Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cockroaches? How easy it is to forget

If UK newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins had been a New York socialite in the 1840s, she might have referred to the Irish as ‘cockroaches’.

Imagine the sight of them, thousands upon thousands arriving at Ellis Island on the ‘coffin ships’, many of them without a word of English or a dime to begin their new lives in the new world.

About 100 ships full of impoverished, desperate people left my home city, Galway, over a three year period between 1847 and 1850.

Most of the passengers were ill-equipped for the long Atlantic crossing or the massive changes they could expect when they completed the voyage.                            
Katie Hopkins: refers to migrants as 'cockroaches',
brought to Ireland to defend Trump's racist views

But they had little choice, they were escaping the Great Famine. It didn’t matter that the British Empire had driven them to starvation or that they were escaping gross injustice – they were seen almost as the dregs of humanity by some people in New York City at the time.

As they poured into Irish ghettoes such as Hell’s Kitchen and Woodlawn, they didn’t care too much about what the ‘natives’ – all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants themselves – thought of them.

They were just glad to have survived.

They were the equivalent of Syrians and Iraqis today; escaping war, poverty, and famine to fulfil the very human need of finding some sort of a decent life for themselves and their children.

The problem with calling people ‘cockroaches’ – as the UK columnist did so offensively earlier this year – is that they then become dehumanised.

It’s easier to hate people when you don’t see them as human beings any more. It's easier to justify attacking them on buses or trains, because people who do so are emboldened by "celebrity" racists like Hopkins.

It doesn’t matter that Ms Hopkins’ own country, the UK, has played a huge part in the misery which engulfed those same migrants.

The Famine Memorial Park in Galway
It’s fine for her British Army heroes to bomb civilians to smithereens in cities and towns thousands of miles from home, but not for those civilians – fleeing in terror – to turn up on makeshift boats crying out for help on our shores.

When Celia Griffin, a little six year old girl from Connemara, died of starvation in 1847 there were thousands of people all across Ireland desperately trying to put the money together to set sail for the Americas.

Many of them died on the ‘coffin ships’ before they got to the other side as they didn’t have enough food for the voyage.

Just like the Syrian and Iraqi migrants today,

Irish people would have given their last dollar to traffickers in the hope of finding a new life – and some hope – at the end of a distressing boat journey.

In Galway, it took us a century and a half to erect a memorial to Celia - and all the Great Famine victims - because nobody wanted a reminder of such a distressing time in our history.

It was left to the late Mark Kennedy, who passed away last month, to remind us that we should never forget this harrowing period in our shared history.

In London at that time, the equivalents of Ms Hopkins had a great time mocking the starving Irish in their ‘witty’ cartoons.

In 2016, according to Ms Hopkins, migrants who flee war and persecution don't matter.

"Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches," she wrote in April. "They might look a bit "Bob Geldof's Ethiopia circa 1984", but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors."

And, according to national broadcaster RTE, there is nothing wrong with giving a platform to a person with vile, racist views on national television on a Friday night.

Hence, the decision to invite her onto the flagging ‘Late Late Show’ last weekend.

It didn’t matter that the invitation led to a flood of complaints in advance, or that her appalling views were going to be challenged. Presumably, what really mattered was that the increased ratings brought about by the controversy boosted the profile of a jaded show. She got people talking.                                                  
US President-elect Donald Trump: people are now trying
to justify some of his racist comments during the campaign

But does it matter?

Does it matter that the people Ms Hopkins referred to as ‘cockroaches’ are fleeing war and terror which her own country, the UK, is partially responsible for?

Of course it matters.

She was flown into Dublin from London to justify the racist views of a man who has just been elected President of the United States.

All week, people have been attempting to justify the indefensible from Donald Trump.

They have been wildly back-tracking and looking for glimmers of hope after an extraordinary campaign built on ignorance, hatred, and fear.

Is it wrong that the leader of a nation which was built on immigration can refer to Mexicans as rapists? What, all 122 million of them?

It’s wrong that illegal immigration is blamed for the troubles of a nation which has yet to face up to all the suffering it has caused to Native Americans. The United States of America were built on stolen land and the slave trade.

It’s incredible that the views of a man who boasted about groping and abusing women, because his wealth and fame allowed him to do so, can be defended so virulently by anyone.

Or that the national broadcaster would give a licence to someone who boasts of having racist views to do so.

It’s frightening that such a man can call from all Muslims to be banned from his country. There are 1.6 billion Muslims all across the planet and most of them, just like the rest of us, are trying to get on with happy, peaceful lives.

People seem to have forgotten already that this kind of abhorrent language was used to describe Jewish people in 1930s Germany.

It’s frightening that a man who can mock the disabled in front of millions of television viewers can be considered a suitable candidate for ‘leader of the free world’.

It’s scary that, in a nation which has a huge problem with gun crime, Trump is completely opposed to gun control.

It’s even more frightening that Donald Trump can dismiss the threat of climate change, surely the biggest issue facing humanity in 2016.

There is no doubt that Trump tapped into huge levels of anger towards the political establishment in America. That’s understandable.

What’s not understandable is how someone who can dehumanise so many people (Mexicans, women, Muslims, the disabled) can have racist or bigoted views uncontested.

Cartoonist Richard Chapman sums up Europe and America's
current attitude to migrants fleeing wars and persecution.
It was shameful that RTE chose last week, of all weeks, to invite a woman who sees no problem with describing human beings as ‘cockroaches’ onto its main weekend chat show.

Who cares about bad taste, spreading hatred, or fear-mongering? As long as the ratings are up, the national broadcaster seems happy to allow someone spread ignorance and racial intolerance.

Do we really learn from the past?

It’s a good job there wasn’t a ‘Late Late Show’ – or a Katie Hopkins – when Celia Griffin was dying of starvation in 1847.

Because imagine how horrified Irish people would have been if someone described a little six year old girl who died at the side of a road as nothing more than a cockroach.



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Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. 

2 comments:

  1. Great post Ciaran I think you said things that a lot of us are thinking, it's shameful that people with such disgusting opinions such as hers are been given airtime, it was all about the ratings

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  2. Thank you Sara. We all know her views, she wrote about cockroaches for The Sun and now she's with the Daily Mail. Her views are odious, but it's even more odious that RTE felt like flying her over from London in the week of Donald Trump's win. Why not bring in a US-based Muslim or Mexican to talk about the fears in their communities? Shameful.

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