Dublin 16: Accounts of Suburban Lives in Dublin Footnote


Hervé Varenne


This should be quoted as: "Dublin 16: Accounts of suburban lives in Dublin." in Irish towns and cities, ed. by C. Curtin, T. Wilson, and H. Donnan. 1993


                      As far I am concerned, the only justification for anthropology, the only reason why it should be supported by non-anthropologists, lies in its struggle to construct "holistic" accounts of the life of human beings in their local circumstances. This imperative evolved in the social sciences out of the recognition of the need not to reduce human action to any of its components, levels, or postulated infrastructures. What is interesting about human activity is what might be talked about as its "passionate surplus." Human beings always do more than what we might expect them to do, and the anthropological task is to emphasize this surplus, what we usually talk about as "culture."

                      It is now clear, however, that the customary means at our disposal--particularly the scholarly paper--conspire to prevent us from achieving accounts that emphasize both the facticity of the world people inhabit, and their own activity within this world. There is much about living in suburban Dublin that the listing of such things as census figures or the price of houses, the summarizing of religious or ideological beliefs, or quotes from interviews about any of these things, cannot bring out. Pictures, ethnographic film, etc., would help but cannot be used here. Despite the dangers, I engage here in rather mild stylistic plays which may help us to preserve and enhance our peculiar responsibilities for bringing something of the people we have lived with to our readers through our texts. Footnote In turn, I use accounts of personal experiences, statistical summaries, symbolic maps, and quoted voices from my neighbors, to make a dual point about the externality of cultural constructions, and the continual concrete work of the people. Footnote This paper is an acknowledgement of this work, and of its conditions. Interpretation may be the means anthropologists must use, but the goal of anthropology is "presentation"--the making present in some way of both the conditions that frame activity, and of the products of this activity.


The View From My Window

                     Black and silver clouds chase each other swiftly under a blue and grey canopy. Sea gulls play aerial games in the wind. The bushes across the street shiver and bend. The young trees on the sidewalk snap back as they resist the forces that struggle to uproot them. The grass ripples in the little garden. The house creaks and whistles. The muffled roar of the oil burner in the background underlines the freedom of the gale as, suddenly, it dies out and, just as suddenly, gusts up again. A spray of rain splatters on the large picture windows. The sun breaks through the clouds casting brilliant light over the glittering lawn. Emerald island...

                     Four rows of ten identical houses. Fifty cars in forty driveways. Forty families, two hundred people. The neat street is deserted. No through traffic. A quiet "cul de sac of mature properties" as a real estate advertisement might put it. The eye roams over the thirty eight neat lawns each with their variety of bushes, small trees, and flower beds through which a family presents itself to its neighbours. All different, and yet all the same until one is caught by the two gardens where overgrown grass and unkempt bushes betray a private tragedy that can no longer hide behind well trimmed welcomes and kind offers of a "nice cup of tea."

                     The street is deserted. A flock of crows descends. They busily hold a conclave and suddenly take off, in a clatter of powerful wings and chilling cries. A car is carefully backed out into the street, speeds off in the roar of a stressed first gear, is abruptly slowed at the first corner, then launched again before coming to a halt at the STOP sign that marks the boundary of, as we are told by the symmetrical sign that greets those who drive off the main road into it, Greenhill, Ballinteer, Dublin 16, Ireland. Footnote

                     The street is empty again. A magpie lands in the grass, cocks its head once, twice, picks at the ground, and comes up with a fat worm which it greedily pulls off. A marmalade cat purposefully walks along the wall and smells the air. Another car goes by. The bright windy silence returns. A child, loaded with a heavy school bag, walks by. Two others glide away on their bikes. Off to school. The wind and a splash of sun again. Half an hour goes by. Another car, another bike. A man washes his car in the driveway of "8." It is now ten o'clock and one, and then a second, and a third woman walk their three year olds to "14" where another mother will "mind" the child for two and a half hours. A brief moment of freedom in exchange for some "pin money" to spend on clothes, or a vacation in Spain. A brief conversation at the door, and then everyone is off by themselves.

                     Silence. Through the wall, there is the faint buzz of "hoovering" as the housewives go about their business. A car stops in front of "23." A woman gets out of her battered "Mini," pulls back the front seat and two toddlers emerge. Two more emerge from the house, and then their mother. For a few minutes, as the two women exchange lively greetings and recent incidents ("Niamh slept through the night but Kate threw up again"), there is a free for all on the lawn before they all disappear through the front door. Half an hour later the scene is repeated in the reverse order and the Mini zips away. In the mean time two women have gone into "12" for morning tea. For two hours, in a cloud of smoke, they talk about children, husbands, the cost of living, the high taxes, the Church, and the altogether desperate state of things in Ireland.

                     At noon four or five of the older teenagers ride over from their private high school, expecting lunch and a motherly presence. In half an hour the soft whistle of the bikes briefly underlines the silence again. The mother protests, but she is pleased.

