for a job with Healy when, after the usual round of standard questions, the latter pointed to a patch on the younger man’s trousers.
“Who fixed that for you?” asked Healy. “My granny,” came the reply, explaining that Granny’s sewing machine, which had come in a parcel from America, had been put to good use making and patching the clothes of the Gorman children.
“I like that. You’re hungry,” mumbled Healy, “I like hungry kids.” And thus he affirmed the job for the interviewee.
Healy’s admiration for the self-sufficiency of his beloved, snipe grass, western way of life is not unconnected to public attitudes to the current attempts to curtail the coronavirus.
Sociologists claim that, in the space of 30 years, we have gone from a position of viewing ourselves as basically resilient to where we see ourselves as basically vulnerable. And this in turn has bred in the public a sense of dependency, of looking to someone else to provide for us, of asking why ‘they’ don’t do something to take away the danger and make the world safe again.
But, as the current rampage of the Covid confirms, it is even more than that. How else to explain the necessity of assigning Garda patrols to traffic checkpoints, of resorting to legal power to enforce lockdown, of curtailing freedom of travel, all for the purpose of keeping us safe from ourselves. And like obstinate, combative children, large swathes of the public continue to flout the regulations that are there for their protection.
There are many who would argue that, as a society, we have become less able to cope with adversity or inconvenience. We have become soft; less able to endure the risks and dangers of everyday living. Those of a certain age can recall the advent of central heating, an innovation viewed with early suspicion and considered not good for one’s health. After all, being cold was an everyday, accepted condition of life in Ireland, a minor annoyance which only helped to make us more resilient when real adversity came along. You learned to live with it, not by turning up the thermostat another notch or two.
Social commentators point to the need for immediate gratification of our wants as a recent cultural phenomenon. We expect everything to be done for us, as if someone ‘owes’ us the privileges we demand. Note the less-than-original mantra of protest marchers of all and every hue, the loudhailer refrain always the same – ‘What do we want?’, ‘Free holidays for all’, ‘When do we want them?’, ‘Now’. All too often, these are demands fuelled on social media, and pandered to by governments who feel pressurised into being seen to be doing something to appease the masses.
Economists point to the arrival of hire-purchase credit in the ’70s as the fulcrum on which living standards and expectations completely changed. Up to then, if you couldn’t afford something, you had two choices – either you went without, or you saved and scrimped until you could do so. But almost overnight, all that vanished. Now you could have a new car, a new kitchen, a new TV, even if you had no more than a week’s wages in your pocket – as long as you could keep up the instalments.
It was dubbed the never-never or, more frequently, the ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’, from the words of the old Irish song ‘It may be for years, or it may be forever’. And it changed attitudes, lifestyles and expectations for years to come.