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An American on the dole in Ireland

I left the United States in May of 2000 with a 90-day round-trip ticket to London Gatwick, and returned home 11 years later.

I was on the dole in Ireland for about six years, unemployed or under-employed between February of 2005 and April of 2011.

I was not entitled to social-welfare payments. I was not entitled to the PPS number that I had received in 2001. Having traveled there with only an American passport, I was not even entitled to stay.

In fact, technically, I was in a period of history between where I was not entitled to be in any one of the European countries for more than 90 days and a time when I would not be able to be in the European Union at all for more than 90 days.

The PPS number is the Irish social-services and tax number, a resident's all-purpose identifying string of seven digits and one or two letters that is requisite in all official transactions.

I rolled into Kilkenny on Bus Eireann on September 11th, 2001, and got a job a couple of days later. That night I went out with a couple of co-workers to Sid Harkin's pub and met a load of people who would be important to me for the rest of my time in town. But that's another story. At the restaurant where I was working as kitchen porter, the chef asked me, after a couple of brown envelopes, if I'd go get a PPS number.

I figured I'd go, ask, and then return with the "bad news" — that I'd have to keep working for cash.

To my surprise, the receptionist at social welfare photocopied my passport, had me do some paperwork, and said they'd post out my Social Services card. And they did.

That winter was a hard one, financially. A friend suggested that I go on the dole.

Kilkenny 2001, a brief history...
This is where I encountered a phenomenon that would be consistent in the near-decade that followed, which is that the Irish people did not think of me as a foreigner. I don't flatter myself — it wasn't my charming demeanor that made the Irish people consider me one of their own; it was the fact that I'm American. Not Irish but not not-Irish, or something. I can't explain it, but it was a fact of my life and it worked in my favo(u)r. [Q.V.] I encountered several occasions where somebody'd be "giving out" about all these foreigners coming in and taking advantage — and me standing right there.... I'd say but I'm a foreigner and they'd say "no you're not," without even pausing to consider that I'd made a valid point. When my friend suggested a trip to the social-welfare office he was thinking that I'd be entitled to some financial assistance.

The lady at the hatch, holding my Social Services card, told me "you're not supposed to have this." Oh, I didn't know that, I said, carefully removing it from between her fingers. So that was it. I could work.

That was in 2002. That February I got a job at a department store. It was a welcome respite from the kitchens. I worked there until I volunteered to be the union shop steward when the previous holder of that position went on maternity leave. The shop steward is necessary for any representation at all, no matter that we were all paying fees — and I got into one of my justice-for-the-workers moods. The manager sacked me. That was not legal; but I'd made the mistake of telling his assistant manager something about my ambiguous legal status. Dublin had called, said Trevor — and that was it, at the end of work on a Friday evening....

In March of 2003, as my native U.S. was preparing for war in Iraq just in case Iraq did or did not comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, I told my employer at Zuni restaurant and hotel to go fuck himself. I'd also been working for an industrial-cleaning operation a bit with my friend Gary, at that time, and I called him. From that point most of my employment in Ireland was in that line of work.

That summer I made a trip to County Kerry. I just got on a series of buses, and ended up in Dingle. I met a Dutch girl in a hostel there. We re-traced my pocketfull of return bus tickets back to Kilkenny. Later in the Summer I went to The Netherlands to be with her. I stayed there — though not with her — for a year and a half.

In January of 2005, with the encouragement of a good friend, I returned to Kilkenny.

In Kilkenny, I found that it was no problem getting my job back at Emerald Cleaners (which had since become "Emerald Facility Services" — Ooh la la! The Celtic Tiger had achieved its apogee. A "champagne bar" had appeared on John Street, even....) The problem was not that I couldn't have my job back but that there weren't any hours, and so they didn't hire me immediately.

I went to FAS, the state employment agency.

The lady at FAS asked me if I'd been to social welfare. No. She recommended I go there. I think she might have even told me that I have to register at Social Welfare before I could avail of the services at FAS.

I did the one thing that would be at the heart of many successful encounters with Irish bureaucracy: I went where I was told I oughta go and I told them there who had suggested I go.

