Looking over my social media news feed yesterday, a day after the terror attack on a Tunisian beach which claimed the lives of thirty-eight people, I happened upon a rather tasteless joke posted by an old acquaintance. One Irish woman, from County Meath, has been confirmed to be among the dead, and tonight there are fears that a couple from Athlone have also been killed. Earlier this month, on 16 June, six Irish students, visiting the United States on J1 visas, tragically lost their lives when a wooden balcony collapsed from under them during a party in Berkley, California. Over the course the following week there was wall-to-wall news coverage of the incident on both radio and television, the flag at Government Buildings was lowered to half mast, funerals and eulogies were broadcast, books of condolences were opened, and a whole feeling of national mourning was manufactured. There were no tasteless comments on social media, and the lad who cracked this one about Tunisia publically protested about the “blatant xenophobia” in the New York Times’ coverage of the Berkeley accident. By no means does this comment wish to diminish the pain being suffered by the families of those unfortunate young people, but it is clear that there is a difference between their deaths and those in Sousse, Tunisia, on Friday last.
Was the distinction made by the joke and the earlier protest by a man from Ballsbridge – a wealthy, middle class suburb in south Dublin – entirely accidental? Personally I doubt that his comments were intentionally malicious, but I do fear that he may have put words to a deeply rooted and largely unchallenged social prejudice. In Berkley those who lost their lives were from middle class backgrounds, from expensive south Dublin addresses like Foxrock, and attending University College Dublin. In Tunisia the people murdered on the beach were from far less affluent backgrounds. They were off on a package holiday to a sun resort – not the typical vacation choice of Ireland’s well-to-do. It wasn’t just the joke that gave away the distinction that was being made between these two sad events. Everyone has been kept informed by the news, but there is no wall-to-wall, around-the-clock coverage, no flags have been lowered to half mast, no celebrities or ministers of state have waxed lyrical about them being “Ireland’s children,” and the president hasn’t uttered a word. There were children on that beach too. There were babies, infants, and toddlers. There were real people from real families out there enjoying their holidays. There were Irish people there too, and we know that at least one of them is now dead. Some people are just more important than others. Or so it would appear.