Difference is the essence of humanity . . . and should therefore never be the source of
hatred or conflict. Respect difference. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace.
John Hume

Lest we forget

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the commemoration of the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27 this year was not held at the Memorial but in virtual space. Its main theme was the fate of children in Auschwitz.

Over 200,000 children were murdered in Auschwitz. Completely innocent, good, curious about life, loving their closest ones, trusting children. The adult world—after all, so often unjust and cruel—has never demonstrated so much of its heartlessness, its evil. This cannot be justified by any ideology, reckoning or politics. This year we want to dedicate the anniversary of liberation to the youngest victims of the camp,’ said Dr Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the director of the Museum.

It is estimated, based on the approximate data, that at least 232,000 children and young people were deported to Auschwitz. . . . Slightly more than 700 were liberated on the territory of Auschwitz in January 1945.

Last year’s Auschwitz commemoration was attended by around 200 survivors. Each year there are fewer of them. Each year there are fewer people who know through experience about Auschwitz or any of the other concentration and extermination camps. Soon there’ll be only the history books to remind us that there was such a time. A time when people—who had done nothing more than to be Jewish, or homosexual, or Roma, or to have a physical or mental disadvantage, or to be in any way different from the Aryan ‘ideal’—were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. They were enslaved, tortured, starved, used for horrific medical experimentation, and herded into gas chambers to die.

Santayana cautioned us that those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. And because as a species we apparently never learn, a resurgence of the very same ideology that brought us Auschwitz is raising its repulsive head in Europe and the US today—and is nowhere more tragically clear than in the treatment of desperate migrants and refugees.

Of all the countries in the world, Ireland should be at the forefront in welcoming those who make desperate journeys to find refuge. We have provided migrants to the world for about two centuries. During the famine, an estimated million or more of us migrated, primarily to England and the US; we crossed the Atlantic in coffin ships, so named because of the mortality rate among passengers during passage. Another million or more of those who stayed at home died of starvation because of a ‘famine’ that wasn’t really a famine at all: food that was not to be shared with the ‘ethnically inferior’ Irish was exported to feed the ‘ethnically superior’.

Before the famine, according to the 1841 census, the population of Ireland was 8.18 million. By 1851 it had fallen to 6.55 million. It continued falling for more than a century—until the mid-1960s[1]—despite our famously high birth-rate at the time. Families raised 10, 12, 15, or more children knowing that the majority would be forced to take the boat to somewhere else to survive.

The numbers stabilised in the sixties and boomed again in the eighties. Emigration didn’t stop, it just changed identity. Today’s typical émigré is no longer a starving tenant farmer, but a well-educated professional; we travel now from choice and not from desperation. But we still travel.

There are currently about 80 million people across the world who claim Irish as their primary heritage, including 40 million in America and around six million in the UK. Today, there are only 6.73 million of us here on the island of Ireland (4.88 million in the Republic and 1.85 million in Northern Ireland). That is, in the 160 years between the 1851 census, when there were 6.55 million people in Ireland, and the 2011 census, when there were 6.73 million, our population increased by only 180,000.

We know about migration.

An immigrant’s tale

In the first half of the twentieth century, all of my maternal grandfather’s siblings bar himself and one sister took the boat to America. In the second half of that century, six of his nine children, including my mother, emigrated.

At the same time, my father’s entire family—his mother, siblings, and their children, including four-year-old me—left for Birmingham.

I grew up conscious of my status as an immigrant. I was told, in so many different ways—from the tabloids, from advertising, from signs outside factories or in the windows of cafés or boarding houses, and occasionally from the neighbours—how inferior we Irish were. We were dirty, lazy, and criminal. We’d steal the eyes out of your head and come back for the eyelashes. Irish men were drunks who beat their wives and Irish women were sad doormats who were OK about that.

I was told that we went to England only to claim what was then called National Assistance (welfare) and refused to work even when there was work on offer. I stumbled on a piece of the truth about that when I was very young, even though I didn’t understand it at the time. I was learning to read, and feeling quite pleased with myself about it, when I saw a sign outside a factory that read: ‘Vacancies within. No Irish Need Apply’. My father, source of all wisdom, was at a loss to explain that to me, but he was clearly hurt and angered by it. As a consequence, it was seared into my brain.

It still makes me angry, not just for me and my father, not just for the Irish, but for every immigrant today, including those here in Ireland, living the same or similar experiences. Of course, we don’t see signs like that anymore—nowadays we have social media to broadcast ugly stereotypes, unsubstantiated rumours, dog-whistles, and insane conspiracy theories.

Racist stereotypes were the ‘reality’ we lived with—so much so that it leaked into our own self-image. As Ronnie Drew says in the spoken introduction to ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’

The craic was good in Cricklewood,
But they wouldn’t leave The Crown,
The bottles were flyin’ and the biddies were cryin’
Cos the Paddies were goin’ to town.
Oh, Mother dear, I’m over here and I’m never goin’ back,
What keeps me here’s the rake of beer, the women, and the craic.

