At first she thought it was because people were arranging logistics in an airport terminal, but then she got down to Offaly and realised it was everywhere, everybody – all the time. People moving like zombies, bumping into each other, our focus forever fixed downwards toward little pieces of plastic in our claws.
It’s only eighteen years, but if you stepped through a time-warp from 1998 Ireland – with it’s 32p stamps, phone-boxes and video-rental stores – into 2016 Ireland, where we walk around silently hunched over like primates, you’d be forgiven for thinking evolution had stopped. Or possibly taken a few steps backwards.
And smartphones are about to become absolutely unavoidable. I don’t have a smartphone, I threw it in the sea on Inis Oirr, it was annoying the life out of me. So for the past two years, I’ve operated on a phone that’s so old it’s in danger of becoming retro-fied by Hipsters. But like Hipsters, my brick phone is about to become obsolete, because the bandwidth used by GSM phones – aka old brick phones – is to be decommissioned, to make more bandwidth space for smartphones. I haven’t a fucking notion what any of that bandwidth jargon actually means, except that I will be forced into using a smartphone again. It’s either that or go full hermit.
I tried to raise these concerns about the degeneration of society due to the proliferation of technology with a born-again preacher on O’Connell Street in Limerick during the week. From Newport, Co. Tipperary – the same town as my father, he knew my whole bloodline – all the menswear mafia. The preacher was screaming at innocent bystanders, frantically describing the bleakest, most violent apocalyptic scenarios imaginable. Stories of demons and damnation and raptures – stuff that sounded like it was scripted by Mel Gibson after a feed of pints. At the same time, he was trying to give people leaflets with his phone-number scrawled on every one of them.
When he took a break from screaming violent imagery at children on the street, I asked him where he stood on smartphones. He showed me a fancy piece of kit that he kept strapped to his hip like a concealed weapon. The type of phone-holster you’d have seen at a line-dancing event in the Midlands, in 1998.
In fact, his whole operation was quite 1998. His microphone looked like it was robbed from a Brendan Grace gig, and he didn’t even have a website. But then, either did Jesus…
We covered a lot in our conversation – from the effect multinational corporations have had on regional towns in Ireland – specifically Newport – to how everyone is going to hell. Everyone except him, and a few other people he knows.
I told him I’d a very good friend who was ordained a priest recently, and I wanted to check if he was okay on the grand scale of things – with all this talk of judgement and rapture. But the preacher said my friend was going to hell too. In fact, he told me that on judgement day, my priest friend was even worse off than me. Which is not a great place in the heaven queue for anyone to be – particularly a professional priest. Something about misrepresenting the cross, the gomey religion-busker said.
Following this startling revelation, I used my soon-to-be obsolete brick phone to ring Fr. Mike. I advised him to split from the mob immediately – and go freelance. I told him to forget about those six years he spent in Maynooth, forget about his ordination last summer, forget about mass, confession, communion – all of it; and get himself a shitty little microphone, an amp, a few leaflets and go out screaming and roaring on the street instead. Mike said he’d have to get back to me on that – he was just about to do a baptism.
But despite his dark predictions for my soul, I respect that man’s right to believe whatever ridiculous Mel Gibson-style apocalyptic scenarios he wants. I respect him even more for going out on the street, screaming and roaring about it. Because that gomey preacher from Tipperary encapsulates a lot we’ve lost – since that nun left Dublin airport the last time, in 1998, and went to the silent order in the Alps.
Like the nun, the preacher seemed unmolested by social media, and he wasn’t surgically attached to his phone – despite it being holstered to his hip. He was standing outside on a real street in the real world with his face up – not down, trying his best to make connections with real people, in real life.
The rest of us think we’ve become globally connected, when in fact those digital connections we collect are about as real as the preacher’s stories of rapture.
I could see myself at that sort of thing in later life. Standing out on the street with a shitty little microphone and a load of leaflets, screaming at passersby. A sort of Aldi home-brand Jesus.
Until they take me away in the van.
And for that inevitability, I blame the smartphones.