Why Do The Irish Like Being Told How To Live? Immigrants Expectations and Real Life Are Often Quite Different

My lesson for prospective immigrants reading this post is: you cannot always believe what you see, hear, or read when you are on the outside looking in.  The reality in country is likely to be quite different.

Beyond the logistical and bureaucratic hassles that affect everyday life, the biggest obstacles that immigrants grapple with are the cultural paradoxes and conundrums that, before you’ve fully integrated yourself into the culture, simply defy all sense of logic, and defy the preconceived notions that you moved with. Take, for instance, Ireland.

Lately, I’ve been puzzling over the differences in what people perceive as “life in Ireland” and the actual experience of life (albeit as an immigrant) in Ireland.  From the outside, the Irish are thought to be friendly, easy-going, live and let live folk.  Happily that is mostly true.  But if you read Irish history, you begin to realize that the Irish also fought like mad for their independence, and they did it over and over again.

Based on that reading, you could be forgiven for imagining that living in Ireland would put you amongst people who love the idea of determining their own way forward, in rugged hard-won independence, and love the idea of keeping “authority” in check while refusing to be told how to live. Reality is quite different.  For people whose ancestors fought so hard for independence, freedom, and self-governance, the Irish, in general, seem quite content to be told what to do, and are all too willing to trust the authority figures in their lives, be they hobbyists, doctors, or leaders in government. At least that’s been my experience, and the experience of many other immigrants (and Irish) that I’ve spoken to.

Shortly after moving to Ireland, I tried to get involved with a local model boat club.  But I quickly discovered that the group has a small contingent of “experts” and experienced builders who build all of the boats, and then sell them to others, or tell them how things should be done. The vast majority of group members play around at modeling, but slavishly adhere to the “expert” advice.  There’s no sense of experimentation, only doctrine.

I’m also a beekeeper, or was back in the U.S.  I’ve looked into it here in Ireland, and have gone to a number of meetings with local beekeepers.  I’ve also corresponded with beekeepers in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe and Australia, but I cannot bring myself to get deeply involved with the beekeeping community in Ireland. They don’t think for themselves.  It drives me mental.

For me, the best part of beekeeping was simply figuring it out (through books, online communities, or an apprenticeship to a local beekeeper). In my experience, and from what I’ve gleaned in corresponding with “beeks” from around the world, the best part of beekeeping meetings is simply chatting about what’s going on “with your girls” (in your hives).  In Ireland they don’t do that.  Beekeepers here like to be lectured to, and engage in endless rounds of classes and testing for certifications that have no legal standing, don’t prevent you from doing anything, or entitle you to anything special.

The meetings I’ve attended were exclusively taken up with experts and authority figures lecturing on various subjects.  And, while that’s helpful, the obligatory post-lecture Q&A was limited to perhaps five minutes of hastily answered questions, which, if remotely varied from the lecturer’s spiel, were simply brushed aside. When I first encountered this, I thought perhaps it is just hobbyists.  Then I began to see the way that nobody questions doctors in Ireland.
As someone with a lifelong handicap, I’ve been to a lot of doctors, and have always taken an active role in my healthcare.  In Ireland, with rare exception, when you see a specialist you are seen as uppity if you ask questions, or try to get them to elaborate.  Thou shalt not question your doctor. Then again, religion in Ireland comes with its own heavenly host of authority issues.

For me, the deference shown to the church in all matters is maddening. We have friends who have been told not to question the unacceptable level of religion in their child’s schooling because the local “bishop” won’t like it.  And in the recent abortion debate and legislative sham, the notion that “we can’t do anything without consulting the church first” should have been insulting to anyone who votes. But it was a fait accompli.

Being fair, I understand the historical advantages of having had the church manage education and healthcare in the early years of the republic.  They were already established at the parish level, so it was a compromise with logical efficiencies.  But surely the time has come to dial back the church’s hand in government.  I say that, but actually Ireland has already ceded some of its governance to another authority.

