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My legal future in Ireland was uncertain.


10 January, 2011 —

Phew. back online. It's a long story.

This is a piece that I wrote to friends and family. It belongs here as part of the story of my time outside of the United States — the end of that story.

When the bakery in Cork went out of business last June I was unemployed and went to the social-welfare office there. I'd been on the dole before, here in Ireland. I say that casually — but it's part of why this is a "long story."

The social-welfare office in Cork rejected my repeat claim on the basis that I'm not legally resident.

For years I've lived in a strange quasi-legality. I can work, and I can pay taxes. Since January of 2005 I've been able to get social-welfare support (except for a few months of 2010 — see below.) I can have a medical card.

But when I cross the border, I have to tell the immigration officer that I'm here to visit.

Last June, the social-welfare office in Cork asked me for my GNIB card; Immigration Bureau — proof of legal residence.

I stayed in Cork for the summer because I didn't yet want to return to Kilkenny. My friends were encouraging me to do so. I missed my friends, but had left Kilkenny feeling that I was finished with it. I feel better here now, but I didn't come here exactly by choice. I'd left here by choice, a year before.

Anyhow, I came back here in August. I stayed with a friend. One evening himself and myself and another... um, friend got the idea to find a house together. It'd be best for everybody — in my case because I didn't have any choice.

It was horrible. I don't want to talk about it.

In October, after various exchanges of paperwork, the social-welfare office here in Kilkenny deemed me "habitually resident." I was on the dole again.

I wanted to find a place to live alone. I had done this in Cork, before I'd found the job at the bakery. Here in Kilkenny, I took the same attitude: it was what I needed, and what I was going to get.

I met Bridgett soon after the beginning of my search, and her son Ken, who showed me a couple of places. I was clear and honest with them about my situation. I liked one particular place — where I live now — and said so; and they held it for me.

Bridgett suggested I apply for rent allowance. This was in fact an important part of the terms of our negotiation.

This is the part where if you don't know Irish culture you probably wouldn't understand; and if you're Irish you probably can't quite understand why there's a problem because you don't think of me as a foreigner.

In order to apply for rent allowance one has to sign up for counsel housing at the local County Housing Authority. At an interview there, a couple of ladies raised a question about the matter of my legal status.

I'd been deemed habitually-resident by the social-welfare office; have been in the country for most of the last nine years... but I'm American. One of them told me that there'd been a law passed this autumn that requires one to be in possession of a "stamp 4" from the immigration bureau for five years before signing up for counsel housing. This stamp 4 — this is specifically what I don't have.

They said that they would make a phone-call to find out if there were an exception possible. I myself got a call that evening from one of them informing me that there was a letter for me at that office. I was there the first thing next morning. They'd determined I am eligible, and had put me on the list for counsel housing.

To get rent allowance, you then have to take that letter of approval and go to the Community Welfare office.

The Community Welfare office decided against me. They refused me because I am "not legally resident."

But here's the thing. At that point, I had probably crossed the Rubicon, had passed the point of no return. I'd stuck my head above the parapet.

I've lived for these years with this ambiguity, and I'm accustomed to it — but that doesn't mean it doesn't bother me. But, also, I've lived relatively well — treated, honestly, better by the Irish government than I expect ever to be by that of my native United States. And, yes, I am ashamed of my country for the fact that I can say that.

That's enough politics for now.

But, speaking of politics, here's where I introduce John McGuinness, a man who needs no introduction. He's pretty much the top local politician, if I'm not mistaken — hugely popular and the go-to guy when you need a little official help.

My discussions with Bridgett compelled me to speak with John McGuinness. Again — it's Irish, and it's not worth explaining in detail. It's just part of the deal.

And, again, Bridgett didn't really understand why I couldn't just *get* rent allowance — because I'm "not really" a foreigner; and because, ferfuckssake, I'm in receipt of social-welfare payments.

The point is, I had to *try* to get rent allowance in order to remain in discussion with Bridgett about the flat.

John McGuinness "twigged" one thing firmly and astutely — that my legal status in Ireland is probably unique. It's kind of a precedent, he said, in a gentle understated manner. Me, I've never met anybody who's heard of anything like it. But that's just a side-note. Here's another one: I never yet know how to address Mr. McGuinness. The habit of speaking to somebody on a first-name basis is a defining characteristic of the Irish people; but after three visits I still feel presumptuous calling him "John." I'll ask him what he'd prefer, when I get a chance.

