Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever happened to the compassion of the Irish?

Between 1847 and 1850, a hundred ships set sail from Galway Bay. Their ‘cargo’ included some of the most impoverished humans on the planet at the time and many of those who dreamed of starting new lives in Boston on Brooklyn never survived to see the other side.    
Protesting against Direct Provision in Ireland

The story of our ‘Coffin Ships’ is one of the most troubling in Ireland’s painful history. Impoverished people, fleeing starvation and persecution by the British Empire, counted themselves lucky if they had the fare for the long voyage across the Atlantic.

No doubt, many of them cried tears of despair upon leaving family members behind. In those days, a ticket to America was only one-way and many lived for 50 or 60 years without ever getting a chance to return to their homeland.

For those people, the prospect of a decent, peaceful life seemed impossible in their homeland. The crops had failed, their British masters showed no mercy or compassion, and they dreamed of just having enough to survive on when they got to the ‘New World’.

Behind them, thousands were starving, including a six year old girl called Celia Griffin, whose distressed family walked into Galway in search of “relief” in 1847. The nuns tried to help her, to provide her with food, but Celia died on a roadside.

She was too far gone.

Many of those who embarked on the Famine Ships from Galway Bay would have passed by little children like Celia, starving on the roadsides, on their way to America and their hardship gave them a steely determination to succeed in the New World.

The Ireland they left behind was a place where the natives faced religious and economic persecution.

In the previous century, Catholics had been denied the right to vote and the Irish language could only be taught in “illegal” hedge schools.

The terrible poverty of the 19th century and our centuries-long struggle for independence has meant that Irish people are universally popular across the globe, especially among the downtrodden who take inspiration from our long struggle.

Hard to believe now that the Choctaw people of North America, despite facing huge oppression themselves by colonisers, were so taken by the plight of the Irish people that they raised $170 to send to Ireland to ease their suffering in the year little Celia died, 1847.

That would be a pretty substantial amount of money these days and their generous gesture has been commemorated forever with a sculpture which was erected in the town of Midleton, Co Cork, two years ago.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park on the shores of Galway Bay

Only 16 years after the Choctaws themselves were forced off their land by US President Andrew Jackson – leading to a 500-mile trek to Oklahoma, known as the 'Trail of Tears' – this was an extraordinary act of generosity by Native Americans who had so little themselves.

In Ireland, we always tend to pride ourselves on rooting for the underdogs. In his acclaimed 1997 Pulitzer-prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt wrote of how the impoverished  children in his native Limerick in the 1940s would always cheer for the ‘Red Indians’ as they were being slaughtered by the ‘Cowboys’ in Hollywood Westerns.

In the cinema, the Irish children would hoot and holler for the Native Americans on the big screen, perhaps with some subconscious awareness of how those people had helped their own during Ireland’s darkest days.

I thought about the Choctaw Nation and Angela’s Ashes last week when I wrote a piece for about Ireland’s notorious Direct Provision system.

Direct Provision is the system the Irish Government uses to process the cases of asylum-seekers, who often spend up to seven or eight years living in former hotels or hostels as they wait for their cases to be processed.

These people live on €19.10 per week and their voices are rarely, if ever, heard on the Irish media.

They are afraid of repercussions for speaking out, either from the Irish authorities or from criminals or political forces in their own countries.

Campainging for a better world for everyo
It took me six weeks to set up the interviews with two of the asylum-seekers. They were extremely fearful of speaking out and didn’t want their real names to be used.

We couldn’t meet in the centre where they share their lives with so many others from a wide variety of countries, so I suggested the back of a pub which I knew would be quiet on a weekday afternoon.

One of them didn’t turn up. And I was really annoyed. I sat in the pub waiting for almost an hour, thinking this had possibly never happened to me in 25 years of journalism.

I texted her a few times, to no avail. I felt she had let me down.

Later that night, I received an apologetic text from her daughter. She had been taken on a day’s training programme at short notice by the Irish authorities and didn’t have any credit to send me a text message to cancel the interview.

So she agreed to turn up the next day and was actually 30 minutes early for our interview.

I had no idea what story she had before our interview began, as I had never met her before.

I didn’t know that she had been praying in a Church in northern Nigeria when Islamic terrorists from Boko Haram broke in and shot most of the people dead.

I didn’t know she had been taken prisoner and managed to escape after making up a story about needing to go to the toilet out in the bush.

I didn’t know that the woman who brought her and her daughter to Ireland has been trying to take €50,000 from her, money she clearly doesn’t have.

I don’t know if her life would be any better if she had tried to stay in Nigeria and maybe move to another location, away from Boko Haram, with her three sons

Instead of living in a tiny, grotty former hotel room with her daughter, with no right to work, for months or even years on end.

But I do know I saw genuine fear and despair, even terror, in her eyes.

I do know that it was painful and uncomfortable for her to talk about her life, as she’s used to putting on a brave face for her daughter.

I was taken aback by how upset and how lacking in hope she was.

And yet she was grateful, because at least she shares her room with her own daughter - whereas others in the centre have to share small bedrooms with two or three others from other countries, without even the benefit of a shared language.

And then I read some comments on social media sites. About how she should go straight back to Africa, or how I must have been a fool to believe a woman I met in an Irish pub (an interview in a venue I chose, which took weeks to set up, by the way).

And I wondered what had happened to the famous compassion of the Irish, supposedly the poster boys and girls for underdogs all across the globe.

Judging by 90% of the comments on social media sites, the Irish in America have lost all of the compassion which saw the Choctaw send money they didn’t have all the way across the world to people in distress in a far-off, strange land.                                                  

A protest against the 17-year old Direct Provision system

In a way, it helped me to understand why the 50,000 ‘illegal’ Irish in the United States are now getting so little support from established, older Irish-American communities in Trump’s America.

The Chinese have a saying that an ambitious horse never returns to its old stable.

Perhaps the Irish, on both sides of the Atlantic, have forgotten where they came from when it comes to dealing with people fleeing war, terror, persecution, and famine across the globe.

I have no idea whether the women I spoke to last week have a right to stay in Ireland or not. But I do know that their voices need to be heard, without keyboard warriors who know nothing about their circumstances shouting out that they should be sent straight back "home".

Imagine how much worse life would have been for our 19th century emigrants if racists at the ferryports sent them straight back home.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Check out his Facebook page here

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