Rather than take the time to figure out what’s best for Ireland, time and again we hear, “well that’s how it’s always been done”, or worse, “that will put us in lockstep with other countries”, seemingly with no understanding that Ireland has completely different resources and long-term concerns than those countries. While entry into the EEC (now the EU/European Community) offered Ireland a host of economic benefits, I’m still somewhat baffled that a country which fought so hard for self-governance, chose, in its first hundred years, to wed itself to a coalition of nations amongst which it will probably always be counted as one of the least powerful. Do the Irish believe that much in the idea of a unified Europe?

Perhaps I’m still ruled by the American cowboy attitude of “Nobody is going to tell us what to do”, but I am genuinely mystified by the way the Irish seem to be so willing to let others tell them what to do and how to do it. I suspect that much of this is a result of Ireland being a very young republic, still learning to govern itself.

To be fair, membership in the EU may have given Ireland access to more experienced legislative and fiscal counsel. But surely there were (and are) benefits to joining the EU that go beyond the purely economic and governmental. As someone new to Ireland, I don’t know what those are, and would genuinely like to know. Whether I am right or wrong about that, I genuinely want guidance on this point.

But, for immigrants, cultural disconnects of this type are not limited just to Ireland. Take, for example, my own home country.

The U.S. has historically been seen from afar as the land of opportunity. And, while it is still true that it can be a land of opportunity, those opportunities are often limited by the resources immigrants bring with them  (or inherit, or are given). Tax codes that favor corporations and the wealthy, lack of affordable healthcare, lack of public transportation, and other class-based restrictions often make it all but impossible for immigrants (and many others) to elevate themselves above the lower and middle classes.  From the outside, the opportunities may appear to be boundless, but the practicalities of everyday life are often quite different.

For immigrants leaving Greece, Portugal, Spain and other countries due to economic strife, Ireland may look like a land of opportunity.  And, in relation to conditions back at home, we, in Ireland, may indeed have it “good”.  But the job prospects here are reasonably grim, and immigrants fleeing downturns in their own country may find real life in Ireland other countries to be far from utopian.

With the wealth of information that we are lucky to have in the modern age, you would think that we’d get closer to the “truth” of life in another country.  But for me, Ireland’s relationship with authority figures, and it’s willingness to be told what’s “right” for it, the unseen class constraints of the U.S., and the perceived wealth of one country over another are precisely the nuanced cultural realities that are invisible to even the most “wired/connected” outsiders, but subtly affect so much, and often confuse and confound modern immigrants.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment

Ireland’s Upward Only Rent Review

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
This entry was posted in Dublin Life, Home & A Sense of Place, Immigration & Emigration, Irish History, Irish Life & Society, Modern Life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Why Do The Irish Like Being Told How To Live? Immigrants Expectations and Real Life Are Often Quite Different

  1. rowena millis says:

    You will never understand the Irish, and their culture until you start reading, their history – their history, primarily between the overly aggressive British govt. whose history with them stretches back nearly 800 years in the past clear up to the end of the 20th century. Until you take time to read their history about property issues, their drinking behaviors, and your latest blog issues, you shall always remain puzzled. Date: Tue, 9 Jul 2013 21:51:57 +0000 To: millis.row@hotmail.com

    • Rowena,

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog. And particularly for taking the time to comment.

      But, rather than just telling me how deficient and wanting I am, could you perhaps engage my questions about the EU?

      At the very least, could you make a contribution that will help me to overcome my staggering deficiencies (suggest some resources and trustworthy historical accounts)?

      Seriously, thanks for reading.

  2. I really enjoy your blog. I thnk it is so hard to get a sense of what it s like to actually live in a place because no one wants to offend people. Especially when they have to live with them! My Irish neighbors would be aghast if they read your very astute observations.

  3. Michael says:

    The first mistake you made was thinking Ireland was ever a real functioning Republic. It isn’t and never has been.

    What we are is a neo-colonial state that takes orders from the European Union and the United States. The electorate are suspicious of those that are not a part of their closed-knit communities and refuse to elect candidates based on talent, ideas, vision. Instead, in Ireland, nepotism is rampant and if you sit in Dail Eireann for 20+ years without knowing the answer to 1+1, apparently, you’re over qualified to run the country.

    The young people that leave Ireland do so for a reason. Our radicals leave and the one’s that remain tend to be quite conservative. It’s a smash and grab affair. That individual on a welfare cheque would vote tomorrow to bail out 10,000 banks if some political promise was given to them that they’d still get their welfare money. Nobody gives a damn about the country until it affects them personally. Nobody has a say until it affects them personally.

