When the bakery in Cork went out of business last June (2010) I was unemployed and went to the social-welfare office.
The social-welfare office in Cork asked me for my "GNIB" card, which I learned is the Garda (police) National Immigration Board" card. I didn't learn at that point that I'm not legally resident -- I knew that.
For years I've lived in a strange quasi-legal reality here. I can work, and pay taxes; I've been able to get social-welfare support when I'm not working or only working part-time. I can have a medical card.... But when I cross the border I have to say that I'm here to visit.
Last June, the social-welfare office in Cork asked me.
I stayed in Cork for the summer. The place where I was living had gone into accountancy -- taken over by the bank -- and I'd noticed that nobody had said anything when I'd paid the rent late, so when I lost my job I stopped paying rent. My friends in Kilkenny were telling me come back.
I feel better about Kilkenny now, but I didn't come here exactly by choice. I'd left here by choice, a year before.
Anyhow, I came back to Kilkenny last 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 much of a 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 would be difficult; but it's what I needed, and it's what I was going to do.
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 understand why there's a problem because you don't think of me as a foreigner. It's a long story. The history is too deep. There is some history; that's enough of that.
In order to apply for rent allowance you have to sign up for counsel housing at the local Housing Authority. At an interview there, a couple of ladies raised the matter of my legal status. Here I was on "jobseeker's allowance," in the country for years, deemed habitually-resident by the social-welfare office... but American. One of them told me that there'd been a law passed this autumn that states that one must have had an Immigration Bureau "stamp 4" for a period of at least five years before being eligible to sign up for counsel housing.
This stamp 4 -- this is specifically what I don't have. This, or something similar. I don't even know, to be honest, because I'm only trying to start thinking about the issue even at all. It's all non-sensical and ... Never mind. We'll get there.
They said, at the County Housing Counsel, that they would make a phone-call to find out if there were an exception possible. I myself got a phone-call that evening from one of them informing me that there was a letter for me at the office. 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 in the State."
But here's the thing. At that point, I had probably crossed the Rubicon, passed the point of no return. I'd stuck my head above the parapet.
I've lived for these years with this ambiguity. I'm accustomed to it. That doesn't mean it doesn't bother me. But, also, I've lived relatively well -- treated, to be honest, better by the Irish government than I expect ever to be by that of my native United States. And, yes, that's shameful.
Never mind politics.
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.
And, at this point, talking with John McGuinness was the best option. My discussions with the landlady Bridgett compelled me to try. 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. I told you it's a long story, and Irish.
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 a side-note. Here's another one: I never yet know how to address Mr. McGuinness. The habit of addressing somebody on a first-name basis is a defining behavio(u)r 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, the son of the landlady, who said that himself and Bridgett would like to speak with me. They made me an offer. They asked me to keep it 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, but said yes. They gave me the keys.
I had to move, without further delay. I'd imagined a transition (an optimistic and stupid idea, I see now.)
But it was time to go.
My request for rent allowance, which I had to make as a part of my agreement with my landlady, and which John McGuinness thinks that I'd be better to 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 process is, in his opinion, the best way for me to follow the question of my legal status here; and he believes that if I don't make this my issue, somebody else could 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 because they do not have the full technical ability to legally find work, a fact that I mention in the interest of specificity and because I have Romanian friends.] But, (injustice and legal technicalities aside,) there is nothing comparable to the Irish-American emotional cultural connection. Right or wrong, this is a factor in the equation.
If you've read this far, please understand that I've told you this because I trust you or at least because I don't think that you're going to do anything to hurt me or share this information with anybody who would like to do so.
I hope that's true.
Um, I guess that's all, for now.