Saturday 19 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'And now, the guardians of racial legitimacy'

There are echoes of old bullying from our dark past in the racial hate now being peddled

Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The early history of this State, from independence on, was dominated by bullying and hate. And last week we saw two stories that illustrate that. One story is from the old, dark, oppressive Ireland, the other is from our new, enlightened, liberal Ireland.

One story is literally dead and buried, the other is very much about the Ireland that's still adjusting to the modern world.

We're often quite smug about how the country has changed. But nothing is static. The new openness and tolerance have allowed us freedoms our ancestors couldn't dream of - but, the spirit of the old Ireland lives on in the modern day equivalent of those who shamed us in the past.

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Those who find excuses to bully and hate.

Joe Tuohy died in a nursing home in London. His story wasn't unique for someone of his birth circumstances. As usual in such cases, the details are sketchy and sometimes contradictory, depending on the memory of neighbours as reported in various outlets.

He was born in Toomevara sometime in the 1930s. His mother wasn't married. He lived for over 80 years and for most of that time we ignored him, left him to live and die alone - one of countless hundreds of thousands we didn't have room for.

And maybe this country leaving him alone was a mercy.

Because when we didn't ignore him, we treated him monstrously.

Joe Tuohy, as far as is known, was born to an Irish woman who became pregnant in New York and came home.

For reasons we don't know, she and her child escaped the fate common to so many - she managed to hold on to Joe.

She worked as a cook, for various farmers. Whatever the details were, it was precarious work - a young woman trying desperately to earn enough to look after her child. In the Ireland of that time it would have been a lonely, secret-ridden life, with little respect shown to her and she knowing that at any moment things could change terribly.

And they did.

How exactly it happened is, again, sketchy. There's a story that the child burned his foot in a fireplace in a farmhouse where his mother worked. And this brought them to the attention of the authorities. Whatever the detail, they took him from her. She ended up in a Magdalene Laundry, Joe ended up in an industrial school.

They gave him a skill, so when he grew up he was a tailor, and apparently a very good one. He went to London and he lived and died there. Alone.

There was no possibility of finding his mother.

This State did nothing to protect or comfort those it cast off. Joe Tuohy was one of many who had no one to mourn them, their relatives far away, or lost to them.

Word went out, after he died, and good people who didn't know him rallied around to show respect at a funeral service in Ireland.

It was well meant, it was right and proper. But as heartening as that was, it's overshadowed by the realities of the story. Joe Tuohy never knew about the respect he was shown; and, more than anything, he never again saw the mother the authorities took him from.

Hate dominated so much in that Ireland. Those who controlled the State had an intense and narrow vision of what it was to be Irish. Esteem mounted if you spoke Irish, more so if you were in the GAA. A connection with FF or FG didn't hurt. Even with all this, if you were Protestant you were merely conditionally Irish.

The basic qualification, though, was "legitimacy". The entire squalid business of prison-like treatment for unwed mothers and "illegitimate" children was based on visceral hatred of those who dared exist outside the norm, those not church-bred and church-wed.

In the same week that good people tried to make amends for the cruelty dealt to Joe Tuohy, another story came to light, an example of the cruelty on which some amongst us still thrive.

Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis met in England, seven years ago, according to the Irish Times. She is an actor, he is a personal trainer. She is Irish, he was born in Brazil and raised in England.

They have a child, just under two years, and they moved to her family home to save money.

There are countless similar stories here today. Young people getting on with life in tough times, respecting others and expecting respect in return.

They are handsome people and when an agency was looking for someone to pose for an advert for Lidl, they got the gig. They're saving money, this was welcome work. The advert said something about how much the Ryans had saved by shopping at Lidl.

As normal, routine, ordinary as can be.

The 2008 crash signalled the economic collapse of the right-of-centre regimes that dominated Europe and the USA since World War II.

This was gradually followed by the political collapse of those regimes, and the rise of the likes of Trump and the Brexit movement, and a range of right-wing and far right forces across Europe.

Along with that came the rise of white nationalism. Here and there we've seen the open espousal of fascist notions, antisemitism, and various strands of racism.

In Ireland, we have a number of racist groups. They've developed a modern equivalent of the old more-Irish-than-you regime.

The tight-assed people who in the old days cruelly laid down who was "legitimate" did so on a pseudo-religious basis. Their modern equivalents lay down the law on some on their beloved racial principles.

This resulted in streams of abuse directed at Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis for appearing in the Lidl advert. Their relationship, they were told, was "race betrayal".

Mathis was not only born elsewhere, he has a darker complexion. This upsets the racists.

The racism is rabid and explicit. Hazel Chu, a Green Party councillor, was born in Ireland. She is Irish, in her birth and her culture.

The racists reject her Irishness. They subject her to streams of abuse because her parents were born elsewhere.

Like the more-Irish-than-you brigade of old, the racists have a desperate need to manage the lives of others. Like the people who destroyed the lives of Joe Tuohy and his mother, they demand the right to lay down rules on who is legitimate - racial rather than religious - and to indulge in the foulest abuse to intimidate those they judge racially impure.

The vast majority of us abhor racism. But the racists are today organised and active. For example, they move in instantly when an area has legitimate concern about its ability to absorb migrants.

They claim to be patriots, but the blatant hate they spew betrays their crude urge to dominate. They openly despise Irish people who don't share that hate.

The media is obsessed with balance. They act as though racist views are just another opinion. Panel discussions often include people who work closely with the people who don't bother to disguise their hatreds.

Already, these types are discussing linking up their campaigns for future elections. Their leaders can seem a bit - well, their arms fling in all directions. So, we can expect some more presentable types to be groomed.

The hate is presented as concern, the bullying posing as free speech, as long as the racist is presentable, smiles and is careful with language.

But, we wouldn't allow a platform to someone who advocates taking kids away from their mothers, regardless of careful language.

We start from a position that there are not two legitimate sides to that story.

Similarly, there are not two sides to racism.

Sunday Independent

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