    The country is being destroyed by total ignorance.

  4. that was what surprised me so much – I’ve been married to an Irishman for 14 years, so I’ve known Irish people – but the ones who actually live here are quite different than their emmigrate cousins. I experienced quite a culture shock here. Michael – everything you say rings true to me. ..

  5. pensatus says:

    V interesting. This reliance on authority is probably due to a combination of a few centuries of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, and then the more recent history of Catholic authoritarianism: Don’t read the Bible; you can’t be entrusted with interpreting it all by yourself. Don’t think for yourself, we’ll do it for you. (Not that the Protestant ‘every man for himself’ way did not have its own problems, where everyone could act as your conscience and community ‘consensus’ could be perhaps even more overbearing.)

    Groups of people probably liberate themselves from their early shaping more than individuals do, but it’s a slow process.

    I think you’re wrong about the “deference to the church” nowadays, though. A small percentage, yes. Most of the politicians couldn’t give a damn about the church view except insofar as it influences some voters.

    With a bit of compression and the addition of a timely angle at the start, your article would make a good op ed piece for, say, the Irish Times.

  6. Thanks for opening up one heck of a conversation, Glenn! Your observations on the US as the land of opportunity are right on. It’s just hard for anyone who grew up outside a particular country or faith, for that matter, to grasp the nuances. But all the more important that we try. That should always be the goal, as you inferred. History matters, and a person can’t begin their understanding of any place without learning about it from reliable sources (none will be objective, fully). That’s certainly true of US history as well. The older I get, the more I realize what was left out of my US history courses, and the more I am aware of the spin given to certain events.
    I come to Ireland often (research, friends and family) and when people ask why I love it, it is still the people that draw me most. Thanks for your writing!

  7. Colm says:

    Hi Glenn,
    Another interesting set of observations about your life here in Ireland. Having read your blog from day one however, i can only get the impression that you are getting further away from understanding the Irish psyche rather than getting closer to us.
    Deep down we are a pretty conservative lot who in general have come to respect authority in a healthier fashion than we once did but respectful nonetheless.
    I have never had a model boat nor indeed owned an apiary but I have visited the doctor over the years and I can tell you that I have had many a lively discussion with more than one oncologist and neurosurgeon as regards prognosis and treatment.The majority of Irish people though would respect the many years of training that a medical professional would have gone through and when compared to their 5 minute Wikipedia scan of the issue at hand, relent to the doctors opinion.
    In relation to your friends comment the the Bishop won’t like any criticism or comment on the level of religion in the education system, all I can say is are they living in some 1970’s parallel universe.
    Surely you noticed that the Vatican pulled their Nuncio from Dublin 18 months ago in reaction to a speech made in Parliament by Enda Kenny. In religious circles, that is as close as it gets to breaking off diplomatic relations !! If you think the church has a undue level of influence, you should have been here 30 years ago.

    The Irish fought very hard to gain independence from a brutal imperialistic regime where we were second class citizens. We were savvy enough to realize that when the EEC was established, we had to become members or face the prospect of not having a market for our products. We had a similar view on the Euro, better to be on the inside pissing out than the outside trying to piss in..!
    The EU played a very large role in the peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement and the almost 15 years of relative peace in Northern Ireland.
    Funding from the European Union over the past three decades has helped improve education standards in Ireland .
    EU membership has brought Ireland into the 21st century as regards environmental issues. we have had to act on water pollution, waste disposal, air quality, energy emissions and preservation of natural habitats.
    Irish researchers have benefited significantly from funding available under EU framework programmes..
    Mobility of labour for Irish people has never been easier with ease of movement within the 28 States of Europe .However as President Clinton said in 1992 “it’s the economy stupid”…..Ireland does not have the oil and industrial base of Scandinavia nor the banking regime of Switzerland. Had we not joined the EU we would still a peripheral western European backwater rather than actually having a voice with the big boys.

    • Colm,

      Thanks for that.

