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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland

Webs of Significance
Tom Inglis


From Chapter 1

Angela Doyle lives in Greyrock,1 one of the new commuter towns that developed around Dublin during the heydays of the Celtic Tiger econ­omy. She is forty-one. She is married with three children. She is a stay-at-home mother. She grew up in the suburbs of Dublin where her parents still live in the same house. She is the second youngest of five children. She has three sisters and one brother. They were all born fairly close to one another. The eldest sister is forty-eight. Although she does not see much of them, she says they are a close-knit family.

As a child, she went to the local primary school and then on to sec­ondary school. She was a suburban girl with lots of friends. She knew her husband, Martin, as a teenager. He lived around the corner. "We used to hang around together... so we know each other since we were sixteen." Looking back she initially said she had a happy childhood: "It was grand, it was fine." But then, almost immediately, she became emotional, corrected herself, and said. "My father was an alcoholic so... it would... [have been] different."

After she finished school, she went to work in a large factory. She moved to another factory and then she and Martin got married. Their son John was born two years later. It was after her daughter Sarah was born in another two years that they decided that she would give up her job and they would move to Greyrock: "The house price was cheap and so I could give up work and be with the children." Martin works as a service engineer and, like many others in Greyrock, he commutes to Dublin to work.

They had one more child, Frank. He is nine. John and Sarah are teen­agers. Angela misses her own family, and sometimes she regrets leaving Dublin. But, she says, the "kids love it down here.. .so there is no way we would move back [to Dublin] even ... if we won the Lotto ... It would be a real shock for them to move from here." She loves her house, her garden, the estate, and Greyrock. She thinks it is especially good for the children:

I think it's just...quiet and...you can let them out and you don't have to be worried about them. And they've good friends. This estate is really nice... they can go out with their friends and, you know, the neighbours will keep an eye on them and everything.

Family is very important to Angela. It gives her the most satisfaction in life. She says it is simple. "Happy family, happy kids, and we're all sitting watch­ing a DVD together and everything is happy." She is still very close to her sisters and brothers and her nieces and nephews. She doesn't see much of them, but they preside in their absence. "If there is anything wrong I could ring them and rely on them." She is closest to her younger sister: she phones her at least once a week. She would be on the phone to her mother every day or every second day. She hears everything about the wider family through her. "My mother is the go-between for everybody."

Angela has learnt to understand and deal with her father. Although he is an alcoholic "he didn't ruin it, he wasn't you know, a bad alcoholic.. .We went to the beach... we went on family holidays... like my mother was sort of in charge of the money so he didn't have the money." She says that her father was drinking "as far back as I can remember." She remembers the time he gave up drinking for a while. They all went down to the psychiatric hospital to talk with him and the psychologist: "We all did it like, we did it for him like... none of us said no... but you know... it's his fault not our fault... you know... he's his own worst enemy, like you know."

Angela has learnt to be honest and open about her father. "Well I tell everybody my father's an alcoholic... I'm not one to hide, you know what I mean." When her oldest son, John, took the pledge at Confirmation, they told him that his grandfather was an alcoholic. But, she says, John hadn't even noticed. Although she is wary of him, she allows her father to have con­tact with the children. "I trust my father to mind my kids, you know what I mean like... if the kids go up [to Dublin] he'd bring them down crab fishing and he'd go for a walk and he'd have chats with them and everything like that." She has also developed strategies to deal with her father that she has learned from experience, "he's only allowed down [to Greyrock] if he hasn't been out [drinking]."

None of the family is close to her father. For Angela, "he's there, but he's not there." Most of the time, she says "you could say out of sight out of mind." When she was young, her father went away to work. But her mother was always there. She says that her mother was always helping people out, and that she learnt from her the importance of being helpful and kind.

Angela is chairperson of the local primary school parents' association (PTA). When I asked her why she became involved in this voluntary work, she said "I've always liked helping... I don't see the big deal of going and helping people... I just like doing it." However, she recognizes that it has other benefits. She says that it gives her a chance "to meet people and I have a chat... and its gets me out of the house like, and you know." Her involvement in the PTA followed on from her becoming secretary of the local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club:

Well the children were in the football... the older one joined when he was ten and they didn't have... help, so I started typing up the names... and doing bits like that, and then they asked me to be the secretary. I did that for two years and that was enough. And then I was at the [school] AGM... I'm always with the parents in the school, even if I wasn't... on the committee as such. But I always volunteered to help if there was anything on. So then I was just elected as chairperson... this year.

Although, as chairperson of the PTA, she holds a position of importance in the community, she has no interest in becoming involved in politics. She votes, but that is about all. And when she votes it is for the candidate rather than the party. "I vote for the people that have... done things for the local community... anybody... once they've come to the door and said things and... I know they've done it." Similarly, although she was secretary of the local football club, she has little or no interest in sport. "I'd follow the Irish team and the rugby and that, but other than that, I wouldn't really be into sport."

Angela's life revolves around her family and her house. It is the hub of her activities and her sense of self. She has developed a large mature garden. She mainly grows flowers, but this year, with the children, she has begun a vegetable plot. She also likes to make her own greeting cards. She used to always make things for her children, like costumes. She used to get the children to make their own cards for their aunts and uncles, and then she started making her own Christmas and birthday cards. Now she doesn't buy them anymore. She handmakes them all.

Like many of the hundred people that I interviewed in 2008-9, Angela was worried about the economic recession that had begun to take hold in the country. Being in the public sector, her husband suffered both a pay cut and an increase in the contribution he had to make to his pension. "We were going grand and then just to have this big lump [of money] taken out, now you're saying 'oh my God.'" She worries about her husband, because he worries about money. "I'd like to have more money just to have the worry gone and not with the way it is at the moment, you know... with the pensions... I'm not saying loads of money, just enough, you know that just you don't have to worry at the back of your head... 'cause I'm quite happy with my life, just a bit more money."

Angela struggles with mental health issues too. After the birth of one of her children, she suffered badly from postnatal depression. She let herself go: "When your brain is messed up... when you feel down and everything, you just you don't care really what you look like." She says she gets stressed too easily: "When I'm having people for dinner I get stressed... I'm trying to be less stressed... When I was a secretary [of the club] I was very stressed... and the kids didn't want me doing it anymore, so [that was] another reason I gave it up."

She thinks she is too emotional. When she saw the questions and top­ics we would be covering in the interview and, in particular the one about suffering any illness, loss, or tragedy, she said she knew that she would start crying. "I don't cry as much as I used to, I'm better... [it used to be] if I'd see a coffin on the telly I'd start crying." She does not like the idea that, if they saw her crying, people would think: "just, [so] you know, Angela's cry­ing again."