Since retiring, he’d got into the habit of heading off to Spain for a couple of months in early January; the off-season rent was manageable, the weather warm and sunny, and the living was lovely and easy. He adored it.
This year’s trip, though, was a bit different.
He’d had a heart attack.
“A heart attack?” I said. “God, what happened?”
Out of the blue, he’d experienced this really excruciating pain in his chest. The ambulance was called. Within 35 minutes of the call being made the guy was on an operating table getting a stent put in. Over the next week he had a total of six stents inserted.
“Dear God,” I said, “that was some holiday.”
The man looked at me.
“It certainly was,” he said, “because if that had happened in Ireland, I’d be a dead man now.”
“Ah Jaysus,” someone said, “surely we’re not that bad yet.”
“Hmmm,” somebody said and the discussion moved to how long he’d have been left waiting for an ambulance – the man lives in a rural town.
How long he’d have been sitting on a chair in the hospital emergency room waiting to be assessed by a triage nurse.
How long he’d have had to spend on a trolley.
How long before he’d be seen by a cardiologist.
How long he’d have waited for surgery.
So yes, we agreed gloomily, he’d more than likely be dead if he’d got that pain in his chest in Ireland.
“And Ireland,” the man said “is now considered one of the wealthiest countries in the world.”
We looked it up on our phones. Apparently, per capita (that is, per person), Ireland ranks second in the top ten richest nations in the world, according to the IMF. Whaaat??
And we are one of the most affluent countries in Europe! IT, mechanical engineering, food production, agriculture and textiles have helped the Irish economy to overtake - wait for it- super-wealthy places like Singapore, Qatar and the USA. Wow! Talk about punching above our weight, as The Donald said once. So far, so fantastic.
But how come so few of us feel the trickle-down of all this wealth? Why this lack of confidence in the competency of our government, this niggling concern about our economic stability, the blatant under-resourcing of our health services, the gardaí, the army or the navy?
Why do so many of us feel so insecure and unhappy about the Irish lifestyle; why do we have this uncomfortable sense of being taken for a ride on the cost of everything from groceries to insurance, to household utilities, a scone and a cup of coffee in a café, and worst of all, property.
I know someone who worked hard and paid taxes for nearly 40 years, before getting a savage whack of Covid. Six months out of work and the only State support was 10 weeks of Covid sick pay. Once that ran out, the patient was told, there was no further entitlement. Despite working for nearly four decades. But as this person claimed bitterly, people arrive here from all over the world and all they have to do is mention the word refugee and it’s Open Sesame.
Perceptions like this abound.
There’s the supply and demand imbalance.
Healthcare: The lack of availability of traditional community-based health services like GPs, district nurses and so on is an excellent example.
I was sitting in the waiting room in my doctor’s surgery one day when a woman came in and explained that she wanted to become a patient. The receptionist said the practice was currently not taking on any new patients.
The woman’s voice immediately became desperate and frightened. Newly-arrived in the area with a young family, she had been literally working her way through the town’s several GP practices for the past 90 minutes, she said, and she couldn’t find a single doctor who could take her and her family on. The receptionist was sympathetic, but there was nothing she could do.
Education: A major demand/supply crisis is set to hit the headlines this summer when the lack of places at second-level begins to impact on families.
Eating out: It’s more expensive in Dublin than in London, Paris or Rome, according to a recent study. Cork probably isn’t far behind, if the truth be told.
Shopping: The cost of your groceries continues to rise.
Housing: Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, builders; they’re out the door with work. But the price of materials like timber and steel is still very high and shortages in basic materials combine to increase the price of construction - houses in this country now cost about 10 times the average salary.
We looked to renew our house insurance policy recently. When we built our home some 30 years ago, the insurance was calculated on the basis of the rebuilding cost, which at that time was £25 (in old pounds) per square foot. Now, we’re told, it’s €230 per square foot.
None of this is good. The higher the price, the more precarious the market, according to the economist David McWilliams, who is again warning of a global financial crisis with rolling banking crises, and, presumably, another recession.
Extremely high property prices are not a sign of economic health, says McWilliams.
The cost and the shortage of housing means a massive affordability problem.
I remember him banging the drum about the 2008 recession long before it hit; banging the drum and banging the drum about the looming economic crisis. Nobody listened; people sneered that he was a prophet of doom.
So here we are again. David McWilliams banging the drum. Unaffordable accommodation. Surging levels of homelessness. Help Wanted signs everywhere. Rentable property is rare as hens’ teeth. Affordable rentable property simply does not exist.
And, in this context, what does the government of one of the richest countries in the world do?
What the government has done is to bring an abrupt end to the eviction ban without, according to Fr Peter McVerry - another man who knows his onions - putting in place a single measure to mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences of this decision.
Tens of thousands of people are going to be put out of their homes at a time when emergency homeless accommodation is crammed. Hotels that have put up homeless families are now either full or reverting to tourism.
Meanwhile, the exodus of landlords from the private rental sector could result in the loss of up to 15,000 tenancies this year.
Landlords blame poor government housing policies which impose excessive regulatory and financial burdens, burdens which in turn are forcing many private landlords out of the sector.
Sorry Leo. Sorry Micheál. Sorry most of all to Simon and Helen, because I always get the feeling you two genuinely try.
But the word for what you lot are doing starts with “cluster” and ends with “uck”.