The 32: An anthology of Irish working-class voices, is edited by Paul McVeigh. This chapter, by Erin Lindsay, talks about what it means to be working class…
‘Are you working class?’ A bit of a stark question to answer about yourself. There is no catch-all definition, no definitive description – when the dictionary describes the working class as those who are employed for wages, in this day and age it isn’t that simple. As with all my fellow millennial/Gen Z-ers who struggle with identity in their twenties, questions of self-definition are a big source of overthinking for me. I think about whether I am ‘working class’ a lot – or rather, I suppose a more accurate question is, ‘Am I working class enough?’ The question of class is one largely unspoken in Irish society. We steal glimpses around street corners and overhear it in conversations. It ripples under the surface of all our discourse, unmentioned but unavoidable, an awkward, uncomfortable presence for those of every background.
Only now, in 2021, has the question begun to bubble to the surface – beginning its journey into common conversation on the ever-gracious and context-filled platforms of social media. Users argue their case about the definition of ‘working class’ – what it means, what it entails, and how deserving each of us are of the title. Where did you grow up? How did you make ends meet? What do your parents do? Who had it harder? Who is more working class? The contention of proving who had a more hardening childhood, who had to deal with more adversity, who has more anecdotes of their personal struggle to overcome the barriers of class, is always there.
This battle, as overdramatised and futile as social media forms it, is the reason that the question of whether I can say that I am working class is ever-present in the back of my mind. It’s not there because I can’t answer these questions – it’s the opposite. I know the answer to how hardening my childhood was. It wasn’t. I grew up in Tallaght. I was born and bred and lived there until my mid-twenties. I had both parents growing up. My dad worked in the same company for almost my entire life, while Mam provided the idyllic home life that stay-at-home mothers tend to give.
My mam and dad are two of the most intelligent and interesting people I know. This is down to their endless enthusiasm for learning, even when it is not in a classroom – neither of them finished school, but it is from them that I learned that education does not result in common sense, and money does not result in class. Growing up, my house was full of conversations and debates about history, philosophy, politics, life, ethics, love – they taught me everything I know. Drugs were never an issue. Drink never presented more than hangovers or embarrassing tales to bring up the next day. Violence did not enter my world. Poverty was not there either. I spent my teenage weekends alternating between the Metro and the Plaza, two of Tallaght’s finest nightlife establishments, sharing a €50 wristband with a friend so we could split the free drinks for the night (you can already tell that offer isn’t still around).
When I left school, I went to college in town, spending my weekends with the same friends I’d had since playschool. Throughout jobs and degrees, we all maintained the same sense of community that has coloured my idea of Tallaght and what it means to me since childhood. I loved living there – I think myself very lucky to have had the life I did growing up. It’s not exactly the callous surroundings that the rest of the country imagines when they think of Tallaght. I did not have this fabled ‘working-class’ struggle growing up – because what does that even mean?
Class has never struck up a barrier to my successes in life. I never felt as if I didn’t deserve a seat at the table, and when I had one, I never felt like my opinion wasn’t valid. I’ve never felt held back by it. Tales of leaving school at fifteen to work, of eighties dole queues, of emigration, as told to me by my parents, the truth of their own youth, were fables, warnings, but not my reality. While not living in luxury, we wanted for nothing, and I felt as far removed from the TV depictions of where I lived as I did from the affluent seaside towns elsewhere in Dublin that were a setting for second and third homes whose occupants enjoyed holidays to the Caribbean. Because class never provided a barrier, there is a certain level of strange apprehension in describing myself as such – almost guilt.
Can I authentically call myself working class, when class has never been an obstacle? As a journalist and writer, can I authentically tell the stories of other working-class people, when my background, although geographically close, may be contextually much further away? But if there is a level of guilt associated with calling myself working class, God knows the guilt of not doing so is worse. Every day I question if I’m remaining true enough to my background, if I’m being authentic enough. I try not to use a phone voice. My accent becomes more pronounced when I’m around people who aren’t from Tallaght, not less. I talk frequently and at length about where I’m from, my school, my friends.
I question if I represent working-class issues enough in my work, if I talk about them enough in debates and conversations, when I’m surrounded by people who have no concept of what being working class really means. I’m constantly trying to find a balance that feels authentic. I feel that pressure because class only becomes an issue when other people make it so. I only feel different when others project that image of otherness onto me. The first time I truly became aware of what class means, I was fourteen years old. Introducing myself as being from Tallaght, I was met with a look of disdain, a voice that was hesitant – from another fourteen-year-old. That was the first time that the idea of ‘us and them’ came into my head.
This person saw me as other, beneath, and not from their own experiences, but from what they’d been told by older, should-know-betters. I started to realise that the stereotypes of what working class looks like would be projected onto me – without my consent, without my input – and it would be my job to reckon with them. Maybe this is what they mean by ‘working class’, I thought: my work, as a woman who happens to be from a working-class community, to dispel rumours and prejudices and preconceptions would never be over. Similar incidences followed and have continued well into adulthood. Anger rose and fell (and still rises). As I moved through college and out into the world, I encountered countless people who thought they understood the working-class experience better than anyone and had no embarrassment in telling me such. My attention turned to politics, to cultural issues, to stories of poverty, of injustices, and I wondered if these stories would ever permeate the attitudes around me that reared their heads in often the most subtle of ways. I am the same as the rest of the room – until someone does a crass impression of a homeless person with an accent that sounds a lot like mine. Until someone starts in on why they wouldn’t raise their kids in ‘certain areas’, where Tallaght is almost certainly near the top of the list. Until I celebrate an accomplishment but know that others are questioning how deserving I am.
Until I state where I’m from and am met with a sympathetic smile, as if to lament my answer. Until I hear the passive-aggressive comments, made through sweetly sneering mouths – ‘I had no idea people were so well educated there!’ ‘I had no idea you had those facilities.’ I had no idea that people from Tallaght are like everyone else. I believe that this struggle about remaining true to one’s background is one that I am not alone in. The nature of being working class is struggling with authenticity. Every day working-class people are faced with those who think they understand their experience better than they do – depictions, impersonations that all ring hollow to those who have actually lived it. Whether it’s in film, music, or conversations overheard on the street, the idea of being working class is contorted and presented back to us without our presence in its creation.
Constantly having to correct others’ presumptions about working-class existence, formed because of what they’ve seen and heard from other non-working-class people, is exhausting. Smiling through gritted teeth, correcting misconceptions, letting certain jokes go so as not to be seen as no craic. It’s tiresome, and it grates, and it doesn’t take long to stop being funny. I don’t want to have to internally debate whether to call myself working class. I want the world’s idea of what the working class looks like to match what I picture – diversity, community; that includes interests, jobs, life stories of every shape and detail. There is no one box of what the working class looks like – it is not me, nor is it the person in the next estate. Working class is community, support, humour, love. Working class is authenticity.[/restrict]