      My main purpose in posting this was to try and wrap my mind around the “other” (non-economic) reasons for Ireland joining the EU. The economic ones are obvious, but I felt there had to other social reasons. And, the environmental, labor, peace and research benefits that you mentioned make perfect sense. Though I would say that Ireland is still (and probably always will be) quite “peripheral” economically.

      And, excusing today’s level of deference to the church by saying “you should have been here 30 years ago” is a pretty weak argument, and exactly the sort of “It’s Grand” attitude that all too often keeps Ireland from making real progress. Though I have to say, you’re right. I was quite impressed when Kenny gave the Vatican the boot shortly after we moved here.

      As always, thanks for reading, and commenting.


      • Enda H says:

        Hiya Glenn,

        A thought-provoking piece, as always.

        Can I suggest that the economic integration of the EU was also a social revolution? For example, upon marriage women had to leave the civil service prior to EU entry. This is explicitly a labour market regulation, but of course brings with it enormous cultural implications.

        I think Ireland’s (pre-2008) love of the EU is rooted in the history of the 1950s. We tried to be self-sufficient (see de Valera’s infamous “dancing at the crossroads” speech) and the economic consequences were dire. About 600,000 were born in the 1930s, and about 500,000 emigrated in the 1950s. Boy were we willing to try a bit of internationalism after that.

        Glad you’re keeping well,

      • Ella says:

        Oh how I agree with you about the ” You should have been here 30 years ago”. That’s like saying that a little apartheid isn’t anything to whine about, sure slavery was a lot worse in its day. I have been in Ireland over a decade, and the “Sure that’s how it’s always been done” is a constant joke in my circle of foreign friends. I originally come from a farily traditional society myself, and the respect for and fear of authority is something I recognize all to well. What I know from home though is that there is a huge difference between trusting authority and just not defying it openly. For centuries it has been best to not voice opinions, something that didn’t change at all when British rule ended. Let’s face it, most religious establishments don’t exactly encourage open opinions… I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I think one of the things that makes it more tricky here is that Ireland has been hurled into a whirlwind of change and modernity since the 90:s, and people, society, and the religious establishment haven’t been able to keep up. Where I’m from, the change has come more gradually- a matter of people from different generations having different ideas, or people from the city having more modern views than people from the country. Here, nearly everybody has on the one hand grown up with very conservative values, and are used to if not obeying, then at least not openly defying, but on the other hand they are now living in a society that on the surface seems very modern and you-can-do-it. The entire place is buzzing with cognitive dissonance.

        • Hi Ella,

          Thanks for reading, and particularly for taking the time to add to the discussion.

          You raise some excellent points. Thanks for the perspective of from another “similar”, but different, society.


    • RP says:

      I have to agree with Colm’s observations. I am an Indian, and have examined Irish history (my interest was piqued due to an obvious parallel of British occupations of India and Ireland; my country’s hard fought independence was won a quarter of a century after Ireland’s). Interestingly, both these nations have been enslaved by foreigners for almost the same periods (800 years or so). The difference been that for us Indians, pretty much every body has had a go at us (Islamic invaders of various races, Portuguese, French, Dutch, English, you name it). Islamic invaders later settled down and ruled the country bringing with them Islam. As for the Europeans, British were the most successful, whereas, the rest were pushed to the margins.

      History explains racial / societal idiosyncrasies very well. Imagine not having a voice of your own for 8 centuries, and then having to rule yourself. Indians have somewhat similar tendencies in that they have high tolerance for BS, and generally accept authority much more easily. We bicker a lot, too, however, when push comes to shove, well you know what already. I am not excusing my country’s problems, but I think I know what my ancestors have gone through, and why we are the way we are.

  8. Yvette Aylward says:

    I have just stumbled across your blog …and I think Glenn you have a very good ‘take’ on us – we do have a tendency to ‘abdicate’ from our responsilbitiy to pursue our own lives citing either our own inadequacies’ and/ or the superior ‘expertise’ of others. For instance I think one of the toughest things that us Irish have had to deal with in the current ‘downturn’ is that this is entirely of our own making – we know longer have the luxury of blaming the British for our woes (although there has been attempts by some to implicate the Germans!).

