Lace Curtain, Part I

In Ireland, but more commonly in North America, there exist two particular phrases referring to two economic classes of Irish people.

They are “lace curtain Irish” and “shanty Irish.”
The former refers to Irish people who have attained some degree of economic security, while the latter refers to those who have not. Both terms are most oftenly used in a derogatory fashion. Perhaps ironically (or perhaps not), people who consider themselves “shanty Irish” are quite proud to be labelled as such, while being labelled as “lace curtain” is considered shameful and I know of no one who would identify themselves as such, regardless of whether or not they owned Irish linen, Waterford crystal, or lace curtains. The reason that this bit is part one of (possibly) many is that it pertains directly to the current political situation in Ireland, particularly in relation to the divide between the Republic and the Northern six counties. I personally refer to this divide as “The Lace Curtain” (in reference to the Iron Curtain of the Cold War), but as we all know, lace is very delicate, you can see through it, and it is quite fragile.

But this is simply an introduction, or simple illustration, about classism and it’s consequences. More specifically, it is a true story about two women and their lives.

I’ll refer to one of these women as Maggie and the other as Vivian (not their real names).

Vivian’s parents were from Derry and Donegal. She came from a Catholic/nationalist family. Maggie’s parents were Dutch/Irish, and she was an apolitical Protestant. Both families emigrated to America; Vivian’s for both economic and political reasons, and Maggie’s for purely economic considerations. Maggie had only one sibling; Vivian had six, all girls. Sadly for Vivian, her father soon contracted tuberculosis after arriving in the States and passed away. Not long thereafter, she and her sisters also were infected, and to make matters a hell of a lot worse, her mother was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve on her way home from attending to a dying Jewish woman, whom no one else had the inclination to make a house call in her aid. Afterwards, Vivian and her sisters went through a series of stays in TB sanatoriums and orphanages until well into their teenage years. Luckily for Vivian, she met and married a nice Welshman (rare as a unicorn) who converted to Catholicism for her and they had four children. He made a good living at his trade and they lived in a fine suburban home.

Maggie, on the other hand, had misfortunes of her own. Her sole sibling suffered from congenital mental defects and her parents were forced to spend what they had in order to provide the care that she needed. Luckily for her, she met and married an Irishman who just happened to land in America at the right place and time to make quite a bit of money in his field. She also converted to Catholicism (and no, this is not an endorsement of any religion) and they had two children.

And so Vivian became well off, and Maggie became what you might call wealthy. Vivian was what might be called “shanty Irish”, while Maggie became what some would call “lace curtain Irish.”

But here’s the thing.

Maggie lived in a Victorian home with silk wallpaper, brass fittings, and all the like. And yet, despite the fact that her neighbours had lace curtains, she refused to have them in her own home. She did not want to be labelled as “lace curtain Irish”, despite the fact that she did not so much care to identify herself as having any Irish roots whatsoever.

Vivian, on the other hand, did have lace curtains. She was very proud of her Irish heritage, spoke Irish, and openly identified herself as such her entire life. She didn’t care about what sort of stigma such a little thing such as having lace curtains might attract from her neighbours; she felt that, after all she had been through, she simply deserved them. And deserve them she did.

Neither of these two women were wrong in their choice of decour. Both of them were good people who suffered through many trials and tribulations, and came out intelligent and compassionate on the other side. One of them, however, saw lace curtains as an affront to the less fortunate, which is noble enough. The other, who had lace curtains, saw them for that they were. Sheer fabric. Something you could easily see through. She wasn’t worried about that though. Because she had nothing to hide, and nothing to hide from.

That was in America, not Ireland. Obviously, this little tale is not really about actual lace curtains. If you want them and can afford them, good for you.

Just try and remember the folks on the other side of the curtains.

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