In late 2008, as the world financial system went into collapse, a shocking self-dealing scandal toppled the Anglo Irish Bank. As Ireland slid into recession, the government nationalized the Anglo Irish Bank and the Bank of Ireland, enacting austerity measures to pay the bill: tax hikes, slashed budgets, and lower pay for state jobs. Middle- and lower-middle-class workers were hit hard; many of them felt an injustice in having to finance the bank bailouts.
One such worker was Brian Condra, a Dublin hospital porter and married father of three. In fact, looking through articles about the Irish financial crisis and the resulting protests, he’s hard to miss. “Short of selling our kidneys, we don’t know how we’re going to [pay our bills],” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “There are people getting their wages capped at a quarter of a million. The only time I have seen a quarter of a million was on a Lotto game show,” The Mirror quoted him saying. “It’s like we drew the lottery ticket made in hell,” he told The New York Times. “Suddenly we see that the Europe we’ve bought into isn’t a golden utopia.”
A quick Nexis search calls up about a dozen articles from Irish, UK, and US outlets featuring Brian Condra since 2009. In many, he is the only quoted source. He is never identified as head of any organization; rather, he is introduced as a typical citizen trying to make ends meet. Who is this eloquent man, and why does he seem to be just about everywhere?
There are two separate articles with the same quote of Condra’s—one in the Irish Examiner and one in the Sunday Herald—about a November 2010 protest in Dublin; the reporters seem to have singled him out from a crowd of 50,000 to sum up what brought people into the streets: “[prime minister] Brian Cowen said three days ago people should pull together, I think he has a neck because he is ripping this society apart,” Condra told them. His quotes are so good that they are often used as headlines. “They’ve ruined my kids’ lives” is one; “Santa is going to be very mean this year .” is another.
Two Christmases in a row, he’s been featured in strikingly similar pieces about how, as the 2010 take put it, a typical family is “feeling the pinch” at the holiday season. He told a reporter from AFP that he saw similarities between the impoverished Cratchits in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and his own family’s situation. “We’re saying Santa can’t bring that much this year. I can’t afford it. I have to choose between clothing my children and giving them toys,” he said. Earlier that month, his daughter Jill had turned three on the same day the Irish government announced a fresh round of tax hikes. “I’d like to send that present back to [Minister for Finance] Brian Lenihan with a big bow on it and when he opens it, it explodes in his face.”
In Condra’s quotes, he hits all the right buttons—health care, mortgages, the cost of raising children—without denouncing or supporting any political party in particular. He helpfully offers specifics—telling reporters exactly how much he and his wife used to bring home each month and how much less they make now. And he gives the pieces real emotional depth as well, by talking about people he knows who have divorced or committed suicide after years of financial strain. In short, he’s the perfect go-to guy for reporters wanting to illustrate the effects of the recession in Ireland.
Contacted at home in Drogheda, a port city on Ireland’s east coast, Condra says he’s never reached out to the media. His role as de facto spokesman for the “average man feeling the pinch” began accidentally, when he showed up early to a protest in Dublin and a reporter for BBC Northern Ireland Radio happened to ask him for a brief interview, merely to be used as a sound check. Impressed by his “gift of gab,” as Condra puts it, the reporter put him on air. Later that day, a reporter from BBC London tracked him down for another interview.
Condra says he supposes that his BBC appearances made people think that he “was somebody,” because in the next few weeks and months, newspapers, radio, and television outlets from all over Europe were soon reaching out to him—at home, at work, or through his trade union, which had helped organize the protest.
Should one man be relied upon by so many reporters for a requisite splash of color? It certainly couldn’t hurt to look a little further to try to get a variety of voices; this DART goes to the reporters who didn’t.
His sudden fame hasn’t pushed Condra to ascend the ranks of the union; he says he’s not interested in being a leader or spokesman of any organization. “I think the power in what I have to say resides in the fact that I’m an ordinary person,” he says, quite rightly.
It’s been two and a half years since his BBC debut, but Condra still gets frequent interview requests. He estimates he’s obliged about twenty of them, and turned down many more. The attention is getting a bit old. “I’m actually a private person in my own right, and I don’t particularly like having my picture in the paper,” he says. He adds that it bothers him that the reporters tend to quote him talking about himself, when he always takes care to emphasize that many people are much worse off, financially, than he. Above all he wishes that more Irish citizens suffering the effects of the budget would speak up for themselves.
Maybe more would, if anyone were listening.