By Paraic A Fearon
Recently, while sitting in my Jamaican grandmother’s kitchen, a question was posed to me that I have been asked periodically since I came to live here. Every time I am asked, I have more material to answer it. Sometimes I feel as if the country is ever evolving to prove my point. This question is “are there really black people in Ireland?” It brought me great pleasure this last trip to be able to say; “yes, there are tonnes.”
Today as I walk around Galway, I am struck by how multicultural Ireland has become. I suppose the great joy that this brings me is heightened by the knowledge that Ireland was definitely not always like this. My father swears that when he first came to Ireland, sometime in the early 90s, that a lady saw him in the village and burst into tears. Later she explained that her friend who had died recently had loved Saint Martin de Porres, one of the only black saints, but had never seen a black person “in real life.” To her, the sudden appearance of my father seemed too much of a coincidence to have not been divine. He, according to the tone he tells this story in, did not enjoy being made a spectacle of, but for the purpose of this article I hope you can see a comic or sweet side to the story.
Galway is now the most multicultural city in the state, according to the 2016 Census, with 18.6 per cent of its residents recorded as non – Irish. These censuses also show that this population explosion started around 2000, accelerated in 2005, and like anybody living or even visiting Galway can see, is clearly still going strong.
Whilst researching for this article, I found that all of the articles concerning the issue of Ireland’s new multiculturalism followed a trend. I observed that they all fell into one of two categories. The first group were articles full of optimism, pride and wonderment, celebrating the fact that this little island we love is changing and for the better.
The others were articles reporting incidents of ignorance, sometimes violence but always resistance to these changes. One article reported a ‘no blacks’ policy being enforced in a Dublin pub, which made me laugh as I wondered how they had forgotten the ‘no Irish and no dogs’ part of the slogan.
When reading these articles, I became slightly disheartened, but upon further thinking I believe that this is only natural, given that this is the first time Ireland has had to deal with these issues and it will take some time for everybody, the immigrants and indigenous people alike, to adapt.
I feel it is important to note that Ireland, unlike some other well – known countries, is far from institutionally racist. There are no systems, that I know of, put in place to stop black people or anybody else climbing any socio – economic ladders, we are not being incarcerated at an unfair rate nor is our relationship with the police noted as being bad or dysfunctional. The future looks bright if not multi – coloured.
To conclude this article I would, if I may, like to give a piece of advice to this new Ireland we find ourselves in. There is a James Baldwin quote that I have been thinking about recently. It involves people in America after the civil rights movement being “segregated from the schoolhouse door.” By this he meant that there was, at this time, no serious or official segregation being enforced, but people still did not dare to go and see how others lived. “Therefore, he doesn’t know – he really does not know – what it was like for me.”
I think it is important that we make sure this does not happen here. Especially when we as the Irish have nothing to base this on, apart from xenophobia or laziness. I really feel if this idea of people not understanding or being scared to experience new cultures becomes prevalent in Ireland, we will really be missing out. Attitudes of “us” and “them” would quickly become very harmful, but fortunately, this is not something I have noticed amongst Irish people.
So, I urge everybody reading this to run out and experience a new culture or speak to somebody who has a different heritage. Just don’t assume that they are a refugee because they are black. They might just be an immigrant, you know like the Irish are famous for being! You never know what you might see or learn, remember knowledge is power.
Photo: Africa Day 2010, by William Murphy on Flickr