| 12.4°C Dublin

Terry Prone: No fridge, no lights, no TV - the grim truth behind numbers

It's okay as long as you think of them as simply numbers. Thirty households a day cut off by the ESB for non-payment -- 900 domestic units a month no longer receiving electricity.

When you put it that way, it's what you'd expect, in the downturn. No more, no less. Just another statistic of national insolvency.

It's when you put faces on it that the figure takes on a new and painful significance.

The faces of frantic parents and mystified children, in households suddenly silent because all the machines have ground to a halt. The faces of families transported, out of the blue, back 30 years to a time before TVs and computers. The faces of individuals going through that crazy process of adjustment to loss of power where they know they can't turn on the cooker or plug in the kettle but a daft bit of their mind still suggests that they can cook something in the microwave. Except, of course, that they can't use the microwave any more than they can use the washing machine. Or the hot water boiler. Or plug the mobile phone in to get enough power to use it to contact someone.

It takes time to come to terms with the misery of losing power in your home. Even in a warm August, it's difficult, when your hand goes out, automatically, to switch on the lights as the darkness draws in, only to find the switch clicking impotently and the dusk staying unrelieved. It's difficult to fill the silence. It's difficult to simply work out what time it is, when all the clues stop working. It's difficult when you find yourself sniffing the milk as it comes out of a warm fridge to make sure it's still usable.

Darkness

It's difficult to explain to the kids, and even more difficult to ask them not to tell their friends about it.

The St Vincent de Paul Society, that litmus test of the changing levels of deprivation among Ireland's new poor, says it's important to distinguish, in those 30 households, between those who can't pay and those who won't pay. You can bet the latter are in the minority. They're always with us, the people who spend their last few cents on a fix or a drink or a bet and end up being plunged into darkness by the ESB because their bill goes unpaid. The new faces among the (literally) powerless are not those of the hooked and addicted. They don't belong to the feckless and reckless. They are the faces of the people who, up to recently, had jobs and were proud of their careers.

They're the people who worked hard in school and in college, got on the property ladder, got on the career ladder, started families: in short, did everything that careful, caring, conservative solid citizens do.

Then the world turned inside out on them, through no fault of their own. One of them lost their job. Or both of them.

Serious

They moved from an interest-only loan to a loan that was serious, on a property worth three-quarters of what they were paying for it. As the back-to-school ads started to pop up in the supermarkets and on the radio programmes, these parents found themselves doing sums as they tried to go to sleep at night and resuming the crazy arithmetic the minute they woke up in the morning, convinced that if they did it right, the sums would work.

But, of course, the sums would NOT work, no matter what they did, and instead, they found themselves looking at possibilities they would never have dreamed of. Like selling the wedding rings. Or stiffing the ESB on the electricity bill.

Eventually, they had to make a dire choice, and the ESB, in turn, had to cut them off. Close them down. Turn them into a statistic of Ireland's new poverty.