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.
That's echoed in the number of calls for help that the society now receives in the capital – an estimated 75,000 by year-end 2012, compared with 17,000 in 2006.
Even HSE staff have been forced to send begging letters on behalf of needy clients to 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.
"I was just weeks away from phoning St Vincent de Paul for help," he says. "I was lucky in that I knew there were family members I could call on for a digout, but there was definitely a very low point where I thought I would have to get the society's help.
"I had been a volunteer with them for six years, so it would have been quite a turnaround to seek their assistance. But when you reach that point where it's the very last resort, you'll do it. That said, it can be very embarrassing for people to make that call and women tend to be more proactive than men about seeking help."
He has succeeded in turning his life around – his car business is more manageable today – but is acutely aware of the hardships that people in the locality suffer on a daily basis. "The other day I saw a woman – one of my best customers in the good times – who was putting €13 into her car. She was counting out the coppers at the end. Her tax was up."
"I know other people whose cars haven't been driven for months because they can't afford to get them repaired. And there are people who have outstanding finance arrangements on their cars, so even if they wanted to sell them, they can't. It's a vicious circle and yet the banks will keep coming, looking for their money."
While the woes of middle class Ireland have been magnified in Wednesday's Budget, the abject poverty suffered by the most vulnerable has simply got worse. And it is this group who are most in need of SVP's 10,500 volunteers nationwide and the estimated €80m that will be donated by kind-hearted people this year.
"We can't lose sight of the really awful conditions that the poorest in our society find themselves in," says McSweeney. "Often, they have to live in the most squalid of conditions. The prescription drugs increase – from 50c per transaction to €1.50 – will hit them especially hard.
"These are people who rely on donations to St Vincent de Paul in order not to go hungry. And our annual Toy Appeal (launched earlier this month by Ryan Tubridy) is very important to them. Anything that can stop them having to resort to moneylenders is essential. Rest assured that your money is used very sensibly."
St Vincent de Paul – which was founded in Paris in 1833 – receives more donations than any other charity in Ireland. Remarkably, in these trying times, donations from already hard-pressed individuals are up although contributions from corporate sources are down.
A national churchgate collection takes place this weekend and it's hoped that a further €1m can be raised. Every euro counts. As Patricia Carey puts it: "If the donations drop, we will be in difficulty."
Yet there are already signs that even parting with a few euro is proving to be a bridge too far for some struggling people as Christmas draws near. Brian Mordaunt notes that when he and other SVP volunteers ran a collection at St Oliver's Church, Clonmel recently, a handful of people came up to him afterwards to apologise that they were not in a position to make a donation.
"I was taken aback by people's honesty. They said they were saying to me that they were really sorry they weren't able to donate, but they were having to be careful with every cent in their pocket. It's a sign of the times."