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My secret Irish identity

When the Cork bakery shut in June of 2010, I went to the social-welfare office there in the city.

A Kilkenny friend or two had scolded me for having signed off the dole when I got that job.

The social-welfare office needed my "GNIB" card — "Garda National Immigration Board." This was the first I'd heard of it, although I had known that I was not legally resident. For years already I had lived in a strange, evolving quasi-legal orientation with official Ireland. I could work and pay taxes — and, later, to get social-welfare support when I wasn't working or was only working part-time. I had a medical card. I took some classes and was eligible for some programs.

But any time I crossed the border, I'd always had to say that I was there to visit. And when the social-welfare office in Cork asked me about that immigratiion card in the summer of 2010, I didn't have one.


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. When I lost my job, I stopped paying rent.

My friends in Kilkenny wanted me to come back. I did so in August and stayed with a friend, then we and another friend got a house together. It'd be best for everybody, it seemed — for me because I didn't have much of a choice. It was horrible.

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

I wanted a place to live alone. I had done this in Cork. In Kilkenny, I took the same attitude: it's what I needed, and it's what I was going to do. I met Bridgett at her John Street antique shop; it had a sign in the window about a rental such as the one I wanted. I got it — on condition.

I was clear and honest with her, and she held the city-centre apartment for me. Bridgett suggested I apply for rent allowance. More than suggestion, this was implicit in our agreement — it was the condition. And it could become a problem, I knew. But I really had to do it. I knew it could be a problem in a way that even or maybe especially the Irish could not understand. In this way, my promise was disingenuous because I knew that Bridgett wouldn't think of me as a foreigner. But I had to do it.

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 that autumn stating 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. I had always been rightly afraid of the counsel housing waiting list (which had always been requisite in applying for rent allowance) because there had always been a box I could not mark, being non-European.

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."

At that point, I had crossed 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.

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. 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, was then a "parliamentary question."

There was a risk that I would lose my ability to receive social-welfare payments, he told me. But he believed that if I didn't make this my issue, somebody else could make it theirs. He said that there was no risk that I would be deported; and I was not.

In April 2011 I lost social-welfare payments due to the Stamp 4 question. In May, I returned to the United States.