                     Outside, the windy quiet persists. There is nobody home in "4," "5", "9" and "11." Both husband and wife have sped away much earlier to pay the mortgage for their house in Greenhill, one of the better estates in Ballinteer, everyone agrees. They used to live down the road in Queens Gardens. That was better than their first house in Tallaght, but "the houses here are so much nicer, and the people are so friendly."

                     Around 3, the children come back. Some let themselves in, snatch a snack, start homework perhaps. The door bell rings. Two little girls, munching sweets, ask: "Is Kathy home? Can she come out and play?" The three are off intently, discussing in great earnest their latest discovery. For two or three hours, there will be some animation in the estate as improvised games of tennis, football or curb ball form and dissolve. Some--against their parents express instructions--cross the street to raid the fields where cows still graze. Bikes are ridden up and down. Toddlers are chased off the pavement. Within two hours siblings gather brothers and sisters back in for tea or dinner. The doors close. The street is again the domain of crows, magpies, the odd speeding car bringing a father or mother home from work, the wind.


Questions and Evaluations

                     A quiet day in the life, or is it the death?, of Greenhill. This is the perennial question that, over a year of fieldwork, an anthropologist like myself who moved into one of the houses in Greenhill, keeps hearing. In scholarly discussion about Ireland, in the newspapers of Dublin, in pubs and at parties, the same kind of questions are asked: Is one to think of the people who have bought houses there as ambiguously successful middle class or struggling working class? Have they escaped poverty (urban or rural), blight, and the infamous provincialism of small towns? Or have they traded the rich community life of small rural villages or dense urban neighbourhoods, for isolation, loneliness, a kind of metaphoric death in an unauthentic world of rootless consumerism? Footnote

                     The debate grinds on among the people of Greenhill themselves as the lawns get mowed, flowers planted, new carpeting put down, and last but not least, mortgages get paid and new estates sprout in the fields up the hill and down the road.

                     "Oh, of course, that's suburban," says the consultant in gynecology or the professor at Trinity College, as we talk about some oddity of local behaviour. He, of course, does not belong in Greenhill, though he has to reside there. But he is planning to buy a house in Blackrock.

                     "The people here think they are so special, but I have never been in a worse parish" says the curate as he defends himself against the well known charge that "the priests of these parishes don't really care. Look, nothing is happening. Do you know that, last year, they ..." "When I first came here," continues the curate, "I tried to organize masses in people's homes, in each of the neighbourhoods of my area in the parish. And, you know, the people were very proud of it. They invited all their families and friends from all over the city, but none of their neighbours! Once I went to visit a family in Greenhill whose infant child had died. Would you believe that their neighbours didn't know anything had happened?!" Footnote

                     "Greenhill is such a nice place, people are so friendly here. I had a real breakdown when we moved away from our first house in Queens Garden to some place in Rathfarnham. I had to tell John that we had to move back, and we did, even though we lost some money on the deals." Footnote

                     In public at least, the debate never goes much further than conversations about the weather: "It's terrible today, but wasn't it lovely yesterday. They say we should get a few more days of this." The state of the economy, the wisdom of buying a first house, or attempting to trade up to a better estate, the quality of the life that one can make in Greenhill, none of these things can be settled and they are all matters for a stylized form of talk behind which is not so well hidden the anxiety that follows a major act in the history of these families.

                     In some ways, the very fact that they all have such an act in their past settles the matter: all the people of Greenhill, and the overwhelming majority of the people of Ballinteer, have not (yet?) migrated to London or Long Island. They have migrated to a place in Ireland that has grown by 95% (from 6,404 to 12,307) over the 1970s, Footnote a place where they are making a life in uncertainty. Some of them may still migrate further. Migration certainly remains a possibility, and it is a probability for their children. In the mean time, they are all together at work, and an anthropologist has the responsibility of revealing their struggles to those skeptics who may be misled by the contrast between the appearance of the estate, and either the cottages of Connemara, or the streets of North Dublin.

                     The issue here is not authenticity or identity. As full participants in the more discursive variations of Euro-American ideologies, many of my neighbours could talk about authentic and spurious cultures, about their identity, and that of their country. Performatively, this talk was always somewhat abstracted from the concreteness of their everyday life. Too specific a focus on this talk would have blinded me to their own struggles. Footnote My neighbours were not idenditical to what they had accomplished in their past. They were not--in any simple way--"suburbanites" because they were living in a suburb. Living in a suburb was what they were doing at this point in their life. My task, as an anthropologist is to focus on my neighbours' practical, active survival. It consists in highlighting what is constructed by the acts that the people make within that which they inherit, by the stories they tell, the identifications they make, the responses they perform as the consequences of older acts become inevitable. The semi-detached house, like the thatched cottage and the Georgian Terrace, are symbols that can all too easily hide the travails of the people who move among them. Behind the curtains framing the huge picture windows that face the streets of Greenhill, there are people whom we must continue to follow. That many in Ireland should be wondering whether "Dublin 16" Footnote is the "Real Ireland" Footnote for whom the heroes of 1916 died, should not make us turn away from it. Quite the contrary, I would say.


