LAST WEEK I was talking to a group of media students when the coverage of the murder of Garda Tony Golden came up. A young woman from Brazil expressed her amazement at the extent of the coverage. Why, she wanted to know, was the death of a policeman such a major deal.
For a second, I was stumped. Then I tried to explain that the gardaí have a special relationship with the community here, and when one is killed in the line of duty it’s as if the whole country is bereaved.
The incident reminded me that we take for granted the close-knit relationship with the gardaí, and the custom of supporting the bereaved to an extent that is practically alien in many other western countries.
There is also the thoroughly modern phenomenon of public grieving, first witnessed following the death of Princess Diana. This involves large numbers of people reacting to a tragedy as if they had suffered a personal loss. The media tends to lead this mourning, but there is little to suggest that the public’s general reaction deviates from the tone of the coverage.
Public grieving was very much in evidence in the wake of the Berkeley tragedy last June. The six students who died in the balcony collapse became the focus of a form of national mourning.
Then last week we had another tragedy with a fire in a halting site in Carrigmines, south Dublin. Five adults and five children lost their lives. Thomas Connors was 27, his wife Sylvia 25. They died along with their children Jim, 5, Christy, 2, and five-month-old Mary.
Sylvia’s brother, Willie Lynch, and his partner, Tara Gilbert, also died along with their children, Jodie, 9, and four-year-old Kelsey. Willie Lynch’s brother, Jimmy, who was 39, was the fifth adult among the dead. Two other children were hospitalised, one of whom remains in a serious condition.
The initial reaction was one of widespread horror. The Taoiseach ordered that flags would be flown at half-mast on the days of the funerals. Books of condolences were opened. A black cloud of mourning settled over the nation.
The scale of the fatalities meant that some of the long standing tensions between the Travelling community and sections of so-called settled people were suspended, as everybody came together to grieve the loss of lives, and particularly those of children who hadn’t even reached the age of reason.
And then… and then the mask slipped. By Tuesday, large chunks of the nation was reassessing its grief. Reality had intruded. Gathering around the survivors, feeling their pain, had become problematic. Grieving was all very good when it was cost-free, but a situation had arisen that shook many from their sympathy.
A stand-off had developed in Rockville Drive, a neighbourhood down the road from the charred remains of the fire site. Emergency plans by the council to set up a temporary site for survivors were being physically blocked. Anger and defiance had replaced mourning.
The surviving nine adults and six children must be traumatised. They were in close proximity when their loved ones perished. Among them are a couple who lost a son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Since the fire they have been living in “temporary accommodation”, scattered in various locations, displaced from the bosom of what remains of extended family.
Yet, their plight has now been reduced to a row over where to put them. Their status as victims of cruel fate, requiring the support of a nation, has been withdrawn.
By the middle of the week, some elements of the media had discovered new victims — the homeowners who are objecting to the presence of the bereaved survivors in their immediate area. In column inches and headlines these were portrayed as the new victims deserving of sympathy.
They were being “vilified”, “bullied”, and “targeted” over their “legitimate concerns”. What had happened was an awful tragedy, but the idea of allowing survivors to locate near your own home, well, that’s a step too far.
The stance of the residents of Rockville Drive has tempered the national mourning. Many have asked themselves whether they would have reacted differently, and have elicited from their own conscience a negative reply.
Their opinion on the matter resonates in the upper echelons of Government. The Taoiseach, the national mourner in chief, had this to say in the Dáil when the matter arose on Wednesday.
“This is a very sensitive issue and the funerals involved have not even taken place yet, although to balance that, there has to be an explanation to any community of what a local authority intends to do as an emergency measure,” he said.
Mr Kenny conveniently ignored that the problem with emergencies is there is often precious little time to consult, but we’re in the year of an election and votes are votes, even in the depths of alleged national mourning.
A modicum of decency was struck by Environment Minister Alan Kelly who declared of the blockade that “it says an awful lot about Irish society and in a very disturbing way”. One thing it says is the quality of public grief expressed at a time of major tragedy is skin deep. It also says another national trait —prejudice against Travellers — persists in these allegedly enlightened times.
There is a tendency among representatives for their community to go big on rights, but avoid the issue of responsibilities. The transient nature of the lifestyle engaged by some Travellers sometimes leads to a contemptuous disregard for the wider population. And, as with other sections of society at the lower reaches of the socio economic ladder, there are problems around crime with some elements.
But, in classic racist attitudes, all Travellers are tarred with the same brush among large swathes of the population. They are not regarded as individuals, but members of a collective who are to be feared or treated with suspicion.
The basis for most of the prejudice echoes down through the years with the kind of complaints that were made against all sorts of minorities, anywhere in the world. The Irish at large were regarded in Britain exactly as Travellers are now in some sections of their own country.
Even Traveller children are not given a free pass. Last year, when it was revealed that children from that community had their details recorded on the Pulse garda computer system, there was precious little reaction. Staining children as future potential criminals is all right apparently, as long as they are Travellers.
Last week, we learned a lot about the quality of public mourning when it is put to the test. We also had a reminder of the depressing prejudice that persists in this society.