November 29, 2006

Here's to a place where the classes really do mix

Posted in Ireland · 17 comments ·

Where is the last place in Ireland where all the classes mix? With the increasing hierarchies in the education system, the health system and sports facilities, where can you see the full social mix?

In education, the obsession with school league tables suggests that parents will pay any price to get their children into the ‘better’ schools. With the increasing split between public and private hospitals, the classes don’t mix in the health service. Sport, although less than it was, is also segregated along old tribal links.

What about the fabled Irish pubs? Surely these are places where doctor and docker, the oligarch and artisan rub shoulders? Well, yes and no. In our invented Ireland, the one we market abroad, the pub is the great leveller. On closer examination, the reality is different. In fact, pubs are becoming one of the most socially divisive meeting places in our New Ireland. Certain types of people go to certain types of pubs. Even among people of the same income, this division pertains.

Take Dublin city for example. Just look at the difference between the type of twentysomething who drinks in Dawson Street as opposed to the type who drinks in nearby Georges Street or Camden Street.

Simply because the nation has become more middle class on an income basis doesn’t mean that we all mix in the same places. The opposite is the case. The more similar people are in terms of income, the more likely they are to break into social hierarchies based on behaviour/image/music or whatever.

So for every Ross O’Carroll Kelly, there will be an indie band member from exactly the same social class. This is where brands come in, recognising the need of people to feel different.

But one place breaks all the rules. Dublin Airport, in all its dilapidated splendour, is the last great democratic stage in the whole country. All human life is there. According to the airport authorities, 21m people will shove and push through its doors this year. CSO estimates indicate that over 600,000 of us will travel – most by plane – this Christmas. This is an extraordinary figure for a workforce of just 2m.

What makes the airport so special is that we all end up there. Only the enormously wealthy can avoid queueing up in the endless, frustrating lines that snake through the place. My favourite is the early-morning human cobra that bends around the chaotic Ryanair check-in and then funnels us all into the hell that is other people’s socks at security. (Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, has done much more damage to the olfactory systems of the western world than he could have ever achieved as an Al Qa’ida operative).

Here is where we all meet, rich and poor, young and old, local and immigrant, urban and rural. The 97 WW Renault Clio vies with the 06 D Merc Kompressor for space in the crowded C car park (A and B are always full). Once in the terminal, it is customary to be jabbed in the heel by the over-zealous brat in the Chelsea strip who thinks it is great fun to hurtle around with the overflowing trolley while his orange-hued mother checks her mascara. “Airport heel” will soon be up there with other ailments of modern Irish life, such as “army deafness”.

Finally, you push your way through the still-drunk hen night to the check-in. You’re stuck behind the self-important salary-man with his Aer Lingus premier class tag dangling prominently for all to see from his Mulberry suit-carrier. Behind you the bottle blonde “nail technician” texts her mates frantically, while the hungover, balding fortysomething English lads on the “second-time-around stag” rummage around in their combats for their Ryanair booking reference.

Glued together like bewildered victims of some crass schoolboy joke, we fall over GAA bags and golf clubs, while taking dogs’ abuse from the scowling Spanish check-in girl on the minimum wage.

The Nigerian yellow-pack security men from the outsourced security firm look tired as they try to move the human cobra through the makeshift chicane of plastic barriers that pass for state-of-the-art crowd control at Dublin Airport. The captain of industry sighs, while the four lost Irish-Americans with day-glo name badges on their Aran sweaters become detached from the main group of “Ohio Hibernians” and panic in the obvious chaos and foreignness of it all.

The twin-setted and pearled Sloaney fund manager, all expensive blonde highlights and pencil skirt, rabbits into her top-of-the-range Motorola camera phone, while two identically turned-out Japanese businessmen in neat-fitting navy suits and twin-like side partings, get their shoes shined by the Maori at “buff-stop shoeshine”. Even the new Irish property oligarchs on their way out this morning to buy half the City of London haven’t the chutzpah to get their brogues polished in public.