Ballinteer Footnote

                     When I first experienced Dublin, in Autumn 1985, I was struck by the wide bay, by the altogether wild hills that frame the basin, by the sky. Being still quite new to Irish studies, I had to be taught to see the town as a cultural space. I had to be taught to talk about it as a series of concentric circles bisected by a river that separates--not a left bank from a right bank--but a popular, working class North from an Anglo-Irish, pretentious South. To the North was Irish nature to be found; to the South the unauthentic culture of the doubtfully successful. To the North was the world whose struggles Sean O'Casey celebrated. To the South was the world James Joyce repudiated. To the North the populist conservatism of Fianna Fail--and more rarely the socialism of the Labour or Workers parties--, to the South the technocratic conservatism of Fine Gael, and--by the middle 1980s--of the Progressive Democrats. Footnote

                     Little by little, in casual conversations, in tourist guides, and also in scholarly accounts that sometimes point out the artificiality of these symbolic distinctions and thus authenticate them as reference points on the cultural map of Dublin, I learned to distinguish the "Centre" from what I now conceive as three tiers of suburban expansion, in the South side of the city at least. As one moves across the canal that marks the boundary of the central city, one first encounters such areas as Rathmines, Ranelagh, Ballsbridge, Blackrock, that are associated with the late 19th century Anglo-Irish and the rising Catholic middle-classes. One then moves to the region around Rathfarnham, Churchtown, Dundrum, Stillorgan. These were settled in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s with older versions of the semi-detached one-family homes that continue to predominate. Altogether, these regions lost up to 4% of their population in the 1970s. Finally, one enters a region now at the edge of Dublin, areas around and beyond Ballybrack, Clondalkin, Tallaght, Terenure. This is a region for which the population increased by 20% to 600% during the 1970s.

                     This region is now covered by a mass of housing "estates" (what in the United States might be called "developments"), with the attendant shopping centres and schools, and a minimal complement of such services as churches or pubs. Within the region, one can distinguish various ecological areas, often separated by undeveloped farms, parks, industrial estates, etc. Ballinteer is one such area. Each area is itself somewhat homogeneous, though all areas contain pockets of "official" poverty (state supported "council housing" (sometimes in apartment buildings visible from long distances as they rise four or five stories over the rest of the housing stock), some pockets of unofficial poverty (such as "travellers" temporary settlements), and a not insignificant number of invisible poverty (individual households in various stages of bankruptcy). The areas are in fact somewhat heterogeneous amongst themselves, and any attempt at characterizing them as a whole would be misleading. Nothing extremely expensive--say above 80,000 pounds--was built in this circle of suburbs, and it is home to many a skilled blue collar worker or petty bureaucrat. Still, many estates have houses that are beyond the reach of most in Dublin, except young professionals, middle managers, and other civil servants. At the other extreme is Tallaght where the Irish government deliberately concentrated housing for the often unemployed working class people who lived in the areas of Dublin which were demolished in the 60s in the name of urban renewal. Footnote Though neighbouring estates can be somewhat heterogeneous, each estate within an area is extremely homogeneous, as far as housing style and cost is concerned. This does not mean that estates are not somewhat heterogeneous as far as the social background of the buyers is concerned.

                     Through the middle nineteen sixties, Ballinteer itself remained a rural area south of Dundrum with no particular centre . It included a small housing estate built in the 1930s with British money for Irish veterans of World War I, a dozen or so "council" houses dating from even earlier, some middling Anglo-Irish "estates"--in the old sense of the word that referred to a house and a few acres of park land around it--, a few scattered small shops and farms. Only one of these landed gentry estates, Marley Park, was of any size or other significance, and it had been turned into a city park with a playground for children, playing fields, and trails through woods. By the time we lived there only one of these estates was still operated in a traditional manner as a stud farm. It was hidden behind high walls and a screen of trees that made it all but invisible. The rest of the area had been settled, estate by estate with names like Broadford, Ludford, Woodpark, Clonlea, Pine Valley, Marley, etc. The last area of open fields was built up during our stay. As the first estates were developed, the old Anglo-Irish houses were demolished in the process of putting up the hundreds of semi-detached houses that subdivided the park land and fields. One developer told me that only in the late 1970s was it realized that these houses might have value as status symbols around which to create an advertisement image for the emerging development. They are now often preserved, after having been subdivided into small apartments. There is only one, though quite noticeable, city council estate, Hill View Court at Ballinteer's northern edge. There was also a proposal to transform an open field at the southeastern edge into a halting site for travellers. At what may become the centre of the area, one could find one major shopping centre and two smaller ones, two gas stations, one school, two pubs, one church. Footnote


