Ireland Welcomes?

Orlaith Darling argues that Ireland should be more welcoming to asylum seekers

Of late, there have been several campaigns focusing our attention on the plight of the refugee. TN recently published an article on the horrors of Calais, and the deplorable conditions daily faced by families and individuals there. From such articles, and campaigns such as DU Amnesty’s #IWelcome lobby, it has been made clear that Ireland have fallen far short of welcoming our fair share of refugees.

The greatest, and most tragic, irony of this is Ireland’s own national experience of the very dispossession we’re talking about and witnessing now. We crowd the streets campaigning for the 8th Amendment to be repealed and for the right to bodily autonomy, but forget the fear of women and young girls in such camps and on their flight from desperate circumstances. Such individuals are vulnerable to abuse, are open to being taken advantage of, and are alone in a world most of us cannot begin comprehend.

We campaign for the cessation of cuts to Higher Education funding, and forget the children who are extracted from school and normality to be transported halfway around the world, and landed in Direct Provision, if they’re lucky. Before I attract the heavy hand of College’s New Left, admonishing me for suggesting that Irish rights and refugee rights are mutually exclusive, let me clarify. Both are as worthy each other, and perhaps that is the point. In fact, we in Ireland are perhaps more culpable for turning a blind eye to what is a world humanitarian crisis than many other countries.

Irish History

To anyone with the most nominal understanding of Irish history, the fact that emigration was a central theme therein should come as no surprise. It can be argued, and has been quite effectively, that many aspects of the current Irish psyche are a direct result of our history of mass dispossession. The building boom and bust is the legacy of this country’s entrenched habit of investing in housing. The housing crisis we are, of late, experiencing has gained ample attention in the media, and arguments are being made for rent protections.

The 2017 Budget included incentives and aids for first-time home-buyers. Traditionally in Ireland, people prefer to buy houses rather than rent properties, and it remains a point of pride with many people that their house is theirs, built by them, designed by them, owned by them.

This mindset, of course, stems from the Great Famine. Farmers in possession of as little as a quarter of an acre of land were prevented by the Gregory Clause from seeking aid from the Poor Laws. In order to be given work for food, they therefore had to surrender their last morsel of capital protection, meaning that, if they survived the workhouse and heavy manual labour, they were left without land, without shelter, and ultimately without a way of providing for themselves.

We all recognise the infamous images of coffin ships, which were liberally scattered throughout any decent school history book, and are probably familiar with the statistic that just under half of the population emigrated during or shortly after the famine. Before the Great Hunger and the following mass exodus from the country, Ireland was inhabited by approximately eight million people, a figure that had fallen to four million by the late 1800s.

As part of ‘Border Crossings’, an exhibition in Galway International Arts Festival this summer, the artist had compiled names, ages, occupations, convictions, and sentences of thousands of Irish people who were forcibly transported to mainland Australia and Van Diemen’s Land by the British administration over the course of the nineteenth century. The crimes were often non-existent, the ages often unbearably young. Looking at such statistics and stories of families being torn apart, it was difficult not to be filled with an overwhelming sense of anger at the injustice done to so many people.

The fifties were not a good time for Irish people either, with population steadily falling as emigration had become an expected part of Irish life. Stigma against Irish immigrants festered abroad, with signs emblazoned with ‘No Irish. No Dogs’ plastered in boarding house windows. Edna O’Brien captures the loneliness, isolation and rejection of so many Irish men, employed as casual labourers on England’s expanding road and infrastructure network in her short story, ‘Shovel Kings’.

Marita Conlon McKenna recalls a young Irish girl’s harrowing experience in America as a seamstress and housemaid in Wildflower Girl. Only yesterday, an elderly lady on the bus told me about her emigrating in the sixties so that she wouldn’t allow herself to become ‘more miserable’. The narrative of dispossession and the necessity of fleeing the homeland is an inherent part of our national identity.

Increased Imperative

However unfair it seems to have to leave your home due to economic necessity, or due to societal stiflement and stagnation, how exponentially worse it must be to have to flee from persecution, from terror, from war, from political chaos. How terrifying a trip to the edges of Europe, to fester in a camp, not knowing the future. If Irish men had to labour in England in the sixties, asylum seekers in direct provision in Ireland have not even been offered that dignity. A menial allowance to live on, and no permit to work is what they face.

In Ireland, we should know the bleak reality of being forced from your country. Anyone who has watched In the Name of the Father should know the injustice of being presumed to be affiliated with the IRA, or terrorism in general, because of your nationality. We saw ethnical, racial and colonial intolerance made incarnate in the Brexit referendum, and we are being offered the opportunity to show that we believe in exactly the opposite.

Our nation is indebted to the many countries who sheltered thousands of broken Irish people, destitute and with nothing to offer, and generations of Irish immigrants. Ireland fostered links with numerous countries through this vast diaspora, but also incurred a national bitterness towards the tacitly hated topic of emigration. This potent sense of historical tragedy is precisely why we should welcome those who need shelter now.