For just a few hours, we all mix here. The classes collide, shrug their shoulders and flick back to their Heat magazines or Vanity Fair. Men of all ages – with the exception of gap-year Guatemala-bound Crusties – devour the Monday morning sports pages. The incongruous Italian tourist in his “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” Temple Bar stetson looks aghast at the huge watery coffee served up for €3 by Magda the Pole, who left the plum hair dye in too long last night. The two developers’ wives from Dungarvan, head to toe in Ib Jorgensen, complain about the delay to New York. They can’t wait for Thursday afternoon at the Woodbury Common outlet store; they’re tooled up with maps of the shops and strategic meeting points. They have seven empty bags packed with return tickets to Woodbury Common from Port Authority. After that, cocktails in the Waldorf Astoria beckon with the girls from Nenagh.

DUBLIN Airport has it all. Its infrastructural chaos serves as a metaphor for the rest of our clogged up, anti-freeflow country, yet the very chaos, the very social anarchy evident every morning under the giant departure timetable captures some of the essence of the New Ireland.

Here we all mix, rub shoulders, elbow each other out of the way and yet, miraculously, the place works. Despite the fact that, thanks to the new prefabricated terminal, most of us actually take off from Meath, Dublin Airport functions. Like modern Ireland, it somehow muddles through. It is a microcosm of the country, and its social mix makes it a rare sight in Ireland.

  1. Billy

    Exactly which part of the Airport is in Meath? I am willing to lay a €50 bet that nowhere in Dublin Airport is in Meath.

  2. Good article, but if you come up with any more stereotypes (self-important salary-man , yellow-pack security , Ohio Hibernians … ), everybody in the country will have his or her very own David McWilliams category.

  3. Ciarán Mc

    Hi David,

    As you point out, in all other spheres of consumption the rich manage to buy an exclusive track that gives them a head over the rest. You mentioned education, health, etc. There is housing, shopping, hotel accommodation, and so on.

    My question is this: what is it about the economics of the airline industry that prevents the market from having two distinct and sizeable streams, one for Joe Soap, and one for the wealthier end of the middle classes, who must just hate standing and sitting along side the Chelsea strips and stag parties that you mention?

    As you say, there is always the private jet – but that is beyond all but the very very wealthy.

    There is still ‘business’ class but for European travel at least, the trend towards low cost has been killing it off. Aer Lingus once had business class seats to Europe and now don’t, for example.
    Why do the numbers in the Air line industry not add up in such a way that the upper middle classes can buy their luxury lounge, short queues at airports, and better quality service and accommodation in-flight.

    I read somewhere that the low cost phenomenon is much more marked in Britain and Ireland than say France or Germany. Continental countries do have low cost carriers but apparently the percentage of low-cost flights out of London (or Dublin) greatly exceeds those from Frankfurt or say C de Gaulle. Perhaps this is changing.

    I wonder if the European airline industry – which has been described as still in a shake-out phase – is still in a transition to another configuration. I read recently that some low cost carriers in the states are now starting to reverse the trend a bit by competing on level of service more than cost and are starting to offer more than the bare bones. After all, the US pioneered low cost (Ryanair just copied) and they seem to be in the lead.
    Could the middle class soon be in for their permium treatment again, or do the numbers simply not add up?

  4. john

    Billy You are a not the sharpest knife are you!! You have to walk to Meath to get to the prefab terminal, the corridor is so long!

  5. stephen

    well said, there is some serious punters knocking around dublin airport

  6. Mark

    I’ve always had the same sort of thoughts about the supermarket – and there really is no way to pay your way up to the top of the queue there. I suppose you could argue that with M&S/Donnybrook Fair type places it is possible for the riche to avoid the riff-raff. And I have to say, though I wouldn’t consider myself particularly fussy, I wouldn’t even DREAM about shopping in Lidl or Aldi. Even driving past those places gives me the willies! (1997 Polo by the way…..!)

    Hey David, I know you’re trying to bring understanding to the masses and all, but all these stereotypes, soundbites and coining phrases are beginning to make you look like the Pat Ingoldsby of the economics world, and I don’t like to see that happen. Don’t dumb down so much!

  7. John X

    Mark, thanks for saying this, I was thinking along those lines myself:

    ‘Hey David, I know you’re trying to bring understanding to the masses and all, but all these stereotypes, soundbites and coining phrases are beginning to make you look like the Pat Ingoldsby of the economics world, and I don’t like to see that happen. Don’t dumb down so much! ‘

    David you are much better than a lot of this stuff you write lately. The inclination to dumb down everything in these times like TV, film and even articles is in a way offensive, forgivable for folk who can’t help it, but not for those who can.