Identifications Footnote

                     On my first drive through Ballinteer and the other suburbs of this belt, I was struck by the grey to pale beige uniformity of the architecture. All the houses are essentially the same--differing only in floor sizes, detailing, and after a few years, a weathering mitigated or not by the level of upkeep. They are of the semi-detached style favoured in the British Isles (all contracting companies, even when Irish-owned, have close ties with English companies), with small gardens in front and back, a low wall facing the street but not blocking views of, or from, the front of the house. The buildings are typically constructed of cement building blocks with a stucco finish, with huge picture windows in the main rooms. On the ground floor one finds an eat-in kitchen and a more or less extensive living room-dining room combination in a corner of which is located the ubiquitous television and VCR. In some estates no other provision was made for parking a car beyond a paved area in the front garden. Most have car ports, some have enclosed garages. Footnote The heating systems vary from nothing but coal-burning fire places in two bottom rooms, to more or less elaborate ones with oil-burning central heating.

                     The appearance of uniformity is quite misleading, however. Eventually, I learned that all these details (heating system, double glazed windows, car ports transformed into enclosed garages or extra bedroom, floor size, garden size, density, landscaping, etc.) allow for an elaborate system of identifications that differentiate estate from estate, and neighbour from neighbour. Only a mean-spirited critic will say of the houses and of the people that "they are all alike." In fact, people are very sensitive to not so minor variations in floor size, finish, landscaping, etc.. They also work to distinguish their house from the one next door. Given the rather short history of these estates, there may not have been time for glaring differences. Still, people will notice who has enclosed the main entrance within a small porch, who plants an elaborate flower garden, and who is content with the original bare square of grass. The construction of a "granny flat" in the back of the house will be discussed at length, and so will the decision to install new carpeting, and perhaps a second bathroom. Each of these things display for those who know how to read the signs, the household, as particular economic, kin, and status, entity.

                     The affirmation of a peculiar kind of diversity may also arise out of the symbols the people use to identify themselves. Of the several thousand adults who lived in Ballinteer in the middle 1980s, not more than a few dozen had been born there. None of the people of Greenhill had been. "I am from Cork," "my parents were both from Co. Meath," "I think my grand father was born in Arklow," "oh, no my mother was a real Dubliner, we grew up on Eccles street." The three dozen families who inhabit the houses their parents moved into in 1918 are never an issue. Neither the families, nor their houses, are symbols for identification. Most people don't even know they exist. As for the Anglo-Irish big houses that doted the landscape, they and their owners are now all gone, as utterly as if they had never existed. When the house and its magnificent grounds that gave its name to Marley Park was opened to the public, there was no attempt to appropriate its history. All that remains of the original Ballinteer are a few names, and the word "estate" itself. On a smaller theatre, this is the process that made of Trinity College in the centre of Dublin, or of the famous Georgian terraces of the city, or even St. Patrick's Cathedral, ambiguous symbols that a proper Irish nationalism could not co-opt as "really us." After all, the nationalists said in various ways, the Anglo-Irish should never have inscribed themselves on "our" landscape. In the process, as some Irish critics have argued, the nationalists alienated themselves, and the population of Ireland, from major aspects of their past. Footnote

                     Ballinteer may have carried only one symbolic identification requiring some response from residents. It was associated with the "south" of Dublin, and thus carried, particularly among those who had little direct experience of the area, the stigmata of snobbery, superiority, middle-classness, etc., that have their uses as political weapons among the residents of other parts of Dublin. This is the area which has seen the development of an offshoot of the traditional Fianna Fail political party, the Progressive Democrats. They were particularly strong in South Dublin, and of them a columnist for the Irish Times once wrote

The Progressive Democrats [is a party that] is evolving into an open and avowedly right-wing middle class party. It is the party of "I'm All-right-Jack-and-shag-you" people. It appeals to the selfish and the greedy: it is the purveyor of consumer politics, the antithesis of the rural meitheal. (Healy 1987)

Some of those who bought houses in Ballinteer rather than in equivalent areas in the northern or western suburbs may indeed have done so because of the positive version of this identification (the one that would stress comfort, progress, openness to new ideas and liberalism, etc.). It may even have allowed builders to charge more for the same house. Some of our neighbour however were quite sensitive to the insult, and they made a major point of correcting me if I mentioned that I had come to the area to the study the "Irish middle class"--as I initially, and naively, did. One person I had never met, but who had heard of my summary of my work, once came to me angrily to affirm that there were no people of the middle class in Ballinteer, only people of the working class. One of the local member of the Dáil confirmed that he would never use the word "middle class" in his speeches. Footnote He had agreed that "reporters, experts" would call Ballinteer "middle class" but that it was "a horrible term":

No way! [LAUGHTER] No way. I would never use the term in a public speech. I don't like it at all. Now the one thing about Ballinteer, you could describe it as a lot of things. It's a very settled area, a very friendly area I find, from my work as a teacher. I don't like the classification of people.

