"Is he looking forward to the match tonight?" I asked. "The match, what match?" she replied. "Ireland is playing in the soccer," I reminded her. "Oh no," she smiled, "tennis is our game, isn't it Robert?" The boy nodded in agreement, even as he kept kicking the ball with consummate ease.
It was my first but not last encounter with the dowager grandmothers of south county Dublin, where in a universe parallel to our own, you can kick the ball, but not necessarily play the game.
The news that while the country is still reeling from its worst recession in decades, certain suburbs on the southside of Dublin are still the wealthiest enclaves in the state should not really have come as a surprise.
People who live in houses with room for a pony in the garden, as opposed to the stairwell, know how to consolidate and hold on to their wealth. Since the recession, the ugly class markers that have always lingered under the surface of Irish life have resurfaced. The reality is that while there was some fluidity of money during the Celtic tiger years, not all boats were rising to quite the same level.
The cash-rich who spent, spent, spent, were but a temporary blip. Watching the second series of Dublin Wives shows how far we have slid from the bling of a previous era. Less an insight into the secret lives of wealthy housewives, now it feels like that point at 2am in a nightclub, where someone is crying in the ladies, her friends are saying "you're too good for him", and a woman you barely know is telling you about a row she's had with a woman you've never met. Over and over again.
Meanwhile, in a society where money goes to money, and connections as opposed to merit often hold sway, the old order has been restored. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the more salubrious Dublin suburbs where age-old rituals ensure that no matter the government, privilege is protected.
There are codes which help them identify members of their own class, and keep out those they feel might dilute their wealth. From where you play tennis or golf, to picking certain private schools, not all of them make the cut, there is a network which is as rigid as any caste system. The school-gate mum who finds herself frozen out of the information loop has been quickly judged and discarded.
Sometimes it's not even as subtle as the non-returned play-date. One mother was shocked when her telephoned invitation to a five year-old's birthday party was turned down by a south Dublin matron on the basis that "we don't know you". But at least it was a direct snub. Charity fundraisers, though ostensibly all done in the service of others, equally have their demarcation lines.
For some, networking in a good cause is a more indirect way of finding like-minded souls while weeding out undesirables. As to how it works, the 'weeding out' process usually follows a simple pattern. First they ask you where you live, and then where you went to school, on the pretence that they might know someone who lives near you or who went to the same school. When they realise you're not from Dublin, watch as their eyes glaze over.
One elderly southsider when I told her where I was from, was unabashed in her critique. "Country people have Dublin ruined," she opined. It was hard to know whether to take it personally, or merely a reflection on those fellow-boggers then buying up half the city. And if you are from the northside of the metropolis, look for the tiny flicker of alarm, as they won't know where the 'good schools' are there, not really. The hidden coda being that they don't believe that 'there are any, really...'
Private education does not in itself guarantee success. School results in the wealthier post-codes are often inflated by grinds, and non fee-paying schools do better overall. But the same words appear again and again in their glossy brochures and on their websites, words like, talent, abilities, leadership.
What they promise is that the 7pc who do go private have expectations as high as the highest within their own peer group. Because it's from college onwards where the upper middle-class excel. They pick professions which are, for the most part, recession proof. Law, medicine, dentistry, actuarial studies, banking, stock-broking and accountancy are the bedrock.
The truth is that any job where you can charge €250-plus an hour for your professional advice is the holy grail. Anything less, and you might as well be working for the minimum wage in a fast-food joint.
Believing that you've worked for it means that when others have their wage-packets hit, you have professional bodies to keep the barbarians at the gate. No surprise then, that Irish medics earn twice the money of many of their European counterparts. That sense of entitlement carries over into all aspects of upper-middle class life. What they have and you don't is what one American sociologist termed, "an invisible knapsack of privilege" which helps smooth their way in life.
Young London-based Irish entrepreneur James McBennett probably summed this up when reflecting recently on his website on an altercation he witnessed on Dublin Bus when he was a teenager. Two older passengers had remonstrated with a young man from a private school for littering. The individual in question had a wealthy father. The row escalated. The 16-year-old's reply as McBennett remembers it was, "I have enough money to pay the medical bill for any damage you might do to me, I also have enough money to pay my lawyers to sue the c*** out of you so you have no money left, being the age you are and using the Nitelink, I assume you don't have much of it".
Though their lives appear gilded to the outsider looking in, they feel conversely that they got there through their own hard graft, and that everyone from au-pairs to tradespeople are living off their hard-earned dosh.
While working as a producer on Liveline, I took a surreal call from a Dublin 4 resident about the prospects of an immigrant hostel opening in her area. Unlike some of her neighbours she was all for it. "It is so hard to get anyone to do the garden or anything else without charging you a fortune", she explained without a hint of irony. "I'd love to see them coming in here."
As the rest of Ireland tightens its well-worn belt the remaining well-off are also aware that their good fortune might attract some envy. So holidays are always last-minute bargains, a restaurant meal, paid for with a gift-voucher, the new outfit, bought in the sale.
One Dalkey-based parent of teenage boys says she tells her sons to say that they are from Dun Laoghaire if they are out in town, as otherwise strangers might turn nasty.
The well-off mums see no moral quandary in the fact that their foreign child-minders have left their own children in order to mind theirs. "It's part of their culture," I have been told more than once. After all, they've kept them on despite the down-turn...
If asked, most Irish people would see themselves as somewhere in the middle when it comes to income. But the truth is that there is a world of difference between earning €30-50,000 a year, and those on €100,000-plus, which explains why we are not all in it together.
It also explains how the HPAT (Health Professions Admission Test) has not, according to the last Health Education Authority report, widened access to medicine courses. The better-off can pay for their offspring to take HPAT grind courses on a repeat basis until they pass it. So the bright boy or girl who gets 600 points may now be overtaken by a dimmer, richer counterpart.
The average fees for barristers training at King's Inns is over €12,000. That's before two further apprenticeship years.
Only those with some sort of parental support or private income can afford to spend long years in a profession where networking is an intrinsic part of success.
So we have gone full circle. The news that the Dublin Wives stars were getting paid €125 per episode by TV3 is a salutary warning. It wouldn't even pay to improve their pouts at Dr Danielle's clinic -- €450 a pop for lip-filler treatment according to the website.
No wonder the 'sheltered sectors', as they have been termed during the IMF/EU bailout, continue to get rich.
It's because they're worth it, darlings.