Tuesday 23 January 2018

Last night’s TV: The Commute

Of all the stories told on The Commute, only one really carried any real impact says Diarmuid Doyle

Anybody on the live register who watched The Commute (RTE1) last night will have wondered what all the fuss was about.

Who were these people in gainful employment complaining about their journeys to work?

Does a double income family with no kids have a genuine claim on our sympathy because they work in different places during the week?

Is a single man who teaches in London and flies home on Fridays to train with his county hurling team really a victim of the economic downturn?

The Commute purported to tell the stories of what it called “extreme commuters”, people prepared to travel long distances for work.

Their numbers have increased since the recession began, though not nearly as much as those of the unemployed, and while their lives and lifestyles are clearly not ideal, their problems are insignificant compared to many others in the country.

In fact, many are not commuters at all. They’re emigrants with opportunities not enjoyed by the last wave of people to leave our shores in the 1980s.

Cheap air travel allows them to live abroad and fly home at weekends, and to that extent they are no different from people who work and live in Dublin during the week and return to their families and neighbourhoods on Fridays.

The Commute failed to make that distinction and it failed to emphasise that almost all of the people it featured – those travelling back and forth from England, and those commuting to Dublin from down the country – were all making a conscious choice to do so.

Nobody was forcing them into anything.

Brian Smyth, the Westmeath hurler, seemed to be living a life most people would envy, in a good job, teaching what seemed like a nice bunch of kids in one of the world’s great cities, and nipping home on Fridays to train for the All-Ireland championship.

Matt Scanlon comes home every weekend to see his girlfriend and child in Sligo.

That he sometimes does so on the ferry – a fifteen or 16 hour trek to see his loved ones for a day – was the most noteworthy part of his story. He should try the plane.

A determined masochism was the quality shared by most of the people featured. John McGuire, an “academic administrator”, travels by train from Limerick to Dublin, and back again, every day.

That’s a six hour round trip, at the end of which he gets to spend an hour in his wife’s company before heading to bed.

It’s not an easy existence, clearly, but it is the product of a conscious choice – to spend 30 hours on a train every week rather than put the fare towards the rent of a room in a four-bedroomed house in Dublin.

Of all the stories told on The Commute, only one really carried any real impact. Margaret Sexton Fitzpatrick is the mother of seven children – aged from 23 to 7 – who went back to education a few years ago and qualified as a midwife.

Because there is no work in her profession in Ireland currently, she leaves her husband and children every week and heads to London where she works in a hospital in Tooting. She returns at weekends.

She spent most of the programme in tears, frustrated at her long journey, missing her children and husband. “My work’s in London, but my life’s in Clonakilty”, she said.

Her situation seemed the least sustainable of them all. The money she’s making in London – once the airfares and living expenses are subtracted – contributes “a little bit” to the household budget, but surely not enough to justify the pain of separation from her family.

On the other hand she loves her job, and is learning loads. The only genuinely sympathetic character in The Commute, and the only one this viewer would like to hear about again in a year’s time, she has a clear dilemma to deal with and big decisions to make.

For all their problems, the others featured came across as relatively privileged – not compared to a tax exile, or a radio presenter or an MEP, maybe, but certainly in the context of the near million people affected by unemployment.

If they had any inkling of that, it certainly didn’t come across on The Commute.

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