                     Eventually, Ballinteer in general, and Greenhill in particular, exists only in the negative. Greenhill is not a place where you might send people to find Ireland. It is the place that is never photographed for the myriad coffee table books and postcards that sell Real Ireland to the tourists and the Irish alike. Real Ireland, community, is somewhere else, in the country, in the inner city. On the negative, every one agrees: Greenhill is "not Ireland." It is no more Ireland than London or Long Island. No Saint Columbcille walked the streets making wells holy. No grandfather built the stone walls that established the family's land and identified it in relation to the other families of the parish. Ballinteer is the empty place inhabited by 15,000 people.

                     But Greenhill is also the place where the people are willing to sacrifice much so that they can live there. Sean Bailey, whom I discuss in greater detail further on, told the story of his move in the following terms:

I bought this house six years ago. We saved. And, we got married in 1980 and we bought a house before we got married. It was a three bedroom semi-detached out in one of the big housing estates, in a place named Clondarkin and then... Kay is originally from the area and her family lived here. We wanted to move. We liked this area. We wanted to move over here so then we just decided after a year--we lived in the other house about a year--we'd try and move before we had any children because we could handle the money better. So we went looking around and this came up. We didn't have the money really but the way you scrimp and save and put every penny together. So we bought this which was about twice the price of what we had paid for the other one. So we made some money on that one. Prices were really booming then. House prices were nearly doubling, you know, about 1,000 pound a week. At that time there was such a boom in the building that house prices went psst. That's when we decided that if we were ever going to move, we had to do it then because when kids come along we couldn't afford to do it any later on because prices were going up. So that's how we ended up here.

Greenhill is the uncharted future. It is the place one has come to. It is also the place that one, continually leaves: to go to work, to the supermarket, to the pub, to the exercise centre, to church, to school. Indeed this is a place where few expect their children to remain after they graduate from difficult (to the children), and very expensive (to their parents), schools. To leave, one first necessity is a car, the last one is an education. These necessities, eventually frame all aspects of one's everyday life in a place like Greenhill. Let us, then, follow my neighbours as they leave.


The View from My Car

                     Tic, tic, tic, goes the turn signal as one leans over the steering wheel to check for incoming traffic hidden by the hedges and a high stone wall. A quick run down 100 yards of twisting rural road and then suddenly a traffic light. A line of cars on the left pushing each other. A lumbering green double decker bus screeches to a halt, drops two women and four children and then roars on shaking and heaving over pot holes and bumps. Tic, tic, tic, another turn.

`Can I pass these cyclists with this truck coming?'


"Do you know what Dorry told me happened to her yesterday when she was driving the children to school. There were these two cyclists and ..."

Pile on the brakes; quick glance at the rear view mirror; turn signal; accelerate; pass the cyclists. Ten cars are parked in front of the small shops that house a post office, a news agent, a pharmacy and off-licence liquor store. There is barely room between these cars and the oncoming traffic. Hold your breath; `if I hold the car within half a foot of the wall on the side, we should all squeeze by without having to slow down.'

                     Another hundred yards, another turn, and the road suddenly widens. No more walls or edges but wide footpaths with strips of grass and young trees. Beyond, a vast expanse of lawns with football and gaelic goal posts. Then come the low brick and glass buildings of the local national school, and further on those of the community school, and then those of the all Irish school. Behind all this, as a grand backdrop to this display of the munificence of the Irish State in its prosperity, are the Wicklow mountains, pine forests, fields, the square block of the Greenmount Golf course; the whole crowned by the microwave antennas that broadcast computer data to London and New York.

                     Another quick run and a turn into the car park of the Ballinteer shopping centre. `A car is coming out', `there is parking space over there', `what are those children doing?', `I wonder how crowded it's going to be?'. Doors bang. `Do I have my chequebook?'

"Hello, Mary, isn't it a lovely day? Tom was in grand form last night at the meeting, wasn't he? I really like it when he gets carried away. But do you know what he told me about Fr. Stack? It seems that, three days ago, a lady came to see him ... Well, I guess I have to go now, the boys will soon be back for lunch and they don't like it if I'm not there."

Into the bustling supermarket. Pickup a troley, a smile at the lady at the liquor counter who is a member of the choir at the church. Shop assistants run to and fro stocking the shelves, picking up litter from the floor. "Do you need any help?" "The tomato sauce is in the next aisle over, on your right." This is Superquinn, one of the three main supermarket chains in Dublin. It is famous among the women of Greenhill for its "service." "Do you know, I saw Fergal Quinn last week in the store, he was helping an old lady that couldn't reach the cat food. He's such a nice man. Of course, the prices here are a little dearer than they are at Supercrazyprices, but the service is so much better." Another little conversation with Jennifer Hughes, from the Women's Network. Later, a quick word with the teacher who runs the boys' group over at the church. `He always says that he is late, but that never stops him from a chat!' In line at the checkout counter: one girl to add, one girl to pack, and one boy to push the loaded trolley back to the car.