  8. Richard

    I live and work in the US and I find it a breeeze in American airports. True, they are all completely full and last Sunday in Miami was like a zoo, but American Airlines allows you to jump the queue if you pay for business class. My company pays extra for one of their corporate programs so that all employees get first class check in and automatic upgrades when available even when they fly economy. Comfortable lounges away from the lousy PA system are also available. As a frequent flyer, I would not be able to do the Dublin airport scrum more than twice a year. Last September, was the limit for me for at least another 6 months! Give me the American attitude of pay more and get better service any day of the week.

  9. David Mc Williams

    Hi John X and Mark, David here. I’m not trying to dumb down, but dumb up! Economics is far too serious to be left to academics and those who would try to make it harder than it actally is. It should be the aim of all commentators to make popular their subject – this is the only way to reach an audience and thus, create debate. So bear with me!

    Regards, David

  10. SpinstaSista

    Thank you David for bringing economics to non-economists. Why not bring economics to primary schools and secondary schools as well? I heard it said that a mother of 10 on a limited income could give any economist a run for his or her money. When times were harder and banks were less willing to lend money we all had a better understanding of economics. Nowadays people seem to run away with the credit card without asking questions as to where the money comes from or how it’s going to be paid back.

    Keep up the good work!

  11. Noreen

    There’s one way to avoid Dublin Airport without the private jet: Shannon Airport.

    A gorgeous airport, where they’ve actually figured out that the belt-off, shoes-off, laptop-out-of-bag process is the rate determining factor. I was schocked flying out of Dublin lately and realising that what was really holding us all up was that there was one tiny table at the head of each queue! With a man standing there instructing each person individually as they got to the head of the queue. Weird.

    At Shannon and most other airports, you have a long table, where several people can do the stripdown process at once – so the rate determining factor becomes how many people can actually be processed through the x-ray machine, not how long it takes one person to empty his pockets, take off the shoes, belt, and coat, and get the laptop out of the bag.

  12. laura

    In fairness to Dublin, its not half as grubby as Cork, even with the new terminal. And at least they haven’t built a business park in the middle of the airport (hello again Cork).

  13. Allen

    Yes, everybody, regardless of their station in life, has to use Dublin Airport (unless of course they choose Shannon). All the more reason for the Dublin Airport Authority to improve the standards of the airport. And also a good reason for the government and the IDA to hassle the DAA into improving the place. And I don’t mean replacing it. It is confusing. It has no traffic plan (they might wish to go to Frankfurt to have a look at an airport with a traffic plan). People are criscrossing each other all over the place. Try getting through the baggage reclaim area in Dublin Airport-people are always crashing. It is a muddle. Anytime of the day. And anything you buy apart from a marked item like a newspaper, has an inflated price. People arrive, get knocked about and ripped off. Then they go the pub and obliterate a few more brain cells before trying to find a taxi, or use an expensive bus to get to the city centre. The perfect anecdoate for modern Ireland.

    Eh Billy – I think David’s remark about the terminal being in Meath, was made in context of the amount of walking that is required to get there.

  14. Pat

    Just found this site and its entertaining stuff (Thats the faint praise bit over with …). However, it is typified by articles such as this which portray the Ireland of today as something almost entirely new and divorced from what went before, when what is actually the truth (and of far greater interest) is the fact that ‘new Ireland’ with its wealth, secularism, ‘death of the meta-narrative’, and all that sophicticated elevator music jazz is pretty similar to Ireland of the 80s, 70s and before.

    This article commences with the assertion that pubs are ‘becoming one of the most socially divisive meeting places in our New Ireland’. The key word there is ‘becoming’. You’ll have to forgive my memory but its a long time since I read a study, I think by Chris Curtin of UCG on pubs in Lisdoonvarna in the 70s, which found that the plethora of public houses in an town with a very small population served the subtle social function of allowing different classes and social groupings to avoid contact.

    Irish pubs have always been socially devisive and most of the ‘new Ireland’ stuff is just a re-branding – inward migration aside we’re much the same as we’ve always been.

  15. LC

    Ha ha … funny cos its true !! thats also why its the best place for people watching !!
    nd omg people its called sarcaism !!! i think its quite obvious that dublin airport doesnt have a section located in Meath. ha ha
    i have to say tho , that this reads like a page out of Ross O’ Carrol Kelly .

  16. hi
    good luck

  17. hi
    good luck

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