Monday 10 December 2018

With Free Travel, we are living the Irish Dream

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Until about 10 days ago, I don't think I had ever heard a bad word said about the Free Travel scheme.

I have rambled much in the towns and the counties of Ireland, and I have heard many things - but not until last Tuesday week or thereabouts did I hear a bad word about the "free travel".

No, I heard only good things.

Indeed at times I formed the impression that it was viewed with such affection by the people, it was the only reason that some of them were bothering to stay alive at all.

That the scheme had found its way so deeply into our consciousness, it had become the very definition of getting old in Ireland.

Anyone in the vicinity of the age of 66 will tend to say, "I'm getting the bus pass", rather than describing themselves as "pensioners" or "retirees".

And as for being a "poor ould fella", if you're one of them, it doesn't matter what you say, because nobody is listening anyway.

But they are thinking about you, those clever people who run the country - and if they suspect for a moment that there might be something that brings some solace, however insignificant, into your otherwise meaningless existence, it seems that they will make it their business to take it away from you. To "discontinue" it, as they say.

Perhaps it is this impulse which is driving these recent suggestions that the Free Travel may have to be "reviewed", or modified in some way, perhaps by imposing an annual charge of €50 - the hope would be, that poor ould fellas and other elderly types would not have the wherewithal to renew their subscription, and thus would not be troubling our already overburdened transport system with their journeys to the hospital to be informed by an equally overburdened medic that they have three weeks to live, and it won't be pleasant.

Yes, that would tidy up the books somewhat, for those clever people who are forever wondering if there is anything - anything at all - that gives the people some pleasure, however meagre and however dubious, so they can cut it or curtail it or otherwise take the good out of it.

No doubt they've had their eye on this one for a long time - and not just because the numbers of people eligible for it have been rising, probably beyond that which was originally envisaged by Charlie Haughey when he ran it up the flagpole, and a grateful nation saluted, and is still saluting.

They figured that the scheme is being so over-used, a case could be made to an increasingly mature people, putting forward a measured economic argument in favour of some, shall we say... adjustments.

So out of nowhere it seems, we are hearing these voices trying to talk a bit of sense into us, telling us that we will have to get real about this free travel lark.

And their numbers sound quite impressive - they say that one-quarter of the population is now entitled to the free travel - and yet somehow unimpressive.

I am no John Maynard Keynes, yet I can see that if the elderly and the infirm and their spouses or carers had to pay for all these free trips from, say, Athlone to Galway, and back again, many of them wouldn't go at all, or wouldn't even think of going.

So we'd be losing a mental health dividend right there.

Nor would they be contributing to the economies of Athlone or Galway as they are doing now, perhaps buying a cup of tea or a bowl of oxtail soup - or even the occasional glass of stout in a friendly bar (which would be accompanied by a relaxing cigarette if that small pleasure hadn't also been taken away from them).

And unlike Child Benefit, which is given to very rich people, we can probably take it for granted that no rich old person will be taking that free bus-ride from Arklow to Enniscorthy, just because they can.

But when we look beyond the numbers, we can see this as perhaps the perfect example of how the prevailing orthodoxies of our time have become estranged from any considerations of ordinary human happiness.

The Free Travel, which, like the Artists' Exemption, is actually something that we can call our own, has become so beloved over time, so cherished in the hearts of the people, you could nearly call it our equivalent of the American Dream.

If the American Dream is about the idea that if you work hard in that great land of endless possibility, you can create a kind of personalised vision of paradise, then the Irish Dream goes something like this:

If you work hard, in this country which keeps going down the tubes for everyone but the insiders, which seems to have no coherent philosophy of government except the desire to support those more fortunate than ourselves, at the end of all that work you have virtually nothing, and even less to look forward to, except this - that some fine day, even if you have no money, you can get a bus from Drogheda to Castlebellingham, just because you feel like it. Just because it's there.

It's not exactly a crazy dream.

It may not even be a very beautiful dream, but all things considered, it is the Irish Dream.

Tread softly...

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