Multiculturalism is nothing new

Far from being the homogenous nation portrayed by anti-immigrationists, Ireland has always been a country of complementary contrasts, writes Sally Richardson

"WHAT IS your nation if I may ask," says the citizen. "Ireland," says Bloom. "I was born here. Ireland."

This exchange in James Joyce’s Ulysses reasonably suggests that to be born in Ireland is to have the right to be included as part of the Irish nation. Of course, Leopold Bloom, perhaps the best-known character in the whole of Irish literature, is Jewish. Joyce’s enlightened exploration of what it means to be Irish through the character of Bloom has lessons for us now.

The recent referendum in Ireland, which denies the automatic right of citizenship to anyone born in Ireland to non-Irish parents, is a retrograde step that overturns the central arguments that form Ireland’s claim to nationhood.

The United Irish movement sought to replace any spurious ideas of Irishness as merely a matter of descent with the concept of citizenship. No matter what your ethnic origins were, you were part of the country and had the rights of a citizen. Of course, that the so-called ‘Republic of Ireland’ has few qualms about jettisoning such republican baggage will hardly be a surprise to Irish republicans.

The vote in the referendum is born of fear — an irrational fear, fuelled by the less–responsible sectors of the media, that Ireland is being swamped by immigration, that Ireland’s traditional culture is under threat from alien forces and alien people with alien ways who will undermine Ireland and what it means to be Irish.

The decision to hold the referendum is a cynical exploitation of vulgar prejudice by the Irish government. The Irish establishment have learned their lessons from the British well.

Yet the idea that Ireland is a uniformly white and homogeneous nation doesn’t stand up to the historical evidence. In fact Ireland has never been a monoculture. Ireland’s original Neolithic inhabitants may well have comprised a number of diverse groups. Since then English, Welsh, Norman and Scottish settlers, Vikings and Huguenots — already mixed populations in themselves — have added to Ireland’s mix.

There have been Jewish people in Ireland since the 1400s and Africans were brought over by the Vikings. A recent study by Bill Hart shows large numbers of black Africans in 18th-century Ireland; Dublin had the largest black population of any European city outside London. Documentary evidence is there to show that many of them intermarried and interbred with the Irish population. Racists beware: your own family tree may have some interesting surprises for you. Your bigotry may be directed against yourself.

Support for the anti–slavery movement was strong in Ireland. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, spent eight-and-a-half months in Ireland as a guest of the United Irishmen, campaigning against slavery and selling 1900 copies of his autobiography. Frederick Douglass was one of a number of African Americans to visit Ireland during the nineteenth century. He had escaped from slavery as a young man, acting on the advice of two Irishmen he encountered on the docks in Baltimore, Maryland. He proved popular in Ireland, generating much support for the anti-slavery movement. In return, he supported Ireland’s Repeal and Home Rule campaigns.

Many Irish Jews became involved in Ireland’s struggle for independence. The Judaeo–Irish Home Rule Association was formed in 1908. Irish-Jewish artist Estella Solomons joined Cumann na mBan and was involved in preparations for the Easter rising; her studio in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) sheltered IRA volunteers on the run. Dublin solicitor Michael Noyk was a close colleague and adviser of Michael Colllins. Robert Briscoe, Sinn Féin activist and arms procurement agent for the IRA, became the first Jewish TD and was eventually elected Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Most of Ireland’s Asian population began arriving in the 1950s; however there have been Indians in Ireland at least since the 18th century. The great Indian cricketer Ranji (Ranjitsinhji) bought Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara in 1924 and settled in with his English girlfriend, his two nieces and his Indian retinue. In spite of his politics (he was a fervent supporter of the British Empire) his tact and informal good manners ensured his popularity in the locality. He supported Irish cultural activities, and his improvements to the estate provided much-needed (and well-paid) employment for the local population.

