Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there’s nothing to do in Malta once you’ve seen the temples and the hypogeum. I was over there recently and took a half-day to go chapel-chasing. Armed with the book 100 Wayside Chapels in Malta and Gozo and the intrepid and very knowledgeable Mr Micallef as my guide, we set off to see what we could find.

Rumour has it that there are 365 chapels and churches in Malta – one for every day of the year. Mr M reckons this figure tops 400 and I have no trouble at all believing that. Some town squares, like Siggiewi, are framed by three churches: the original small chapel, the newer RC church, and the old chapel of the Knights of Malta. We drove up and down country lanes looking for old chapels with a history or a story to tell. Most have an open window to the left of the main door through which the faithful can see the tabernacle and light their candles. So even if the church is locked, it is open.

Others have signs outside telling would-be criminals that they can forget any ideas of taking refuge in the sanctity of the chapel. This was such a common occurrence in Malta back in the day that many chapels decided to revoke the idea of the church as a refuge and cancel any offers of immunity. I suppose it was one way of separating the righteous.

The earlier churches and chapels that I saw are very simple, very basic, and still retain what I can only describe as that sense of oneness. Places you can go to commune with your god without the distractions of fine art and fancy decor. The bigger RC churches are more ornate and time spent inside is more like spending time in an art gallery. Their beauty is not in doubt; I just question their raison d’etre.

Way back when, I spent some time in Rome and visited the Vatican. I was horrified at the wealth and opulence and began to question an insitution that could amass such fortunes will those in their midst went hungry. Speaking to an aunt of mine in Manchester some time later, she told me of the many magnificent churches built from the pennies of the working-class Irish who lived in the city; families who would just as soon see themselves go hungry that to deny the church its tithe. You have to wonder…

In a mad world, we can be ‘them’, too

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Budapest that I first heard of ‘them’. I was at the opera with a new Hungarian acquaintance – a well-educated, well-travelled woman of a similar vintage. We got to talking about one of her colleagues whom we both knew. She nodded to me knowingly while declaring that he was one of ‘them’. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Sometime later, while discussing the banking crisis over dinner in a Budapest restaurant with a group of well-heeled, well-travelled, well-educated contemporaries, I was surprised to hear that our present precarious predicament was all ‘their’ fault. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Last week, while bemoaning what appears to be a somewhat alarming descent into social madness, I was pointedly reminded that ‘they’ are the root cause of all Hungary’s problems. I’d had enough. I needed to find out why they are so despised, why they are so openly hated, why they seem to get the blame for everything.

Local or global?

I did some checking to see if friends in other countries had come across them – and, perversely, because I love this country so much, I was slightly relieved to find that ‘they’ are held in low regard in Belgium, Germany, Poland, and the UK (then I stopped checking). It’s not just Hungary. But on reflection, that doesn’t make it any better. When I asked why, no-one could or would explain it to me.

But then I turned to my old friends Messrs Google and Bing and asked why so many people seem to be ‘anti-Them’. I found that historians have actually done some work on this topic and have listed six reasons why they are so hated. The first is economic – they have too much wealth and too much power. The second, their arrogant claim that they are the chosen people. The third, they’re a convenient scapegoat. The fourth, they’re guilty of deicide. The fifth, they’re different. And finally, sixth, they’re an inferior race.

Truth or myth?

Wow. A heady list of charges indeed … were they true. Let’s look at them in turn. In 17th-20th century Poland and Russia, they were hated – and yet they were extremely poor and wielded no influence whatsoever.  As for being the chosen people – doesn’t everyone think that of themselves? I’ve sat in church with many of my compatriots in full knowledge that they believe themselves to be hand-picked by the Man Himself. Convenient to blame? Well, in order to be scapegoat you have to be hated first. As for guilty of deicide? My bible says that Jesus was killed by the Romans and back in 1963, the Second Vatican Council officially exonerated them as the killers of Jesus. So what’s the issue there? Dislike of the unliked is more common and easier to understand but yet they seem to be damned if they try to assimilate [think Aryan response to charges of infecting the pure race with inferior genes] and damned if they stay to themselves. And finally, the race card. Are they a race? As a practising Irish Catholic, I could convert and become one of them, should I so desire. Yet I could never become an Inuit or an Athabaskan Indian.

Fact or fiction?

Just how mad does the world have to get before the pendulum swings back and reason begins to prevail? Or did reason ever prevail when it comes to them? I wonder if Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson ever met with President Eisenhower, what they would have to talk about. The former is on record for denying the holocaust, the latter on his visit to the camps, said he ‘made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda’. That would be an interesting conversation indeed!

In another life, when living in small-town Alaska, one of the Irish lads I knew got a much coveted union position at the oil terminal. There were just six of us Irish in a town of 4000 at that time. Many who had drowned their Irishness in green beer some months earlier on St Patrick’s Day, took umbrage. My then boyfriend had a knife pulled on him in the pub because he was ‘dating one of them’. I was accused of taking jobs from Americans. The bank where my friend’s wife worked was spraypainted – Éire go home – as was the Union hall. Overnight, a wall dividing them and us had been built. But thankfully, there were many who chose to climb over that wall or go around it; many who accepted us for who we were; many who remembered that, no matter where we come from or what we believe, we are all members of the human race.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2011