Letter from Wicklow: Covid-19 and housing vex Ireland; across the sea, it’s political intrigue

WICKLOW, Ireland – Like many others, I naively believed that, with statistics revealing that 90 percent of the Irish people over age 12 have received their second jab and are, hence, “fully vaccinated” against coronavirus, we could at last put it behind us and resume our lives as normal.  Eventually, we would look back on eighteen months of lockdowns and disruptions as a strange period, when there was a climate of fear, yet equally, when we collectively realised what was most important as we huddled close with our nearest and dearest.

I was apparently wrong, however.  In November, there were thousands of new cases of Covid-19 being diagnosed daily and hospitalisations have shot up.  Tragically, a 14 year old child has passed away after recently testing positive. 

The National Public Health Emergency Team has requested that the Government “consider reinstating previous advice to work from home where possible.”  Anecdotally, based on my conversations with publicans and restaurant owners, they are deeply concerned at the possibility of both of restrictions being re-imposed on them and of scheduled Christmas parties being cancelled as Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, cautions the citizenry to limit socialising.

Now, there is every chance that some of what we are hearing in the media is overly pessimistic – that we are indeed past the worst of it and that things will improve as those initially hesitant to be vaccinated come forward, as older and vulnerable women and men receive their boosters, and as young children are administered their shots – but it is frightening nonetheless.  All of us have had more than enough of this wretched plague.  Please God, it will soon leave us.


I watched the Nov. 2 Boston mayoral final from afar with keen interest.  While the result was not a surprise given what multiple polls had shown, I was still taken aback by Michelle Wu’s margin of victory.  Particularly striking were Annissa Essaibi George’s narrow victories in some precincts in her native Dorchester and Wu’s win in Ward 20 (West Roxbury and a slice of Roslindale), widely considered one of the city’s most conservative pockets with a significant constituency of long-time residents.  It’s been said before, yet it bears repeating: the city has changed altogether very rapidly and bears little resemblance, politically speaking at least, to the Boston I once knew.  One fascinating aspect of the metamorphoses is that gentrification has arguably had a more profound political impact than the “white flight” that followed hot on the heels of forced busing in the 1970s.

By way of tangible example, here are the surnames of the 13 Boston City Councillors in 1997, 23 years after Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s court order: Roache, Davis-Mullen, O’Neil, (Stephen) Murphy, Scappichio, Kelly, Feeney, Yancey, Conley, Hennigan, Saunders, Keane, and Honan.  It remained dominated by Irish Americans and quite “old school” in its outlook.  In late 2021, roughly two decades after gentrification began in earnest in the city, the city council members are Flaherty, Mejia, Louijeune, (Erin) Murphy, Edwards, Flynn, Baker, Worrell, Arroyo, Hicks, Anderson, Bok, and Breadon.  There is now a majority of people of colour and it is a very progressive entity.  In short, Boston’s legislative body has been transformed utterly by gentrification in a way that it was not by busing.

Michelle Wu is an exceptionally capable person who, with any luck, will prove a great mayor.  She has plenty of challenges on her plate, which has led some of her foes – who claim she has overpromised and cannot possibly deliver on the reforms she touted during the campaign – to assert that election night will be the high water mark for her over the next four years.  Let’s hope they are wrong.


One of the biggest problems Mayor Wu must tackle is the exorbitant cost of housing in the city of my birth.  On this side of the Atlantic, it remains the defining issue in 2021.  A Daft.ie report indicates that the already sky-high price of homes in Dublin has gone up by a further 10 percent in the last year.  And even more chillingly, homes in rural counties like Longford, Wexford, Waterford, Kerry, and Roscommon are 20 percent dearer than they were in 2020.  Rents, too, are exploding, with massive increases being felt nationally.  The average monthly rent in late 2016 was €986.  Five years on, it is €1,516.  There is also a dearth of supply; currently, a mere 1,460 properties are available to rent in Ireland.  This is the lowest number since Daft.ie began tracking the figures in 2006.  By way of stark example, a search on that website shows that there are only nine rental properties on the market in the city of Limerick.

Naturally, the pressure is on the government to do something to ameliorate what is unquestionably a crisis of epic proportions.  The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party government has developed a “Housing for All” plan that will pour billions into improving the housing system and delivering different types of homes for people with a broad range of needs.

 Scepticism about the initiative abounds, though, and this is borne out in the polls.  Sinn Féin, which has taken ownership of housing to its political advantage, is now the top choice of 37 percent of the electorate, not far off the 41 percent combined total for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.  The big “but” for the former political wing of the IRA in this context is that voters – young people, especially – will expect them to solve the conundrum if and when they get into government.  That ain’t going to be easy.


It is seldom that I am shocked by a political announcement, but I sincerely was by the news that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, of the Granite State’s Republican political dynasty, has decided not to take on the Democratic incumbent, US Sen. Maggie Hassan.  Hassan won her seat by a little more than 1,000 votes of the approximately 700,000 that were cast.  Sununu, meanwhile, was re-elected in 2020 by 32 percentage points as Donald Trump went down by 7 percent.  Early opinion surveys had him in front of Hassan.

Leading Republicans lobbied the 47-year-old Sununu aggressively to get in the race.  Why did he forego a very good chance to win a US Senate seat and instantly become a national political figure?  “I'd rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results…If we are just sitting around having meeting after meeting, waiting for votes to maybe happen.  Man, I like moving, I like getting stuff done…I think I would be like a lion in a cage waiting to get something and affect real change.  It wasn't for me.”

Frankly, in light of what we have witnessed unfold in recent years, it’s hard to blame Sununu.  But isn’t it a profound shame that this is what has become of the country’s upper house?  Its clubby members are fond of saying that it is “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”  Get real.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.  Follow him on Twitter at @LarryPDonnelly.

The US launch of his new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – will be held at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton on Fri., Jan. 7, at 7:30 p.m.  He will be in conversation with Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen and books will be available for purchase that evening.  All are welcome.