The new Irish. I heard that phrase this morning and it threw me. For years, centuries, Ireland has been exporting her people to far flung places and they’ve mixed, married, and melted into their new worlds, all the while retaining that Irish connection. They’ve become citizens of other countries. So why then am I so surprised at the thoughts of foreign nationals moving to Ireland and doing the same: mixing, marrying, and melting into Ireland. And becoming what is known as ‘the New Irish’.
In my inbox this morning, I received a link to a piece in The Guardian about the most ethnically diverse town in Ireland – Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. Home to the first purpose-built mosque in the country (which dates back to the 1990s), this west- of-Ireland town is quite the example of how immigration and integration can fit in the same sentence, without exaggeration.
The video (just 15 minutes and worth a watch) tells of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) supplanting the church as the focal point of the community. It shows a club, hemorrhaging Irish players to foreign parts, anxious to bolster numbers – and where better to go looking for talent that to the new-Irish community. The numbers are staggering. More than two-thirds of the kids in the local primary school don’t speak English at home. What was the local convent is now home to 300 asylum seekers from countries like Africa and Syria. And to these you can add the influx of Poles and Eastern Europeans to the mix and the Pakistanis who moved over a while back.
I felt the warm glow of national pride. Finally, a community that gets the need to integrate, to welcome, to get involved. And then the admission. They’re doing what they can to ensure that the kids feel no different to the local kids. But for the adults they can do little.
Direct Provision is the name of the scheme into which asylum seekers in Ireland find themselves. It can take 4 years to have your application processed and there’s an 80% chance you’ll be rejected. Long odds by any reckoning. And for those years, you get a paltry weekly allowance and are housed and fed. You’re not allowed to work, no matter how qualified you are or how badly the community needs your skills. They’re the rules. Madness.
And while many who have come through the system are grateful to have been granted asylum, for thousands more, it’s a waiting game what will end badly. A temporary reprieve before being shunted on. Across the country, housing estates lie empty, buildings are boarded up. The recession offered a one-way ticket to many who left in search of a better world. And yet thousands more new Irish see Ireland as their home, and Ballyhaunis as their new village. When will someone with some policy power connect the dots?
While it’s by no means a perfect system, I’m grateful that in some parts of Ireland, they’re getting it right. Go, ‘haunis.