As Barack Obama and his family arrive in Ireland to a warm welcome from Irish thrilled to see an American president (who will attend the G8 summit in Northern Ireland) in person, his fellow blacks on the Emerald Isle do not enjoy such acclaim and rapture.
Historically, the term “Black Irish” referred to people with dark hair, dark eyes and somewhat darker (olive, that is) complexions, perhaps as the result of sexual relations between Irish women and Spaniard men who survived the defeat of the Armada in 1588.
In recent decades, however, “Black Irish” has taken on an entirely new meaning. The economic boom Ireland enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s attracted thousands of immigrants from Poland, Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa. Unlike neighboring Great Britain, Ireland never had any significant experience with such sudden episodes of mass immigration, particularly of non-white peoples.
While jobs were plentiful during the years of prosperity, racial problems seemed to be limited. However, since the onslaught of recession, immigrants, even white migrants like Poles, have been targeted by Irish nationalists and racialists. According to data from the 2011 Census, as gathered by Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, of the approximately 4.6 million people living in the Republic, about 767,000 were born outside the country, a 25 percent jump in only five years. Of that figure, almost 20,000 came from Nigeria in West Africa.
By late 2011, the climate for black people in Ireland became so toxic, that some black leaders said their community was “under siege” and suffering from widespread “verbal, physical and psychological attacks.” A group of prominent black businessmen held a press conference in Dublin in November 2011 in which they warned of “unprecedented levels of racist attitudes, attacks and a lack of leadership by the government and the institutions of the state.” They had formed the assembly in response to comments made by a white Irish politician, Fine Gael councilor Darren Scully, that he no longer wanted to represent the black Africans in his area. Scully had earlier told Irish media that he found black Africans to be overly aggressive and ill-mannered. He subsequently apologized for his comments and resigned as mayor of the town of Naas.
A Gallup poll taken that year revealed that 73 percent of black Africans in Ireland believed that racial discrimination was “widespread” in the country. “We demand the Irish government live up to its responsibility to protect all residents in the Republic of Ireland and to take strong measures to end racism,” the black group, which included community leaders Eric Yao of the Africa Centre; Salome Mbunge of Akidwa, a network of African and migrant women living in Ireland; and Clement Esebamen of the Ireland West Africa Business and Economic Council, said in a statement.
Not surprisingly, small hard-core groups of Irish nationalists and racialists have formed political organizations in order to advocate for the deportation of many immigrants. In 2010, a group called the Irish National Party (INP) -- likely based on a British group of a similar name -- was formed for the "immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers who have had their applications rejected." Now defunct, the INP claimed that Ireland’s ancient culture and identity were being eroded due to the “record levels of immigration and an influx of so-called 'asylum seekers' ... leading to the development of minority communities in our cities and increasing levels of social isolation in our towns and villages." "[We] rather seek to establish greater control over the immigration process. We recognize there is and always will be a need for some level of immigration but believe a more vigorous system needs to be put in place," INP chairman David Barrett told the Irish Central newspaper. "We wish to see Irish identity preserved but do not believe this is possible with, for example, mass immigration or membership of an increasingly powerful European Union.”
Racialism against blacks took a deadly turn in the spring of 2010 when a 15-year-old black lad named Toyosi Shittabey was stabbed to death in Tyrellstown, a housing development outside of Dublin. Four men were arrested in connection with the incident. The race-related killing sparked huge protests demonstrations in Dublin and elsewhere. Commenting on the murder, another young black named Patrick Kabangu told Irish media: “Racism is hiding everywhere. It is in the schools. Everywhere in Ireland is racist, it is just being hidden. This country is crazy.”
In a column for The Irish Journal last year, Timi Martins, a Nigerian who migrated to Ireland in 1996 as a teenager to attend university, described some of the positive and negative experiences he has had, while maintaining that the future will be much better for his children. “At that time there weren’t many black people, there weren’t many Chinese people, there weren’t many Indians,” he said. “But there had been a lot of black people in Ireland -- for example, Ireland would have been the training ground for a lot of African nurses. And pilots, and doctors. So it was not a bad time, because it was more of a novelty to see a black person on the street. And most people would love the opportunity to meet one, shake one’s hand, talk or whatever.”
However, there were also some very bad experiences. “But it was still hard,” Martins added. “I was lucky, because there were a couple of black kids in my school and we just blended, in a nice atmosphere. Only when I went out of my school for rugby matches or whatever, then I might encounter some racism. People saying stuff. People throwing eggs, or saying go back home, or monkey.” Nonetheless, Martins said he is committed to remaining in Eire. “Ireland’s a very lovely place to live,” he gushed. “Even though there have been cases of racism; it’s everywhere but it’s in small amounts here... Luckily for me I met my wife, I have two beautiful children, my business is flourishing. It’s not easy still, but I’m doing what I have to do.”
He also believes Irish attitudes toward race are now changing, “You go to any school, nearly any school in Dublin there will be many children from any ethnic background,” he noted. “You see them walking home in pairs, you see a black kid walking with a white kid, an Indian kid, or you see a black girl and Chinese girl walking together. Even in relationships -- I see a lot of black girls with white guys, white guys with Chinese girls. It’s changing completely. The next generation of kids, my daughters’ ages, when they grow up they’re not going to see any racism at all. Ireland is my home. I’m here, my family’s here.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.