Irish culture has not developed in isolation in spite of Ireland’s position at the edge of Europe. The cultural revival was part of an international movement to reclaim local arts, folk tales and traditional music and those involved in protecting and promoting Irish culture have often been those most open to new influences from outside. Padraic Pearse was well acquainted with the modernist developments that were taking place in literature on the continent; he wanted to see an Irish literature in contact on the one hand with its own past and on the other with the mind of contemporary Europe.

Cross–fertilization generates creativity. Irish traditional music is a case in point. Musicians in bands such as Kila and the Afro–Celts and Riverdance composer Bill Whelan have brought west African, east European and other influences into contact with Irish traditions and have produced great new music.

Purists may quibble, but cultures are not static. They are not frozen in time and space, or pickled, or set in aspic. They are fluid and diverse. They absorb and influence one another. They are constantly changing, developing, reinventing and redefining themselves and they are constantly crossing and blurring national and ethnic boundaries.

In fact, we all have multiple identities and affinities: these are not confined to nationality and ethnicity but include others such as gender and class, to state two of the most obvious. These may be more important in defining us and in forming our political outlook and affiliations.

Multiculturalism is not new to Ireland, any more than it is anywhere else. People from all sorts of ethnic and cultural backgrounds have called Ireland home and having been doing so throughout Ireland’s history. They have been in Ireland in significant numbers and have made immeasurable contributions to Ireland’s culture and prosperity.

Racism is not new to Ireland, either. Scare stories that Ireland was being swamped by Jewish immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s pre–echo the tabloid journalism and racist hysteria of today. Yet Ireland wasn’t ‘swamped’ then, nor is it now. Ireland’s policy of severely restricting the entry of Jewish refugees just before World War II deserves some comment. The excuses — that there was no room, that refugees would bring their whole families over, that they came through the wrong channels or without the right papers, that they included criminal and undesirable elements — are familiar to us today. In at least one case a Jewish refugee who arrived without the proper documentation was sent back to Germany and the concentration camps.

Most newcomers to Ireland respect Irish culture. They want to fit in and contribute to their new home. Members of Ranji’s Indian entourage learnt Irish in the Connemara Gaeltacht, and more recent arrivals are already attending Irish language classes and playing traditional Irish music. Nigerian-born Irish Monopoly champion Ekumdayo Badmus, who represented Ireland in the Monopoly world championships in 2000, changed his surname to O’Badmus to sound more Irish. You may smile, but it’s surely no more absurd than Charles Burgess becoming Cathal Brugha.

This doesn’t mean that everyone must ‘assimilate’ and become ‘more Irish than the Irish'. Like the fictional Leopold Bloom many real life people have multi–faceted or multi–layered identities. To belong to an ethnic minority, and to continue to identify yourself as such, is perfectly compatible with Irishness and the rights and duties of Irish citizenship.

Ireland has another history — a history of anti-racism. The old Fenian who stood guard over a Jewish shop and defended it until the police arrived during the Limerick pogrom of 1904, the Dunnes Stores strike in 1984 when employees refused to handle goods from apartheid South Africa — Irish people have often demonstrated their humanity and shown solidarity with their fellow human beings.

The Irish have first–hand experience of racism themselves, in their own country and as immigrants. Political activists from Ireland have found common cause with other colonized peoples in India, Africa and elsewhere and there has been a two–way traffic of ideas, influence and support. Links between the Irish and Indian independence movements in the early twentieth century were especially strong.

A multicultural society is not necessarily a fragmented one. It can actually be more cohesive than a monoculture. For cultural differences needn’t drive us apart. When we make allowances for difference, when we accept that our way of doing things is not the only valid way, then we start to find out how much we have in common with a lot of people who on the surface may seem very different. We find ourselves connecting with what is human in our fellow creatures, and appreciating the different things they bring to our communities and our lives. It is easier to be different and harder to be excluded in a flexible, pluralist society.

People — in Ireland, in Britain and elsewhere — have to learn that multicultural society is neither new nor threatening. It is where they come from, and has contributed to making them what they are. It is where you and I come from. If we can stop regarding multiculturalism as a threat and start regarding it as part of our identity, an asset and a resource, we will all be a good deal happier.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-05-19 14:14:48.
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