    There is an innate conservatism within Irish society; this manifests in several guises but most particularly in the ‘dating scene/marrying scene, whereby a lot of Irish people do not usually have several relationships prior to marriage and couples often wait 4-5 years prior to marriage. Well-established traditional professions such as teaching, nursing etc. are deemed more prestigious than engineering, IT although this is changing albeit slowly. We over emphasise ‘qualifications’, ‘expertise’ and linear career path – hence your surprise at your local beekeeping club adhering to outside advice ! And yes the church does still wield huge influence particularly in rural Ireland –for example a primary school teacher in a rural catholic school still needs to seek permission from the local bishop to transfer to another teaching area.

    As to our ‘its grand’ culture – I think we naturally gravitate towards consensus! I sometimes feel that ‘us’ Irish confuse a ‘difference of opinion’ with conflict! We tend to shy away from what we deem are contentious issues. You could argue that this contributed to the ‘group think’ that led to the boom-bust. I remember some years ago a French friend asking me what she had done wrong…while we were out have drinks with friends she introduced the topic of ‘Charles Haughey’ into a conversation and was most definitely ‘closed down’. My friend was very aware that she had committed some sort of a ‘faux pas’ – but it was not her fault – just in terms of politics, religion most Irish people are not willing to go there!

    On a positive note there is of course bonuses to living in Ireland ! – I read a short article in the Irish Times yesterday and it does ring true http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/social-capital-yields-big-dividends-1.1469187 . Our cohesiveness and ‘family-orientated’ does perhaps makes us a little less open to new people – a US friend once called me on the fact that I knew her 2 years and had not yet invited her to my family home!! And yes lI agree with a previous contributor – the more ‘open-minded’ do tend to go. But Irish people are (generally) genuine and kind-hearted people. A case in point I was sitting in front of a café, last week obviously looking a little fed up after not getting an interview and elderly lady I didn’t know came out with a frothy cappuccino and handed it to me –telling me I looked like I needed it.

    Glenn really enjoying your insights – I’ll be back ..

  9. Jennifer says:

    Hi Glenn, I just found your blog through your post on bringing your dogs over from the US. I’m Irish, and my husband is from Florida. We’re in our early twenties. I moved to the US last year. I really enjoyed reading this post because it brings up so many points that I never really considered before I moved to the US.

    It’s true that you don’t find out these kind of cultural differences until you live somewhere – likely because they’re a little offensive to hear, and the knee-jerk reaction is to disagree, or argue that as a foreigner, you don’t “get it”, you just don’t understand yet. I enjoyed reading your insights, and your observations are accurate.

    Yvette above put it eloquently – Irish people tend to shy away from discussing potentially contentious issues. I think it’s a cultural thing, conflict-avoidance, or people being unwilling to discuss something they feel they don’t know enough about, or maybe that it doesn’t (shouldn’t?) concern them. It’s hard to tell. My parents never discussed politics growing up, or talked about why things are the way they are. We didn’t talk about the reasons for joining the EU at home or in school, or really talk about how the Troubles affected the country, or our political system. It’s almost a little embarrassing when my (American) in-laws or friends bring something along those lines up (just out of genuine polite interest). It’s hard to know what to say. Irish people tend not to form or voice opinions on topics unless they’ve studied them at length, as you pointed out. It’s considered pretentious to have discussions without credentials to back it up.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  10. Pingback: Low Corporate Tax Rates & Attracting Foreign Investment: Is Ireland’s Greatest Asset It’s Willingness To Be Controlled By Outsiders | An American in Dublin

  11. Edwin says:

    Very interesting read mate. As an Irish man it is certainly maddening how we are incapable of questioning those in positions of power, surprising given our juxtaposed position of being seen as rebellious in many ways throughout our history.

    The experience of being ruled by Britain naturally played a large role in this attitude as for centuries we were forbidden to have any say in how the country was run and so involvement in politics was mostly only ever achieved through violence.

    Our civil war also made it clear that we had to be controlled in order to ensure the success of the state.

    DeValera was also a man who encouraged and promoted ignorance of global and Irish political affairs, assuring the public that the political elite would take care of this and that the rest should focus on the fields and being good christians

    The catholic church was afforded an overarching place in Irish life and it controlled almost every aspect Irish life. Obviously, the Catholic church is not known for encouraging free thought, critical thinking or and questioning of any kind.