Drunken, brawling, Micks—and we bought into it. And then we celebrated it in song. That’s how internalised labelling works.

We even repeated the jokes among ourselves about the Irish man going on to a building site and asking whether there was ‘any danger of a job’. There was the one about Pat and Mick being interviewed by a gaffer; Pat went first and, when asked, didn’t know what his ‘full name’ was. The gaffer suggested  ‘Patrick’ and Pat agreed. When it came to Mick’s turn, he was ahead of the game; asked his full name he answered, without any hesitation, Mickrick. And we all knew how to confuse an Irish man: put two shovels against a wall and tell him to take his pick. A pregnant Irish woman was a dope carrier; on a bike she was a dope peddler. All of those jokes were told to me as a teenager by Irish men.

Drunken, brawling, criminal, lazy, as thick as two short planks nailed together, and not wanted over here—that’s what ‘everybody knew’ about the average Mick when I was growing up in England. Creating a racist stereotype doesn’t need any basis in fact, just an ugly image repeated often enough. And as a small child, I believed it—I just thought that my family and every other Irish person I knew were the exceptions. We all had to be exceptional, I figured in my eight-year-old head, because we weren’t like the ‘real’ Irish I was told about. That’s the power of a stereotype—it isn’t changed or contradicted by what your lying eyes are telling you.

The rake of beer, the women, and the craic

But Irish immigrants in the US, England, and elsewhere didn’t travel for welfare or drink or the craic. Like many of our new Irish, we travelled to survive. It’s a common trope that the Irish built the English motorway system and supplied much of the labour for the massive house-building project that took place after the war. They were McAlpine’s fusiliers. They worked their asses off for less money and longer hours than the English, working ‘on the lump’ for Irish gaffers subcontracted by developers who didn’t want to pay union rates.

My father worked two jobs his entire life in England, on the building sites during the day and as a doorman at night. I worshipped my father, but I only saw him on Saturday and Sunday afternoons because he never worked a five-day week. And he never took a day off. He had flu once when I was eight. I can’t tell you how bewildering and scary it was to see my father at home in bed during the day. I thought he was going to die. Almost ten years later, when I was seventeen, he died of lung cancer one Friday night, fully determined that he was going back to work on Monday. That’s what being an immigrant meant then and means now.

There are people who, for their own ignorant and hate-filled reasons, want to scare up racism here in Ireland today. We’ve all seen the stories and memes circulating on social media about immigrants, building a poisonous stereotype with no basis in reality. Those posts and the rumours they generate are the equivalents of the ‘No Irish need apply’ signs. They are the ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs of our day. Just because the law requires them to be more subtle, they are no less harmful on an individual and on a community level.

I’m not telling you what to think; I’m asking you to think for yourself and to take responsibility for information that you share online, or down at the shops, or in the gym. At least fact-check before you spread the news. The advantage of digital media is that your favourite search engine is always just a click away. You can’t know everything, but Google, or Bing, or Yahooor DuckDuckGo, can. More accurately, they can point you to where you can find everything (almost). Inform yourself; check out both sides of the issue before you circulate it. Be particularly careful about what you read on social media because anyone can say anything when nobody’s checking. Question your sources. Don’t limit yourself to sites that already agree with what you’ve read; read the opposition and weigh the evidence. Put verifiable truth back into the public space.

The tragedy of diaspora

The tragedy of our own diaspora is no different to the tragedy of Libyans, Romanians, Syrians, and so on who come here, leaving behind everybody and everything they know, looking for refuge from famine, war, natural disasters, or ethnic cleansing pogroms. These aren’t just ‘foreigners’ or ‘asylum seekers’; they’re human beings, just like us. And just like those who boarded the coffin ships in the nineteenth century, they gambled with the possibility of not surviving the journey for the chance of reaching a better place and making a better life. And, also like those Irish men, women, and children who attempted desperate journeys to escape starvation, many of them didn’t make it: a forty-foot container truck with its cargo of 39 dead Vietnamese people is the iconic coffin ship for the twenty-first century.

In my lifetime, on this tiny island, we have lived through three decades of shooting, bombing, killing, and maiming in the name of nationalism, unionism, or culture: 3,532 people were killed and more than 47,500 injured in that particular culture war. We may, with continued persistence and dedication, have reached the end of that by talking to each other. Communicating across cultural divides has shown us that the divide itself was a fictional construct, composed almost entirely of the scare stories we each spread among ourselves about the other.

Don’t let those with their own agenda, built on ignorance and hate, fool you into starting up something like it again by targeting new victims. We’ve seen enough death and destruction.

Again, I’m not telling you what to think; I’m asking you to think for yourself and please fact-check before you spread the news.

Dehumanizing people debases us all; humanity is beautifully and almost infinitely diverse. The bonds of our common humanity must overcome the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.
Former US President, Jimmy Carter.

[1] 1951 and 1956 were exceptions: each one showed a small population increase.