All Out.Posted: April 3, 2011
I just cleared out a lot of clothing that I don’t wear. This is round three of clothing purges over the last few months, and I think I may actually have reached some state of simplicity in my wardrobe. That is, I mostly only have clothing that I actually wear—something I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say (this, of course, excludes special dresses, even the copper lace dress that doesn’t fit over my recently, and naturally, much larger boobs…how can I get rid of that?). I also have two bags of clothing to give to Oxfam.
Ireland is interesting when it comes to giving clothing away. In Canada, at least on the West Coast, and at least among my friends/acquaintances/general social circle, if someone were moving or trying to get rid of possessions, they would most likely try to sell them. I experienced this first hand recently from an old friend: she offered to give me an air-conditioning unit, and then later clarified that she would either “loan” it to me, and would ask for it back at some hypothetical future date when I leave Canada again, or she would sell it to me. This is by no means strange for Canadians, and I’m sure for many people. But would an Irish person ever do this? No way.
Ireland has an unbelievably high number of second hand and charity shops; I pass by at least 6 of them on my walk into town. And these charity shops stay open because Irish people just give things away. My parents have commented that when they moved from Ireland to Canada, they gave away all their furniture; a Canadian family would have had a garage sale.
I see no point in being truly bothered by my friend. But our exchange does make for an interesting study in contrasts between how second-hand goods are seen as part of, or not part of, an economy. I believe that the sentiment behind a friend selling me second-hand goods is one of two things. 1) My friend believes that the exchange of goods is separate from any previous personal relationship, and that the two have no bearing on one another. As such, second-hand goods should be sold in a way that reflects that they have, indeed, been used, but that they are still functioning commodities. In other words, economic transfers do not and should not take into account any previous personal relationships. 2) My friend believes that selling me a reduced-price second hand item is a kind and friendly thing to do as I would no longer need to go out and purchase a new, more expensive one. She takes into account that she has unused goods with economic value, and that I have a coincidental need for inexpensive goods (since I have little to no money) that she is able to furnish me with. This is a friendly and advantageous economic exchange.
If an Irish person were to offer to sell something, he or she would be seen as greedy. And the thriving charity shops are testament to this.
Perhaps there’s a cultural reason here. I can think of two things that might broadly account for this phenomenon in Irish culture: historical poverty and a dominant religion. Until the last twenty years Ireland, like many “Old World” countries, really didn’t offer many of its residents a chance to ‘get ahead,’ to work for a goal and reach it. My own parents are a testament to this: they left Ireland in part because they could not raise a family on their income, despite being stably in the middle class and working in a family business, and also because they saw Ireland has holding no opportunity for their children. I have to agree with them.
After my time here, I’ve seen that most people my age, if they even have a job, do not have a career. People my age are qualified and intelligent and have very little prospect of finding satisfying, lucrative work. One friend has a degree and is a published writer and has been volunteering at a cultural institution in Dublin for the last two years and, of course, lives at home. Her situation is by no means unusual. Describing this to my mother, she does not see it as that different from the Ireland of her early 20s. Recession or no recession, there is an ingrained conception of an Ireland where there is no opportunity that is so extremely present in Irish culture even today.
In terms of the Church, whatever other effects it has had, it does also largely govern the charitable enterprises in Ireland. Whether it’s donating to the hospital of St. So-and-so, or giving to help end disability, or epilepsy, or cerebral palsy, or dyslexia, or global childhood poverty, or whatever, someone is always asking you to give to something. Even airlines do it. And scores of school children and recently graduated college students swarm Grafton, Westmoreland, and O’Connell Street every day—they always seem to be raising money for something different. There does seem to be a predominant attitude that you should always be thinking about those less fortunate than you, that your money is best spent helping other, unknown people, that every little helps. Perhaps this is because God, or Jesus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster wants you to. But I’m willing to bet that this is such an ingrained part of Irish culture that its form may in fact be identical in an ostensibly secular environment as well.
This is not to say that charity canvassers don’t exist in Canada. The difference is that they don’t seem so pervasive. Maybe Canada is free of certain old cultural trappings that make everyone feel beholden to give to charities, to make their goodness be tied to charitable donations. And maybe the Canadian impulse to sell goods is just more honest. As though without the religiousity Canadian culture can see an economic exchange for what it is. After all, an Irish gift often comes along with an emotional payment, whereas a Canadian sale does not necessarily do so.
But I can’t help but feel as though there may be some kind of para-capitalist operation going on here. As though second-hand goods in Ireland are no longer economically valuable as commodities, but their capital somehow resides in the value that they will hold to some anonymous stranger in need rather than in a monetary exchange between owner and purchaser. Of course, there’s most likely an element of affective payment that the owner receives; he or she is paid by feeling as though they’re a better person.
Maybe it’s the small, persistent bit of Irish in me, but I would almost rather be paid in affect.