Is there a class system in Ireland?

Class system

There is no concrete definition of ‘class’ and because of this, it can have many different meanings. The common understanding of social class is usually socio-economic class which is defined as people having the same social, economic, cultural, political or educational status. This is what we would see as the upper, middle, and working-class that people often talk about. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the social class began to mean something different. Now using the term social class or class system is more of an indicator of positions within a social hierarchy.

On the surface level, Ireland has no class system, in either the traditional sense or the more modern version. It doesn’t take more than a few scrapes at that surface to know that this is not wholly true. Ireland is considered by many as one of the friendliest countries in the world and while that may be true for tourists visiting there is an underlying class system at play in Ireland that many might not see at first glance. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Location

The location has a lot to do with the traditional and modern class system in Ireland. As with anything, people make snap judgements when they hear where you are from. This ties into the traditional sense of social class as it is related to economic status. You still hear the whispers of ‘council estate’ or ‘council house’ as a form of status in society. Before the Celtic Tiger era in Ireland, a council house was the norm. It was rare for people to have mortgages on their houses. It wasn’t until the 70’s that a scheme came in to help people buy their houses from the council. Now two-thirds of all council housing ever built are privately owned.

With this scheme coming in, it began a divide in classes in Ireland. Where once it was the majority of the people in council housing with a few having their own house – it was now more privately-owned housing than council housing. There began a stigma against having a house owned by the council and the divide has only grown throughout the years with the Celtic Tiger making it easier than ever to get a mortgage. As the economy shifted, so did people’s mindsets. They began to divide people up by their economic background more and more. There is also the issue with these private housing estates still being considered council estates which adds to the stigma of saying where you live. This is a countrywide thing that many are not aware that they are doing it. It sets people into a certain class in Ireland and puts those with privately-owned housing ‘higher’ on the social hierarchy within Ireland. 

Dublin Vs Cork

There has always been a ‘friendly’ sense of rivalry between these two, with them competing for who has the better county. A quick google search brings up many different articles on the Dublin versus Cork debate. “The Rebel County” and Dublin have a bigger rivalry than you would think. I once mentioned to someone from Cork that Cork City reminded me of a smaller version of Dublin and regretted it instantly as I received a lot of anger for my throwaway comment. They wanted nothing to do with their county being similar to Dublin. They believed that Dublin people are arrogant and believed themselves above everyone because they are from the capital city. Whereas in Dublin they believe that Cork wants to be the capital and think themselves better than any other county. Seeing both sides of their argument it isn’t difficult to see that they are two sides of the same coin.

Both of these counties believe in this new modern hierarchy. This is a different type of class system, but a class system nonetheless. There is a saying that goes around that ‘Wexford was, Dublin is, and Cork will be.’ This refers to being the capital of Ireland. Dublin holds onto the title tightly at the moment as that is their main argument for how they are better, while it is the opinion of many in Cork, that they should be the rightful capital. The conflict in this class system is evident between these two counties as both are fighting to be on top of that hierarchy and neither are succeeding.

Culchies 

One thing both Cork and Dublin have in common is that anyone outside of their counties is considered ‘culchies’ or ‘boggers’. The term culchie itself is used frequently for a lot of people, especially in Dublin. It is a word that Collins Dictionary describes as ‘a rough or unsophisticated country-dweller from outside Dublin’. This is not a flattering name to be called but the history of the name makes it even more derogatory. Culchie is said to derive from the Irish ‘Cúl an tí’ which means back of the house. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people worked as domestic servants in the homes of wealthier people. The servants were not permitted to enter through the front door, only being allowed to use the back door or servants entrance. It became common practice to use the word culchie in a derogatory manner.

While many might not know the history of the word, culchie it is still used in both Dublin and Cork to refer to people outside of those counties. By referring to people as a culchie is applying a class structure to them as often it is said in a derogatory way. By using it in such a way they are pinning anyone outside of Dublin as lower than them in this social hierarchy. 

North Vs South

This is another aspect of the class systems in Ireland. There is a lot of weight put in from what side of a county you are from. Again the most notable divides are from Dublin and Cork. As it stands now, in Dublin and Cork, northside is considered underprivileged while southside is considered overprivileged. This is a lot more prevalent in cities than smaller counties but some version of it applies in each place you go. Before I attended college in Dublin the idea of northside and southside were just a geographical location to me. Once in college though, it became apparent that they take that divide very seriously. It all ties into the modern class systems in Ireland. Right now, being from the northside will put you into a certain class even if it does not reflect what your actual social class is.

This is not just a city thing though as each county has something like this going on. It can be more subtle than a north and south side divide in that it can be what school you attend, or football club you are with, or even what extracurricular activities you do. 

These are just a few examples of different types of a modern class system within Ireland. Others such as higher education, the size of your family, and even religion – in Northern Ireland – are taken into account to work out where you fit in the social hierarchy of Ireland.

We should, as a country, aim for a more equal society where there is greater equality for everyone. However, the idea of a classless society is a utopian ideal. It is human nature to judge. We judge or evaluate life experiences, situations, things, opinions, thoughts, and people based on the values, emotions and logic we were taught. All we can do is strive for is an equal opportunity society that helps everyone regardless of class. 

Let me know what you think about the class systems of Ireland down in the comments below!

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Katie Boland

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