Regeneration is Ongoing

William Wall

This article first appear on Irish Left Review in 2011

The death of Rachel Peavoy in Shangan Flats, Dublin, on the night of January 10th 2011, a bitterly cold night in the coldest winter in living memory, stands in so many ways as a metaphor for Ireland itself. She died, according to the pathologist, of hypothermia. There is no avoiding that judgement. According to her neighbour, Linda Mcloughlin, the Shangan flats were ‘colder inside than out’. Another friend, Michelle Quigley, testified that when she visited Rachel some days before her death they had to sit with their coats on and covered by a duvet. The heating had been turned off because, according to the City Council, Shangan Flats were scheduled for ‘regeneration’.

The City Councils of Ireland cannot afford to heat entire flat complexes to save one woman’s life. Accountability and transparency are against it. What would happen if such waste were referred to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General? What would the IMF say?  For the next generation or two we must concentrate on keeping life in the ailing state. That demands sacrifices from all of us because we are all guilty of the greed that ruined the country. It is our original sin. Politicians, ex-bankers, journalists and economists say it is so. Any attempt at special pleading on behalf of the Rachel Peavoys of the world will be met with a chilly reception. We must all share the pain according to our place in the system and Rachel Peavoy’s place was at the bottom. This is why she died. Because further up the line central heating and warm clothes are sine qua non and at the top, where the ex-bankers, politicians and economists live the temperature indoors is completely unremarkable.

In her young life Rachel Peavoy struggled ineffectively against her fate. Firstly, she took her children to the safety of her parents’ house. They did not die that night when the temperatures in Dublin hovered around -10C. Secondly, she repeatedly contacted the City Council but had been told ‘the heating would not be turned back on as a number of flats around her had been vacated and were empty and because regeneration was ongoing.’ She lived, in a sense, in the mirror image of a ghost estate – surrounded by rooms that had been lived in but were now both ‘vacated’ and ‘empty’. Finally, she contacted her local parliamentary representative – Mr Noel Ahern, then still a TD, Fianna Fáil, brother of Bertie the ex-Taoiseach. His response is not recorded. Rachel Peavoy tried every legal means available to her to save her life. Had she tried illegal means she might have ended up in prison where, whatever else may be said about it, there is adequate heating. Conditions in women’s prisons in Ireland are relatively humane.

But it’s not fair to blame the City Council when one considers that Ireland is but a small piece in the great jigsaw of capitalist catastrophe. Where could we find the money to heat the Shangan Flats? Everybody knows that Irish banks have been ‘frozen out of interbank lending markets due to concerns about their future’ and this has resulted in pain for shareholders of the banks. The Fianna Fáil party has also been frozen out of power and has suffered the pain of electoral defeat. But even before the electoral deep-freeze they were keen to point out that they shared the people’s pain. By the time Rachel Peavoy died, for example, the Taoiseach’s salary had already dropped by €72,000 in two years (bringing it to a cool €214,000). Lorenzo Bini Smaghi of the European Central Bank even saw justice in all this pain. The people of Ireland, he said, must share the pain of investors because they voted for the government that caused it. It is not surprising then that a single mother should die alone in Shangan Flats in the coldest winter because the heating was turned off. It might even be regarded as an example of Mr Bini Smaghi’s justice, although none of the reports of her death mention whether she voted for Fianna Fáil, or if she voted for them whether she considered they might have some role to play in the heating situation, or even if she voted at all.