They put me on the dole.

In November of that year, I went on the "dockets." That meant that I was able to do some work, and report it, which would lead to a reduction in that week's social-welfare payment. This was the plum prize. I could work, or not. I'd be okay either way, but it was good to do a bit and earn a bit of extra money, and the work that I was doing was rarely in the same location, and I was working with a friend, so it was great. Gary and I pretty much took care of the Kilkenny area, the supervisor being down in Waterford, and we always did good work and most of the clients appreciated us and it was just generally pretty fuckin alright.

In August of 2009 I moved to Cork. "Moved" is a bit of a stretch. I went there with a backpack. I'd wanted to get out of Kilkenny.

And I love Cork. So I went there, when I returned from my vacation in Romania.

I was able to transfer my dole to Cork. This would have been a simple matter of paperwork, normally. I worried about it, though, and rightfully. I think that I was beginning to stress-test the boundaries of my welcome in the country, because I assessed the risk as worth taking.

I got a job in a bakery in early 2010. I signed off the dole. I've already been told how stupid that was.

The bakery closed in June of that year.

When I went to Social Welfare in Cork, they asked me questions for the first time. I couldn't answer them. Friends told me to return to Kilkenny. In August I did.

In Kilkenny I'd have a better chance at social welfare because they knew me there. Also, my friends were in Kilkenny, so I'd be okay.

In Kilkenny I did a load of paperwork and had several interviews. Social Welfare declared me habitually resident. I got a back-dated payment.

I had some problems where I was living. I had to leave. I talked with a lady named Bridget who owns a few houses around town. She agreed to rent me a place for the same amount I'd been paying in the other place, contingent upon my agreement to apply for rent allowance.

This is where my time in Ireland began to come to a resolution.

I'd asked about rent allowance, a few years earlier, on the advice of a friend. A lady at the office that handles rent allowance applications had told me then that I had "really slipped through the loop," when I'd gotten on the dole. I quietly retracted my paperwork and went away.

In the autumn of 2010, I had little choice. I couldn't stay where I was and I had to promise my prospective landlady that I'd try to get rent allowance. It was part of our agreement, and every week as I paid rent in cash I really felt compelled to give her an honest update about what I'd been doing to resolve this matter. Bridget, as per the Irish tendency, considered me to be legitimately eligible. I was not in a position to disabuse her of this misunderstanding.

The county Housing Authority declared me eligible to sign up for "council housing," publicly-funded accomodation. This is a required precursor to application for rent allowance.

But Community Welfare declared me ineligible because I was not legally resident in the state.

I'm quite certain that the reason that the closer examination of my file went from Community Welfare ("no you can't have rent allowance but you can appeal the decision") to the Social Welfare office was because my new apartment was in the purview of Breda Dermody. Breda Dermody is infamous. I think she made it her personal business to make sure Social Welfare scrutinized my case more carefully. But, anyway, it's all just part of the mystery.

And, in any case, Social Welfare, who had just prior declared me habitually resident, realized then that I'm not Irish. I'm being clever when I say that — they all knew I'm American, as did any Irish person who ever heard me speak. The American accent is obvious to them in an instant.

On the 11th of April, I got a call from Social Welfare. I'd had a strange intuition that morning. I felt ill, nauseated as if I'd had too much to drink, which I had not. I was lying on the couch, feeling better, when the phone rang. A fella named Brian asked me if I have a "Stamp 4" or an Irish passport. Stamp 4 is like a green card, the immigration office's permission to stay. I said no. Brian told me that they'd have to stop my social-welfare payments.

He said he'd send me this information in the post and that I'd have a chance to answer the matter officially. That letter arrived the next day. They didn't wait for my response. That same day I picked up my last payment. The following week it was all over.

I believe that my experience in official Ireland is unique, in the pure sense of that word — singular. I don't think it had ever happened before me, and I don't think it will happen again.

I was always inherently conflicted about the overwhelming desire to write about this. Now it's over. The potential danger of being open about it is removed. This is my first attempt to share the story.


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