Exactly four years ago this week, I was working as a volunteer in Nicaragua. I was having the time of my life, working among some of the poorest people in the Americas when, all of a sudden, everyone started talking about my home country.
In the volunteer house I shared with a mixed bunch from the US, Holland, and Germany, it became quite a shock when my country’s woes began to dominate conversations.
Ireland’s financial meltdown had become the main story on BBC World News, CNN Espanol, and even the local Nicaraguan TV channels.
The country’s leading newspapers, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, speculated that Ireland’s financial collapse could bring down the whole European Union.
In my city centre office, it was surreal when German and Canadian volunteers suddenly began sympathising with me about the state of my homeland.
On the street, a neighbour who had no English told me he’d heard that my country was in ruins.
On the day of the EU-IMF bailout, I gravitated towards Granada’s only Irish pub.
All five of the city’s Irish residents, plus us two long-term volunteers, sat around Tommy Griffin’s TV set at O’Shea’s pub on the city’s main thoroughfare as we watched the Troika come to Dublin.
It was humiliating.
But in their own way, the lovely group of people around me summed up what a failed state Ireland has been, more or less, since its foundation.
There were the older lads in their 50s and 60s, who never imagined that their homeland would give them a living when they grew up in Kerry, Cork, or Dublin; before heading off for new lives in the United States and, later, Central America.
There was the man in his 40s, who had been made redundant from his job in Dublin before opting to buy a little hotel so far from home.
There was the journalist, delighted to be taking a career break because my firm was under pressure due to the economic downturn.
Or the teacher in her 30s, who was travelling for a year because it was impossible to get a steady job back home.
And the publican, in his 70s, who had failed to settle down back home after a lifetime of running bars overseas.
As we sat around the TV screen in O’Shea’s, we wondered what it would take to awaken the Irish people – to stop them from voting for the kind of politicians who put the rights of bankers, speculators, and developers over those of ordinary people.
We watched the coverage of the bailout and we were stunned.
As I looked around, I realised that all of these emigrants had a great spirit of adventure but, in terms of options and careers, Ireland had let them down. I’m the only one of that bunch who has returned home.
A few months later, I was back in Ireland to cover a General Election in which Fianna Fail suffered a meltdown.
FF and the Green Party have been replaced by FG and Labour; people have seen their spending power evaporate further due to a household charge, property tax, and the Universal Social Charge.
Four years on, people are wondering if the Government which replaced the party which caused the mess are any better. It seems that they have become embroiled in one scandal after another and ordinary people are still paying the price for bailing out a tiny elite.
In recent weeks, the mobilisation to oppose the Irish Water charges has been amazing to behold. 250,000 people have marched across the country to say that enough is enough. Many of them would never have attended a protest march before.
Some commentators have expressed bafflement at the campaign.
They wonder why the same people were not on the streets in 2008, when the last Government made the ill-fated bank guarantee.
Or why there were not massive protests two years later, when the Troika came to town and forced the Irish Government to secure the bondholders, while crippling the Irish people with debts for decades to come.
The interest on our bank debt is €1.6 billion per annum.
By way of contrast, they argue that the water charges are a relatively minor issue.
Perhaps they are.
But for many people these latest charges have come as the final straw.
They could not see the senior bankers, bondholders, or speculators who brought this country to its knees, but it all becomes more tangible when contractors begin to install unwanted water meters outside your home.
After six years of austerity, pay-cuts, and job losses, people simply feel that enough is enough.
They get angry when they see the bonuses being paid to senior Irish Water staff and angrier still when protesters who take to the streets are described as a “sinister fringe”.
The wonderful Irish emigrants I met in Nicaragua four years ago asked me why there wasn’t a spark of rebellion in the people who stayed at home. Some of them had not lived in Ireland for 30 or 40 years, but they still cared with a passion about what was happening to their island.
In the past few weeks, I think we’ve seen a sleeping giant awaken. People have been inspired by the mass protests on the streets and they have seen through the official “spin”.
Finally, after six years of hardship which was not of their own making, many people are not willing to put up with austerity any more.
The kind of mobilisation we have seen over the water charges could be seen as a good thing. People do care about the state of their country and want to ensure a better future for their children.
The vast majority of the protesters have been very well behaved.
They did not take to the streets to oppose the bank guarantee or the terms of the bailout, but in the last few weeks they have shown the kind of spirit and determination which was lamented by people who had long since given up on their homeland four years ago.
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