                     Back the car out, `careful of that lorry'. `I have to stop at the church to pick up this pamphlet Fr. Stack was talking about.' Tic, tic, tic, turn signal into the car park of the square brick block that is the parish church. Without its pyramidal roof, it would look just like the school, or the supermarket, for that matter. A cross between a warehouse and a gym that can hold 1,500 people for Mass, and more often than not does not hold them ("church attendance is dropping off, you know."). A chat with the organist and the cleaning lady. Off again, a stop at the service station for petrol, and then back home.

                     Unload the car, vacuum the living room, call Gloria and find out what happened at Bingo last night. "Did you listen to Gay Byrne this morning? He had that man from Carlow that called last week about single mothers and how it's all their fault for being promiscuous and immoral. You should have heard the row!" Sandwiches for the children. "Yes David, there are clean pants in your closet. Did you get caught in the rain?" The beds. Time to get the two girls from school.

                     Back into the traffic. Wave at Sylvia, the crossing guard, in her white lollypopping outfit with STOP sign in hand. "You know, she hates doing this, but she says that, when she gets the money, it makes up for it. But boy, does she hate it!" A long line of cars in front of the school. A swarm of children, pushing, shoving, laughing, waving. "There is Kevin with the crutches, he broke his leg in the corridor last week. They say it could have been much worse." "Don't you think that Brandon sang beautifully at the parents' Mass, last month?" "Yes, Gregory can come and play with you tomorrow afternoon. He can stay for tea and then his parents will have to come and pick him up. We are going to your grandmother's later." "No, you can't go to David's on Thursday, I have to take Kate to Sylvia's, Niamh is coming to play with Mary and ..." "But mom ..." Back home with three bouncy bodies. "I almost forgot I had to drive Ann home."

                     Time for tea. Some spaghetti for the girls, rashers and potatoes for the boys, one hour later, and then again two hours later for Sean, when he comes home from work. "Mom, is there any food in the house?" `Will they ever stop being hungry?' "Jennifer don't whine. Gregory, put on your shoes when you go out, you're tracking oil on the carpet." Move the clothes from the line outside to the stand in front of the radiator. `Is the coal fire going? Should I turn the oil burner on. I'll wait another half hour, what with the price of oil these days'. "What?! Mary, you need another notebook for the test tomorrow? why didn't you tell me earlier?! Well, I can't do it now, you'll have to ask your father when he comes home, perhaps he can run down to the store and get it." Television, rock music, homework, bickering, laughter.

                     "Sean, how are we going to pay for the telephone bill? Fifty five pounds, would you believe it?" "They told us at the office that we may get an 11 pound a week raise but we'll have to pay 5 more pounds for the new medical insurance." "And then there are the 4 more pounds that the mortgage is going to cost us. They said on the radio that this is what the new increase in interest rates would come to." "My mother called this morning. We can't go over on Saturday, she is doing something with my sister. She was so sharp, I don't understand what I did to her that she should treat me like that! You would have thought we were going to take the food from her mouth. So, we'll get there next week instead." "Tonight is the night of the prayer group, I'll be going at half eight. I should be back at ten, as usual."

                     Back in the car. Tic, tic, tic, turn signal, the roar of first gear, traffic light, tic, tic, tic, turn signal, a bus, three cyclists. `Why is my mother so mean? I'll have to make an intention for her tonight. Perhaps God will help. Or at least it will help me. I wonder who is bringing the cookies to night? Look at all the cars in front of the pub. I wonder where these young people all find the money?' Stop at the light, turn signal, another bus. Into the church car park again. An hour of prayer, 30 minutes of tea and chats. Back in the car. The turn home. Tic, tic, tic.


Constraints and Actualities

                     There is much wisdom in the insistence by some of my informants that I think of them as "working class." Whatever else we may want to say about the people who have found themselves in Greenhill, we must say that they work very hard, and that, through their work, they find themselves dependent on a host of other people, across the country, and across the world, that they will never meet, but whose actions, in the long run, constrain what they can actually do. There is much that one cannot escape once the historical act of buying a house in any suburban estate has been made. Above all one cannot escape intimate entanglement with the very economic and cultural forces that produced the estate. Anthropologists who now talk about "world systems" have demonstrated that even the most remote of communities, in Ireland as elsewhere, are always linked, more or less directly, with groups, or institutions, whose needs and requirements resonate back to the local level, opening possibilities, and limiting others. In Greenhill, this linkage may simply be more immediate, since there are no local institutions to which the residents would be accountable, and that would shield them from the international forces that organize possibilities and constraints.

