Wednesday 1 October 2014

I worked for Vincent de Paul – then I was just weeks away from calling them for help myself

John Meagher on the poverty, new and old, that's now stalking Ireland

At first glance, it looks as though they have it all. The young married couple live with their two children in an attractive, modern home in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. A 2008 car sits in the driveway.

The reality could hardly be more different. This couple – both in their early 30s – have reached the end of their tether.

The husband has just lost his job and they find themselves in severe arrears on repayments for their home and their car.

Yet their immediate concerns are more prosaic: they are barely able to scrape together the money for the electricity and other bills.

They have to ration out every last euro for grocery shopping. And when it comes to food, the children are looked after first while the parents often go hungry.

Social outings have become a distant memory; a night's entertainment revolves around the television schedules. And at the back of their minds there is the gnawing anxiety about Santa's visit.

"We are helping more and more people like this couple," says Brian Mordaunt, president of the local Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) branch.

"These are people who would have thought they would never have to seek the society's help. But times have changed and we're finding there are more and more people from a traditional middle-class background who need a digout.

"When we called to this couple the other day, with a donation of €50 in cash and a €50 supermarket voucher, you could see a huge sense of relief and gratitude on their faces. They were thinking, 'We can get by for another week.'"

Yet, for this couple – like so many others in Ireland today – the fallout from Wednesday's Budget will be long and harsh. Property tax, increases in motor tax and a reduction in child benefit will make their predicament even more grave.

"It was an extremely harsh Budget that will have serious ramifications for thousands of families who are already under very considerable strain," says SVP's national vice-president and ex-RTÉ journalist Tom McSweeney.

"Look at just one feature of it, the €10 reduction in child benefit. A family with three children is immediately down €30 a month. That's a significant drop in money, particularly when you consider that many of those people are somehow expected to pay the property tax, which will run to hundreds of euro.

"For some years now, it's been apparent that it's no longer just people who are on social welfare payments who are vulnerable. The squeeze is coming from every corner and yet we are having to listen to all the government rhetoric that this was a fair Budget."

The pain is being felt across the country. This week, the Irish Independent – which is partnering St Vincent de Paul in an appeal to our readers to give generously this Christmas – reported that even the most salubrious parts of Ireland have not gone unaffected.

A family in Foxrock – one of Dublin's wealthiest suburbs – had to seek help from the charity in recent weeks after being unable to find the funds to pay for heat and electricity. When the volunteers arrived at their home, they found the couple sitting together in a pitch-dark kitchen. Their house was icily cold and there was no food in the fridge.

"The thing that has changed significantly is that some of the people coming to us now once had it all," says Patricia Carey, director of services in Dublin for the SVP.

Brian Mordaunt's brother, George, was among those who lived the Celtic Tiger dream. He had four car dealerships in south Tipperary and in the good years he was selling 40 new cars every week. He brought plenty of glamour to Clonmel, including helicopter rides for potential customers.

But when the downturn happened, George Mordaunt found himself mired in debt and the banks had little sympathy. He recounted his plight in a riches-to-rags book, Shepherd's Pie, with was acclaimed by some for its honest depiction of how even the most flashy entrepreneurs can fall on tough times.

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