Many of our values have changed during my lifetime – sex, smoking, suicide, to name but three. But few have changed more dramatically than attitudes to money.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t quite respectable to mention money. Only vulgar people spoke about the price of things.

A woman in our neighbourhood was regarded as “common” because she bragged about the cost of every item in her new home.

“So nouveau riche,” was one judgement.
“No class,” went another.

Yes – this was the Republic of Ireland, whose founding fathers were sworn to equality. But then the founding fathers had said nothing much about money either, and probably had the same disdain for filthy lucre as the solid matrons of Dublin 4.

Didn’t Yeats himself scorn Biddy and Paudeen who counted their pennies and halfpennies in their “greasy till”?

Yet people weren’t unaware of money. Entire dynasties were constructed on the principle of the dowry. The most respectable of women kept hidden savings accounts. When my Connemara grandmother died in the 1940s, she was found to have six secret post office accounts with small deposits in each.

A married woman couldn’t have a bank account without the menfolk in her family knowing about it – a male family member usually had to countersign bank documents. But she could have a post office account, which she might maintain in utter discretion.

It’s been suggested that these secret spondulicks were “running-away” funds for those respectable wives and mothers who never spoke about the stuff. Not that it would be respectable to run away. But it is always nice to know that there is a small nest-egg maturing somewhere in case of a pressing need.

The lore of the grandmothers was passed down through the ages, and one motto from this matriarchal vein was: “Never tell your husband everything. Especially about money.”

As many men did not divulge their revenues to their wives, this seemed fair.

Another piece of women’s wisdom transmitted by Irishwomen down the generations was the proper attitude of a bride to her husband’s assets: “What’s thine is mine; but what’s mine is my own.”

As with sex, the fact that it wasn’t considered quite proper to speak about it, didn’t mean that people didn’t think about it. Sometimes they thought about nothing else, which you could infer from hints and allusions in adult conversation. This could be expressed by a feline criticism of a neighbour, as in: “She puts every penny that man earns on her back.”

And as with sex, money might be clothed in euphemisms: wealth was referred to as “means”. “Yes, she made a good match. There were means in the family.”

Despite the lack of open discussion about it, it was evident that money was important, just as it was obvious that sex was exciting. We put sixpence in the Mission Box for Blessed Martin de Porres (and thus did the Irish missioners educate Robert Mugabe). Raffles and sales of work were held to raise money, and it was important that these should be a success for the charitable cause in question.

But still, to mention money in any personal terms was seriously bad form.

And to be mean with money was the lowest of the low. Better a man who squandered the family income on every kind of carousing than one considered “mean”.

It was so shameful to be thought “mean”, that you had to fight with other people on the bus to ensure that you paid their bus fare. The Number 8 bus, which travelled from Nelson’s Pillar (as it was) to Dalkey was always full of squabbling ladies trying to pay each other’s bus fares.

My sister dumped a boyfriend who seemed to have a promising job in a bank because, when a restaurant bill was presented, he studied it, checked the arithmetic and even queried an item. So mean!

We didn’t have much sex education, but sex is instinctive, and you soon copped on that dogs had puppies after doggie congress and fillies begot foals after being “served” by the stallion. Money is not instinctive, and we had no financial education at all. All we had by way of guidance was St Paul’s teaching that: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

I still struggle to grasp, exactly, how modern finances work. I read Robert Harris’s new thriller “The Fear Index” just to try and understand the financial tempests around “hedge-funds”, but by page 130, I was still totally bewildered.

In our world today, everyone talks, non-stop, about money. Some of the discourse about all this Mammon is fascinating; some is frightening. What will become of us all if the currency goes pear-shaped?

When a Budget looms, money – its getting and spending – becomes a virtual obsession. And why not? It matters to everyone – especially those painfully short of it.

We’re better off talking about money openly than pretending we are not interested in it, or that it’s “vulgar” to mention the stuff.

The only nostalgia I have for pre-modern financial values was that the currency itself seemed so solid. An old penny was something of substance: while our little Euro-cent and five-cent coins are like something from a child’s Monopoly set.

A half-a-crown was a fabulous piece of silver you held in your hand. Whereas the two-Euro piece I am looking at as I write is a poor, tawdry piece of alloy. We weren’t educated about money, but we could feel something of its power with the very coin in our pocket. ENDS. November 2011. Irish Independent Magazine.

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