In the context of the bank collapse and the IMF/ECB intervention and all the pain that we must all suffer in order to save our beloved country, Rachel Peavoy gave her young life for the cause of Ireland. Unfortunately she cannot be accorded the usual martyrdom status because that would make the state the enemy. Like a cancer in the body politic we would be attacking ourselves. And so we have the dispute at the inquest about whether the windows of the flat were open and whether Tramadol made her sleepy. The implication is that Rachel Peavoy was reckless – weren’t we all reckless and don’t we now have to pay for it. She took drugs (albeit a mild over-the-counter pain-killer, and in the recommended dosage) and she left the windows open. Why she opened the windows of her flat on such a bitterly cold night is not questioned and no credence is given to the statement by her friend Jacqueline Johnson that she opened the windows on the morning she found Rachel because the place smelled bad. This narrative of Ireland’s recklessness has been seized upon by politicians, ex-bankers, journalists and visiting emissaries from solvent countries like a life-ring in a cess-pond. It has the feel of Greek tragedy about it – we made mistakes and must be punished. 

In this tragic narrative the Furies are represented by the implacable markets, and our great mistake, our hamartia, which Aristotle defines as ‘an injury to others’ and which later commentators came to call the ‘fatal flaw’, is to have become greedy. It must be remembered, however, that the hamartia is usually committed in ignorance of its evil nature or the likely consequences. It may even be committed against the best advice. Think of Oedipus who, in desperately avoiding the terrible crime that has been foretold for him by the oracle at Delphi, commits that very crime in ignorance if not innocence. Oedipus was a good man, but he misunderstood the role of oracles. We too have failed to understand that oracles are agents in our tragedy rather than disinterested commentators. Oedipus was blinded for his hamartia. Rachel Peavoy was frozen to death for ours.

The end of tragedy, according to Aristotle, to whom we still turn in these matters, is catharsis. But our catharsis will be long in coming and our children’s children will share the punishment. We are to consider that our play holds the stage for something close to geological time. The curtain will not fall in our lifetimes. 

Significantly, catharsis has its etymological roots in the ‘purging’ of menstrual blood. Is that why Rachel Peavoy took Tramadol? Was her pain, her fear, her hypothermia part of Ireland’s catharsis? Did she innocently take Tramadol and did this hamartia make her immune to the creeping insidious effects of hypothermia as we were immune to the insidious by-products of prosperity while high on that very prosperity? Had she not taken Tramadol would the City Council’s decision not to turn on the heating be an acceptable cost-saving measure? Is this our future? From now on analgesics will be contra-indicated for economic catharsis. If in pain consult your financial adviser.

But ours is a tragedy of endless plots and sub-plots – it’s not all death by hypothermia. Consider the chorus of Children with Crippling Diseases. Dr Orla Killeen, consultant paediatric rheumatologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, recently informed the public that approximately 200 children with juvenile arthritis are on a waiting list of 15 months. This is the pain that they all talk about – though they are never specific. This, according to Mr Bini Smaghi of the European Central Bank, is a just retribution for belonging to a population that voted for Fianna Fáil. Of course the children didn’t vote. Instead the sins of their parents, or friends and acquaintances of their parents, or at least people who live in their constituencies, are visited upon them in the form of swollen twisted joints, crooked bones, feverish nights and drugs with horrendous side-effects. These are the Furies indeed. I wonder if Mr Bini Smaghi considers fifteen months to be an appropriate tariff?

In the meantime, the signs from our exporters are hopeful. The multinationals continue to  channel profits through this country and our government has declared that keeping corporation tax low for them is a national priority. If we were to ask for more they might pitch their enterprises into the Atlantic and run away. Besides, the corporations are our only friends now. We’ve had a change of government even though there has been no discernible change of policy. And we never saved the banks despite all the pain; if, as seems likely, Rachel Peavoy died to save the banks, she died in vain. They tell us that the people of Ireland are resilient and we have faced much worse circumstances – they may be thinking of historic events such as The Great Famine. The Irish people have a long tradition of struggle against oppression, they say – though they forget that the struggle involved killing as many of the oppressors and their business associates as we could lay hands on. They are pressing our case with the oppressors, they say, and may gain a relief on the interest rate. It should be written on Rachel Peavoy’s grave: she died but they got 1% on the rate. In the meantime we must all bear our fair share of the pain. Regeneration, of course, is ongoing.