Sunday 18 August 2019

We Irish need to give our new neighbours the chance to make their case for inclusion

The people who come here, like our Irish diaspora, try to stay in touch with their culture and the land where they were born. We must respect that love of their native place and the culture, customs and religions of their first home (Stock picture)
The people who come here, like our Irish diaspora, try to stay in touch with their culture and the land where they were born. We must respect that love of their native place and the culture, customs and religions of their first home (Stock picture)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The emigrant told me of a Christmas night in New York when he was heartbroken for home. He was asked over for the traditional Christmas dinner by some friends and they had a lovely day.

The emigrant was heading off from Bainbridge Avenue in the Irish Bronx for upstate New York. He was lonely for home. It was the night of a full moon. Just like tonight.

The emigrant looked up at the glory of it all. And it was then it dawned on him that the very same moon was shining down in the place he loved best back home.

In his mind's eye he could see the stream he passed every day on his way to school and the sound of the gurgling waters slaloming in and out through the stones soothed his pain.

Most of the Blasket Islanders emigrated to Springfield and Hartford in Connecticut. The islanders had a tough life.

Fishing was the main source of food and many died at sea. When Meini Ní Dunshleibhe, the Blasket midwife, was an old lady, she said that if she had to live her life again she "would have chosen someone who was sleeping next to me at night".

Women were up all night worrying and praying for their husbands and sons out at sea.

The women had to work too hard. The men worked to put food on the table. The women were fearful of losing their babies when they became pregnant if the weather was too bad for the doctor to come out to the island, even though Meini was a gifted midwife.

The islanders were a loving people. Family was everything and when the family left, the parents were heartbroken. Very few of the women were willing to endure the hardships their mothers suffered.

When the men left, the women followed. Quite simply, they had to leave to find a better life.

Their story is skilfully told by Michael de Mordha in 'An Island Community' and is brilliantly translated in to an Irish-English version by Gabriel Fitzmaurice.

The emigrants faced many challenges. My dad had to go to England for work.

There must be few Irish people who aren't separated from emigration by more than one degree of separation.

Two young girls who babysat for us came back in to our pub at Christmas two years ago. They hadn't been home from the United States for 15 years. It took that long to get the Green Cards.

The girls - whom I love dearly - were afraid of not being able to get back in to America if they came home without the paperwork. We all cried with the happiness. It was the best Christmas present ever.

The signs outside the boarding houses read: NO DOGS, NO IRISH, NO BLACKS. Dad and his cousin Denis Murphy had to pretend they were Welsh to get digs. They were caught out when Beryl the landlady noticed the two young men went off to Mass every Sunday.

Denis told me they were asked to leave. As Dad and Denis were walking away up the road, Beryl broke down crying.

She sent her husband, Henry, to bring back the two boys. Beryl and Henry, who were good people, looked behind the face.

Ahmed Lulu came to Kerry from Gaza. His story is one of many in the book 'Behind the Face'. Ahmed would never have left Gaza if there was peace there. His dad, Morwan, died of cancer just a few months ago and poor Ahmed was heartbroken.

He was trying to get his dad out of Gaza for one last visit to Ireland but it couldn't be done.

This lovely little book of humanity was put together by three remarkable women. Sinead Kelleher, Susan McElligott and Mary Carroll knew many emigrants who have come here from all over the world. Their mission is to tell the stories of real people. They are backed up by the Tralee International Resource Centre.

And would you be surprised if we told you that their stories mirror our own? Just black-out the names and stick in Murphy and O'Sullivan.

Change the place to Ballys and Lis this or Lis that.

I was so honoured to be asked to write the foreword. 'Behind the Face' is all about heart, bravery and love. There is so much ignorance and fear of our brothers and sisters.

The people who come here, like our Irish diaspora, try to stay in touch with their culture and the land where they were born. We must respect that love of their native place and the culture, customs and religions of their first home. Our country of emigrants must become a nursery for empathy.

Every pot needs stirring and we all need and every place needs an infusion of new blood to sustain and invigorate us. I love the new names of the new Irish. Galina Cotter lives in my mother's home parish and she was born in Russia. Hashim Al Hadeedy came here from Iraq when he was two. His father dragged the family back to Iraq and Hashim missed Ireland so much. He was an Irish kid who was totally overwhelmed by Iraq. Hashim came back home earlier this year when Isil took over his home place in war-ravaged Mosul. "Isil took the family home, the car, everything," Hashim wrote. "I remember when I landed in Ireland I couldn't stop crying.

"I just wanted to breathe as much as I could of the Irish air I used to breathe as a child, 23 years ago."

Welcome home, Hashim. I hope we haven't changed since you left.

We as people need to give our new neighbours the chance to make their case for inclusion.

Every Christmas we are asked to look in on our older folk. So necessary and so rewarding it is too, but this year I would ask you to look in on our new Irish.

Maybe some of you feel we should keep Ireland sealed off. All I ask is that you look behind the face.

Christmas is the story of a family who had to leave their home place. The mother and father were fearful their little fella would be murdered.

The foreigners had no one to stand up for them. Call in to the new neighbours. It's as easy as listening to their story. The onus is on us who have always lived here to make everyone welcome.

It might be a smile, or a kind word, or an invite for a cup of tea.

We all need a place to call home, a place to love and live.

Take a look behind the face.

Irish Independent

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