'I know couples who both work but who took on a lot of debt. It wouldn't take much to sink them'
There is a story doing the rounds in London about a hostess losing it in the middle of a posh dinner party. "The meltdown in Maida Vale" they're calling it.
"It's all false, all a sham," she cries.
"All what?" ask her guests.
"This," she says, indicating the built-in Nespresso machine, the wine fridge, the Siematic appliances, the silver cutlery and the Villeroy & Bosch tableware.
"It's all bought on credit. We don't own – really own – a single thing. We're one paycheck away from losing it all." And then she bursts into tears.
The notion of keeping up appearances no matter what the cost has traditionally been seen as a British preoccupation.
The plight of the Maida Vale businesswoman whose world would implode if either she or her husband lost their jobs certainly chimed with the chattering classes in London.
But could it happen here? Are the Irish as preoccupied with externals? And is our squeezed middle as squeezed as theirs?
"There are definitely couples I know in the same boat," confirms a Dun Laoghaire mother of three. "I know couples who both work, but who took on a lot of debt. It wouldn't take much to sink them."
The woman, who has returned to work after raising her children, is married to a successful businessman. "We are comfortable. We didn't go mad when everyone else was borrowing up to the hilt. But I do know wives who, over a coffee or a glass of wine, confess how worried they are about the family finances.
Another hostess, from Malahide this time, agrees. "They had to have the house and the two cars and the skiing holiday," she says of a couple she meets regularly on the dinner party circuit.
"They could keep all the balls in the air once the money was coming in, but one slip and you're suddenly behind on payments for this and that, and it's very hard to catch up."
A new report by the Social Market Foundation in the UK shows that middle earners have tried everything to maintain their status and income during the recession.
Their research shows that middle-class families adopted three main strategies to cope: wives went back to work, they did their shopping in budget supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl, and called on grandparents to give free childcare.
In the UK at any rate, the proportion of double-income families rose from 35 to 49pc as more women went out to work, and families used 20pc more "free" childcare from grandparents and other relatives compared to 2007-8.
Statistically, there is some dispute about how squeezed the Irish middle classes have been by the recession. Economists such as David McWilliams argue that our middle class is being hit by higher taxes and huge mortgage debt.
However, research by the ESRI of the last six Budgets shows that the rich have been hardest hit, followed by those on low incomes. The earners in the middle have been least affected.
Top earners (incomes over €120,000) have lost about 15pc of their incomes, while the poorest have lost about 12.5pc of theirs. Middle earners have suffered a 10pc drop in income, according to the report issued last December.
Statistically, that may be accurate, but perception is a much more powerful measure of sentiment in society than hard figures. And the perception, at least among themselves, is that the middle classes are being crucified.
According to Tony Farmar's social history of the Irish middle classes (Privileged Lives, Farmar & Farmar, €19.95), the social grouping can be identified by certain traits: an insistence on private education, the disposable income to travel more than most and a reliance on property as an investment.
So, at a time when incomes are shrinking and property prices have collapsed, the middle-class must-haves (private school for little Johnny and a ski holiday at mid-term) can be just out of reach.
"A lot of marriages have broken up because of the recession," says a lawyer friend. "The pressure, the stress, it all takes its toll.
"We have certainly seen an increase in the numbers of people seeking help who wouldn't have asked for help before," says St Vincent de Paul spokesman Jim Walsh. "One in four people getting in touch is new to the Society.
"Our sense is that there are a lot of people – middle classes or the 'squeezed middle' as they call them – and some of these would have their own businesses, who are struggling but getting by, and it only takes something unexpected, a bill or something to go wrong with the car, to tip them over the edge."
Counsellor John Corcoran agrees that the craving of the middle classes for respectability, for keeping the best side out, seems to be more a British than an Irish attitude.
"People are much more upfront about these things here," says John Corcoran, who has also practised in the UK. "There is not so much concern about losing face."
So, for now, it appears the 'Meltdown in Maida Vale' could not easily be repeated in Monkstown or Malahide, despite the economic pressures.
Why we can live without Sky, but not Tommy Hilfiger
What gets cut first
* Sky Sports – the middle classes are watching Premier League highlights on RTE now;
* The foreign holiday – "staycations" are part of the austerity lexicon;
* The second car – running one car is often passed off as an environmental measure. The urban "runabout" is now deemed dispensable;
* The gym membership – it's pay-as-you-go from now on;
* Take-away food – it's cook from scratch, often with butternut squash, these days.
* Private school fees – private education is a touchstone of middle-class life, so savings are sacrificed to keep the kids going there. Word is, though, that parents are negotiating over rates and payment plans;
* The designer duds – nothing says middle-class like a Tommy Hilfiger logo (or Gant or Tricot Marine for that matter). Things would have to get very bad indeed to have to wear Primark;
* The Leinster/Munster season ticket – with Sky Sports already a possible casualty, this is the last umbilical connection between the middle-class man and his natural social habitat. He'd give up drink before letting this one go.