    As our school system was infested by the church they churned out people incapable of thinking critically, terrified of being different or an individual, staunchly nationalistic and emotionally scared (particularly had they shown any form of disobedience)

    You are right that it is an absolute disgrace that the church has any role in our education system and you can be sure that when and if my children arrive, I intend on fighting tooth and nail to end this. It seems, happily, that I will not be alone in this.

    The EU is seem by many, including myself, as driving reasons behind our significant strides economically, politically (not done by any means), legally and socially (Irish language, tourism, student exchanges etc). Up until very recently, the EU had been seen as a true union where our sovereignty was respected and elevated in the global stage, while allowing us to share and learn from other EU member states. All this and the assurance that we would no longer rely on the UK like before was a very attractive situation to many Irish people. However, we were brainwashed into accepting the EU as only a force for good and any criticism of it was shut down with accusations of being anti European. I am a social democrat and a staunch supporter of the Union of the peoples of Europe, however its Neo Con trajectory maddens and frightens me.

    I am, however, optimistic about the future of our (including you) country for many reasons. Our parent (im 31) have had to change so radically that I am forever impressed with how graciously they have reacted to the seismic changes in attitudes and beliefs here. We are more confident and less obsessed with consumerism (I hope)than the popes children and have been woken by the economic crash, now realizing that if we do not question we will continue to be governed, managed and controlled by morons who arrogantly believe that they k now best for the entire population.

    I have no idea if this in any way answered the questions posed.

    • Edwin,

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for taking the time to contribute a very reasoned and well thought out response.

      Lots of great context and analysis in there.

      I’ll be thinking about those points for a while. And, yes, you may well have answered the question.


  12. I am an Englishman,living in Ireland. Came over twenty four years ago with my Irish born wife.Irish people are the best people in the world. I didn’t come over with a mass group of English and try to set up a little England.As I had grown up in England,I saw mass immigration at work,and the terrible hatred that built up between whites,blacks,Asians.Racism was rife when I was a child.Multi Cultural societies do not work.They lead to areas becoming uninhabitable. Work with lots of Filipinos, who came over to work as nurses mostly.What lovely people,salt of the earth.But mass immigration is almost cruel to both the country and the Immigrants,it stirs up lots of emotions.The European Union has been reckless in it’s approach,almost a you will integrate or else attitude.If you look at the mess the UK is in that should answer the question of mass immigration. Ireland is a great country and my adopted home,and I feel that Ireland is changing and not for the better.This is a view from someone who loves Ireland dearly and cares for the future.Come to Ireland and work by all means, contribute and love it like I do.Don’t strip it of it’s identity and burden it with strife.Our children deserve better and the beautiful Irish are entitled to their country. I love you Ireland.

  13. Just wanted to add to my previous comments. I am a nurse and after studying in the UK,my wife wanted to return to Ireland.I brought my nursing skills to Ireland, just like my Filipino workmates,and Indian doctors. Ireland has been very good to me,in furthering my career too.With mass immigration, lots of unskilled economic migrants have come to Ireland,bringing quantity over quality. In Ireland,we have many of our own social problems,drugs,homelessness poverty.These are escalating and long term issues.These are Irish people in the main,that need our help.I feel that the Brexit issue in UK,is a desperate bid to regain some identity for themselves. The UK has a long history of invading other countries and attempting to establish the culture on it’s host.I think the European Union is like all Empires,it invades a country,steals it’s resources and enforces it’s doctrine on the host.Ireland has already had to gain indepence from one evil empire,quote 1916,and yet remains under the oppression of a much more powerful entity,that uses mind games and bully tactics.Spoke with family in England about Brexit and they were relieved that a small majority of the country actually put the country in front of personal gain.I don’t want to see Ireland lose its identity,not after so many made such a sacrifice to keep it.Slowly but surely people, without knowing it let there national pride be ridiculed.The very fact that Ireland survived was because the people loved it.Loved the passion of the Irish supporters at Euro 2016,they were praised for having pride in their country instead of being told it was a racist thing.Actually still trying to learn gaelic, on the course five years, I will get there if it’s the last thing I do.

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