                     Think, for example, about the basic act that places oneself in a place like Greenhill: the act of buying a house. Most of the people of Greenhill probably first encountered it through an advertisement, say in the Irish Property Times. In 1986, a set of fields at the very southern edge of Ballinteer was thus being developed and advertised as "Kingston, Quality Homes at a Prestige Location, five house types with prices ranging from 38,200 to 69,300." The location is given as "Dundrum"--thus revealing that those who accuse the buyers of "snobbery" have the same opinion of these buyers as the developer: to talk of Dundrum in this context is probably to try and conjure the image of a quaint little village on the South side. To talk of Ballinteer might either draw a blank, or be associated with the mass developments of identical houses--which it in fact is--, or, worst of all, make potential buyers thinks of Tallaght, unemployment and lowering property values. This developer is presented as "Park Developments, (Dublin) Ltd.." The company is in fact a multi-national Irish-English company that also builds in England. Footnote

                     Simply to visit the model house confronts oneself with the first constraint: no public transportation will take one closer than a mile from Kingston, and it is totally impractical for a family unit to be without at least one car, though two would be better. To think seriously about buying, one then needs a bank, which implies at least one job for the family unit, and probably two. Settling in Greenhill also means taking account of the games politicians play with tax subsidies to add insulation to one's attic, or to transform a car port into an extra bedroom. It means being tied to the vagaries of the international policies determining the price of fossil fuels, and, in the past few years, to new worries about air pollution, global warming, and, always, what any of these will do to one's budget, to one's job or profession. It probably also involves delicate negotiations with parents and siblings about the possibility and extent of various kinds of help, along with the responsibilities one may gain or relinquish in the process.

                     And then, there is the matter of the children. When very young, there is the problem of caring for them during the day, dealing with them when one is tired, or looking for adult company. Later, there is the matter of deciding what school to send them to: the local public (parochial) schools, or the many private schools that dot the landscape? And then, for years, one must worry about how they are doing, and how one might help them further to make it possible for them to stay in the schools where they will work the hardest in preparation of graduating exams. All this is extremely expensive, financially and interactionally. And then there is the question of college: more expenses and hardships for an ambiguous prize since, at the end of the road, it is very possible that the children will leave Ireland for more or less distant shores--just as many of their uncles and aunts have done for generations before. To help with all this, there is also the need to build a new network of neighbours, acquaintances, friends, along with continuing attempts at maintaining several older networks across Dublin, across Ireland, across the world.

                     Even for the middle-manager and young professional, all this is work, hard work, in all the senses of the term--whether physical, economic, or ethnomethodological. The fact of this work, of this concrete activity in specific situations, must be played up if we, as social scientists, are not to transform the people we report on into automatons, passive cogs in impersonal machines. The machines make conditions (jobs, estates, cars, and the many narratives that link all these in conversation and symbolic representation), the people make their own lives, for themselves, the members of their households, kin and networks of friends and acquaintances. However overwhelming the constraints that frame the people, they must still perform the rest of their days, and, in the process, produce a particularity, a difference that the casual glance may miss. The fifty houses that made Greenhill may have been built at the same time, with the same materials, and the same floor plan, they must still be understood as hiding fifty different lives, the product of a culturing process--what some have recently called a resistance--that no system is so total as to defeat.

                     One of our neighbours in Greenhill, Sean Bailey was a skilled mechanic in an industrial bakery. His grandparents had been small farmers in Sligo. His parents had moved to England, and then back to Dublin where he was raised. He has two brothers, one in England, where he has become a successful industrialist, one in the United States, where he is a meat inspector. The one sister is a nurse in Saudi Arabia. He himself left school at 14, drifted for a while, eventually got trained as a mechanic, and finally found his current job:

S. B.: At the moment there we are automating the plant. We've had a lot of redundancies in that factory. New management, from the top down. They did a complete clean up, you know, sacked all the old management and things like that and now they are spending a lot of money updating the plant, new fleet of delivery trucks, new offices, everywhere. At the moment we are in there automating the plant, it's becoming computerized, which in the long run will do away with jobs. There is plenty work there at the moment. I suppose that I am more secure than a lot in there because I'm relatively young in there. You know, the older men I'm relatively young in there. I am involved in automating the plant, and I know how it works.

         H.V.: If you know how it works they may need you!


S.B.: The way I have it done! When I leave they can forget it! There are five electricians in there. Now one of them is retiring at the end of the month. One is retiring next week, end of the month. He won't be replaced. That leaves four of us. There is one guy younger than me. So if they wanted to get rid of somebody else, he'd be the first to go. It goes on service, you know.

He married a woman with a similar background to his (from the West, to Dublin, to the suburbs of the world in three generations). Together they maintain an extensive world-wide network of relatives in all sorts of positions and life conditions. For a long time, she worked at a job, then the children came and her work changed. She may go back out for a job even though "financially it's not worth it," but "she likes to get out of the house."

