Communities on the margins: a historical example

In 2011, in the concluding episode of the (sometimes over-simplistic) Feargal Keane television mini-series The Story of Ireland (Episode Five: The Age Of Nations), Keane suggested that in Ireland’s modern history and particularly in the Celtic Tiger era and beyond, that Ireland had now to accommodate a broader sense of Irishness, and despite greater immigration far-right politics has never taken root.  He did, however concede that there was racism in Irish society.

This racism was witnessed in a very public way this past week with the intimidation of members of the Roma community by a 200 strong mob in Waterford.  While this is shocking, and rightly has been condemned by all shades of political opinion (and the wider public), this kind of conflict cannot really be a complete surprise.  Behaviour of this kind is by no means an Irish phenomenon, and is sadly a by-product of a number of factors including unemployment, lack of resources, misinformation, and rumour.

If we take Keane’s statement that a ‘broader sense of Irishness’ was needed to incorporate the many cultures which make up early twenty first century Ireland, that would indicate that Irish culture, and Irishness was a fixed and settled entity in the past.  Of course, that simply isn’t true when one takes into account British and Anglo-Irish identities.  If we leave this (admittedly huge) factor out of the equation, are we left with a fixed and narrow sense of Irishness?

Of course not, Irishness was never fixed, nor narrow.  There were, and remain many degrees of Irishness depending upon one’s view of what was Irish is or was.  What is perhaps surprising is that what was supposed to be the official and traditional conception of Irishness (native Irish-speaking, and culturally Gaelic) was not entirely accepted by the general population in a previous period of severe unemployment and competition for resources, the 1930s.  Certainly not when it was presented to them at their door. This was at a time when those heavily involved in Irish Cultural Nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century were running the country.  The ideal of that particular crop of Irish Cultural Nationalists was that Ireland would be ‘Gaelic and free’.

However, the cultural intolerance the Gaelic people faced has parallels with what we have seen with the Roma community of late.  Intimidation, and a campaign of hate compounded by half-truths directed at those who differed culturally and linguistically.  The Independent’s Colette Brown’s sardonic take on the perception of Waterford pre and post-Roma contains more than a kernel of truth about the mob mentality when it comes to culture clashes, and particularly about ideas of cultural superiority.

In the 1930s under the Fianna Fáil government, an ambitious social engineering project took place in which numerous families of native Irish-speakers were taken from their homes in the last bastion of Gaeldom, Connemara, and transplanted in the eastern county of Meath.  The plan was to help spread the Irish language in places it had long since fell out of everyday use, as well as improve the lot of the much-maligned native-speakers from the West in new surroundings.  What was hoped to have been a stepping stone on the way to that Gaelic and free utopia quickly turned into a battle ground between those who viewed themselves as native and those viewed as planters who were being afforded special treatment under a government looking out for its own interests.

The Connemara Gael was soon subjected to a campaign of intimidation.  Shots were fired into houses, one was burned down and intimidating slogans painted on the properties of the migrants “No more migrants wanted here”, and “This land is not for Connemara people – it is for Meath men”. (Irish Press, 25 October, 1935)  It is perhaps a sign of the evolution of intimidation that slogans painted on walls have now been replaced with bile posted online.

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On Monday 27 October The Irish Times reprinted some of the online abuse directed at the Roma community in Waterford. ‘There have been Facebook pages, including one titled ‘Get Roma criminal gypsies out’, where posts included: “Burn the cockroaches out” and “Throw them in the river” and called people “Roma c**ts”. This page was taken down yesterday and a new page was posted, titled ‘Make Waterford a safer place’.

The language is perhaps a little less refined than used against the Irish-speaking migrants of the 1930s, although the sentiment is the same. The physical intimidation and lies spread about the Connemara Gael’s was textbook, and sadly are still in use today.  Irish-speaking women were harassed in town by ‘gangs’ and told ‘to quit talking that gibberish here’. (Irish Press, 17 Jan, 1938) While the classic line of feckless migrants sponging off the state was employed, in this instance by those aligned with right of centre politics accused the migrant population of being adverse to honest work, sleeping in until one in the afternoon and making poteen the rest of their time. (Irish Press, 7 May, 1936 and Meath Chronicle, 25 July, 1936)

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Sections of the press, as in many instances since, fanned the flames of prejudice against migrants. Under the sensationalist headline ‘Reign of terror in part of Meath’ on Aug 31, 1946 The Drogheda Independent produced a report (echoing the approach The Independent’s Brown lampooned above) which compared the migrants to Corsican bandits and red Indians descending on peaceful people and disrupting their idyllic village life. It further denigrated the migrants as ‘poor advertisements’ for Gaelic culture and called upon whoever inflicted these colonists upon the law-abiding people of Meath to deal decisively with the situation.

After the fanfare the migrant scheme received, many migrants felt abandoned by the government.  Promises of help in establishing themselves in the community and on the land had been broken to the point that many found themselves in debt and living on the margins of their new society.  A lawyer representing the migrants in court famously said that Meath ‘was not the El Dorado that they thought it would be’. (Irish Independent, 19 June, 1936) Parallels of the perception of minority groups can again be drawn with the Roma experience in Ireland of late.  In the wake of the murder Marioara Rostas, Roma community development officer Gabi Muntean drew attention to her community who were now living on the margains of Irish society while attempting to dispel similar myths that the Roma would rather beg instead of seeking employment.

Back in the late 1930s the Irish government attempted to tackle community friction in Meath.  In July 1938 a large event aimed at breaking down the barriers between the communities was organised in Gibbstown Co Meath, and was attended by Eamon de Valera, Minister for Education Thomas Derrig, and Senator Peadar O’Maille among others. According to The Meath Chronicle:

Through the medium of that which both loved, the Irish language, the migrant found that the Meath man was not out for his blood and the native discovered that the colonist was a human being like himself, not a humourless, suspicious individual, but a cheerful, friendly fellow anxious to live amicably with his neighbours’.

The Chronicle reported that the day was a success in which ‘barriers were broken down and a new spirit pervaded’. (Meath Chronicle, 16 July, 1938)  In truth, this approach was merely a show-piece, tensions between the communities were noticeable up until the 1970s. (Irish Independent, 25 May, 2010).  This piecemeal approach is perhaps symbolic in itself of successive Irish governments approach to issues regarding the Irish language.

Nevertheless, it points to a lack of an overall plan for culturally different migrants (even in an exclusively Irish setting) as well as a failure to engage with and integrate communities under a spirit of ‘inclusive Irishness’.  It should serve as a warning that in a more multi-cultural Ireland the piecemeal or showpiece approach will clearly not work if there is to be, as Keane said a need to accommodate a broader sense of Irishness. While the historical example given above is by no means identical, there are parallels which should not be ignored.

(newpapaper clippings with thanks to Irish Newspaper Archives)