Ireland's class system exists – whether we like it or not

Ireland's class system exists – whether we like it or not

WHEN the CEO of the private Beacon Hospital in Dublin phoned the private school his children attend in order to offer teachers there the Covid vaccination he rode roughshod over the guidelines. 

There followed a media outrage and for once the outrage was not misplaced.

The hospital, which was the last to agree to join the state vaccination scheme, insisted it was merely using up vaccines that would have gone to waste.

It decided the best way to do this was by giving them to a school 13km away and in a different county.

It was clearly reprehensible. It was clearly immoral.

What has not been admitted though is that it was also Ireland’s class system in naked view.

One of the most startling characteristics of Irish society is the belief, held both by those living in Ireland and those outside, that Ireland has no class system.

This seems to stem from a couple of outdated and distorted ideas.

Firstly, like so many Irish notions, it’s linked to our relationship with the British.

Having a neighbour internationally known for its stultifying class system has left Ireland the easy option of positioning itself as free of such a ludicrous structure.

No toffs with top hats for us. See, when the Brits left they took their class system with them.

Indeed, the fact that Britain is currently governed by toffs with top hats does show the insidious strength of the British class system even now.

For us, though, being so clearly different from the British was enough for this particular image, the class free Irish, to take root.

Secondly, we were able for so long to take cover in our relative poverty.

When the country was poor, and despite the recent decades it has been poor by European standards for most of its existence, it was easy to believe that the poverty was equally shared.

We all had nothing. Nobody had anything.

How could we have a class system when we were all in the same boat?

So the great Irish response to the presence of a class system in our society is to simply not mention it.

It might be blindingly obvious that there is a class system in Ireland but if we don’t mention it then hopefully nobody will notice.

For instance, as a signifier of class, schooling ranks pretty high, as Britain’s current Conservative Party shows us.

Roughly around seven per cent of Irish people attend a fee paying school, the equivalent of a British private education.

That’s not many. That’s the economic and social elite.

It is an experience not shared by 93 per cent of Irish people.

Yet, in our current government, of the top three men, the three leaders of the ruling parties, two went to an exclusive fee paying school.

That’s about a 60 per cent over-representation of a small section of society.

Hugely over-represented right at the heart of power.

Would any of us be shocked to find similar over representations in law, CEOs, and the media?

Yet, somehow, Ireland doesn’t have a class system.

I’ve even been told that ‘we were all in the same boat’ by someone who was reared in small town Ireland with the equivalent of a nanny.

We’ve even listened to the member of one of Ireland’s elite political families tell us, as thousands and thousands emigrated, that ‘we couldn’t all live on a small island’.

When it came to class even home itself was just for some people, even the country itself.

And still we didn’t have a class system.

Of course, we might not have the obvious class signifiers that Britain has and we might not have had such extremes of wealth and poverty.

But to say there is no class system is a bizarre, disturbing, lie we tell ourselves.

Class has meant some people have stayed in Ireland and some have left.

It has meant some operate power and others don’t even know where the levers are.

It has meant, in the case of the Beacon Hospital, that the CEO of a private hospital saw fit to prioritise and look after the staff of a private school his own children attended.

In the midst of a pandemic.

Bypassing, on the hospital’s own doorstep, vulnerable, suffering, frightened, men, women and children who have been sheltering for over a year.

This isn’t just the old brown envelope Irish job for the boys scenario.

This is the elite class looking after its own.

The class system in its rawest form.

And yet, they tell us, Ireland doesn’t have a class system.

Well, I’ll tug my forelock to that one.