A few days before Christmas, I got a phone-call from Ken, who said that himself and Bridgett would like to speak with me. They made me an offer, inviting me to move into the flat. They asked me to keep the terms of the deal confidential — but I can say that it was good enough to prompt a decision. They wanted to let me move in before Christmas day, if I chose to do so. I didn't think; I said yes. They gave me the keys.

Two days before Christmas, the housemate who is now an ex-friend went into another of his Jekyl-and-Hyde magical drunken transformations, and... well, the evening ended badly. The implicit building violence of the previous few months turned physical. I think I hit him first, to be honest. He spit on me, though, and if I had to do it again I'd probably hit him harder. (N.B. I've only hit three people in the face. The first time, when I was eight, was traumatizing. The other two, including this one, were justified and maybe even unavoidable — although I try to disagree with violence in theory.)

A friend retrieved my computer from the room where we'd all been sitting, and after I'd grabbed what I needed for my first night in the new flat I went outside and wrestled with the boxed iMac whilst closing the door. Mr. Hyde came out in pursuit of more. I hit him. He kicked and hit me and I tumbled across the snowy front yard. My friend Gary got me out of there, my nose bleeding and a black eye. I look like a real bad-ass with a black eye, by the way. I kinda miss it.

Let's see, where was I before I began strutting my manliness? Oh, yeah — I had to move, without further delay. I'd imagined a transition (an optimistic and stupid idea, I see now.) It was time to go. Gary helped me get the rest of my stuff out of the house the next day.

So, there I am in my new place, without internet access. I told you this was a long story.

I went back to the house, by the way, on Christmas day, to share the preparation and enjoyment of a fantastic traditional Christmas meal with my friend and ex-housemate Mick. Doctor Jekyl was out of town. Mick and I cooked turkey, ham, mashed-potatoes-(with turnip)-and-gravy, carrots, brocolli.... I made pumpkin pie, though it was not my best ever. We drank a few flagons of cider.

Anyhow. I moved, the night of the ignorance. Then there I was, in my new flat, and without internet access.

UPC is the current corporate moniker of the largest cable ISP, and they don't yet serve this laneway. If they're not here then it's likely that nobody is. This all likely has partly to do with the fact that you can't dig a hole anywhere without archaeological discoveries, never mind enough of a trench to bring cable broadband.

"Mobile broadband" is my best option — the USB modem. There are several providers. Each requires proof of address. I didn't have any way to prove my address.

I have only a verbal agreement with my landlady. I wouldn't ask her for anything on paper, nor would I sign anything fictional.

I'm not going to have a utility bill, because I pay for my electricity by putting 2-euro coins into an old black metal meter-box on the kitchen wall.

Then comes Christmas. And New Year's. If Christmas is on a weekend, they say, the following monday *and* tuesday are a "bank holiday" — but for some reason wednesday fell in there as well. Thursday was enough of a chance to request a bank statement, a bank statement that later showed as not-ordered....

On one of the many, many days of Christmas, I ordered a bank statement via the telephone-menu options. That statement never came. After the whole ridiculous holiday season was over, I went into the physical premises of the bank. The lady I spoke to ordered a statement for me — noting that, unlike what I'd been told, the fact that I'd ordered a statement on the 28th of December was in fact a matter of record.

My request for rent allowance, which I really kind of had to make as a part of my agreement with my landlady, and which John McGuinness thinks that I'd be better to pursue than to not pursue, is now a "parliamentary question." There's a risk that I will lose my ability to receive social-welfare payments, he told me. But this is, in his opinion, the best way for me to address the question of my legal status here. He believes that if I don't make this *my* issue, somebody else might make it theirs.

According to John, there is no risk that I will be deported. Of course, even that is uncertain — but I'd agree that that's unlikely.

My legal status in Ireland is not as secure as that of foreign nationals from any of the European Union states [although Romanians and Bulgarians deserve special mention here, since they are technically and theoretically not allowed to work, a fact that I note in the interest of specificity and because I have Romanian friends.] But, that injustice and all legal technicalities aside, there is nothing comparable to the Irish-American connection. Right or wrong, this is a factor.

Ireland and the United States have incredibly deep ties, a fact more obvious from here than from there. It's not worth discussing right now — you'll have to just believe me.

Anyhow, I'm back online. I got my bank statement today. My legal future here is another story, more complex.


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