                     The Baileys, with their two young children and extensive network of kin, were optimistic, and everything seemed to be working well for them. When pipes froze in their attic, causing major damage to several rooms in the house, the network was mobilized, things were repaired in less than a month so that, along with the insurance money that they also collected, the final situation was a further improvement on what was already a comfortable life style with all the outward symbols of prosperity well displayed. At the other extreme, another household went through the last steps in a process that all in Greenhill recognized as all too possible: the husband had left a few months before we moved in, the wife closed herself in her house, and rarely ventured outside. She relied on an alcoholic son who resided with her for getting the bare necessities and negotiating with welfare agencies. Neither of them worked. They did not tend their front garden. and thus publicized their plight in a way that left them open to further degradation. The garden had become overgrown with weeds and various detritus that the children left there as they played pranks on "the crazy lady." From time to time her ghostly figure in slippers and dressing gown would ring at someone's door, complaining about people taking drugs in her backgarden, or other such stories. The mortgage had not been paid in months and, shortly before we moved out, the house was repossessed and she was committed in a mental hospital. The same month, a young gynecologist who had moved back from Scotland to take an important position in a famous Dublin hospital moved out of the house he had been renting, and into a magnificent home in Blackrock he had bought for more than twice the price houses in Greenhill went for.

                     Most families fell within the range I evoke here. Some were more prosperous, some less. Some had new cars in the driveway and talked about the improvements they were going to make on their house. Some took in boarders in the summer for the few extra pounds that might help buy shoes for the too many children. Some, particularly among the women who stayed home during the day, linked themselves with neighbours for long talks over tea, biscuits, and cigarettes. Others stayed by themselves for days, and became the subject of worried talk among those who knew them. Nobody, really, had it easy, but all worked and made something that we must celebrate. The environment of semi-detached houses, cars, and shopping centres has none of the romance that social scientists and other intellectuals attach, with the tourists they claim not to be, to the thatched cottages and teeming tenements emblematic of the Real Ireland. Footnote It is now "their" environment, the environment within which they act--what we might call the "Actual" Ireland.

                     In this spirit, I close this evocation of suburban life in Dublin with a sketch of another one of our neighbour, Ray Fleming. His household may have been closer to the middle of the range than the household of the Baileys I presented earlier. The Fleming household showed the wear and tear of years of labor which, when they could look at it from some distance, they acknowledged as having achieved what it had to. Still, on a day to day scale, it was exhaustion that was most salient. No "success" here, just honourable survival: the Flemings were doing their duty by themselves and their children. Ray Fleming sold advertisements for one of the major newspapers in Dublin. He was born in the Wicklow mountains, the son of a petty bureaucrat who then moved to Galway and lived out his days in Dublin. Meg Fleming is the third child of a professional from Kilkenny. She had moved to Dublin as a young adult and married Ray against the wishes of her parents who all but disinherited her, the house and business going to her eldest brother. Together Ray and Meg had six children, and she was now working as a cashier in one of the local supermarkets to insure that they would all attend the private schools that would hopefully ease their way into careers. They were not in the best of schools, but it was still quite an expense. In consequence, the house was an often underheated shamble, and the car a wreck. In a few words she gives a version of the suburban dilemma in Dublin that I have tried to sketch. She talks about wanting a "house beautiful" but choosing to have six children; she talks about the work needed whether one attempts to achieve consumer perfection, or to reproduce a complex community life. Work, choices, and consequences:

Meg. Fleming: But there are a lot of women that haven't time for just sitting down with a child. I find in modern day, today, in Dublin especially, of course I haven't any views of anywhere else, because I haven't lived anywhere else, that they just really concentrate on the house. They have this idea of the perfect house but, I mean, my house is just a home as far as I am concerned. But you have this perfect house, carpet, furniture, fridge, washing machine, everything has to be there and number one child arrives when all this is done. This is the new, this is definitely, I am sure it's everywhere, whereas we did it all the other way. We had six children and never thought about the consequences, absolutely never thought about it. No, we didn't. People actually have said to me, one or two people have said that we are quite irresponsible in today's age having six children. They have actually said that to me.


Susan Varenne: They have actually said that, here in Ireland?


M.F.: They said to me 'you are quite irresponsible.' You know, 'if you feel you're under money pressures, whatever, well, you just take one look at yourself, look, you've six children, you don't think that was totally irresponsible of you?' When I was having them, it never dawned on me, would it dawn on you?




M.F.: And Ray considers, which is true, when I start moaning and say 'oh, I wish I had this, and I wish I had that' you know, I don't tend to do that too much lately, I've matured that much more, but you know, when I was younger, and Ray'd say 'you know, we are very well off, someday you are going to wake up and say, I wish I was back in the old days' you know 'if you have your health you've your wealth, and that's it, you have enough, you have enough food, you have enough clothes, kids are happy, that's it.'


S.V.: He has a very sensible point of view. He's a sound person


M.F.: He is, he has, I am sure you've.. 'Wake up and say, I've got a pain. You go to the hospital, I've got cancer, now which would you prefer? sit at home with a carpet you don't like', which I don't like, 'so what, a day will come when you can replace it. Don't rush it.'


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December 8, 2005