Irish Eyes Unsmiling

By Walsh, Maurice | New Statesman (1996), July 25, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Irish Eyes Unsmiling

Walsh, Maurice, New Statesman (1996)

How is Ireland coping with being a rich country increasingly attractive to asylum-seekers?

Can you give me a shilling for the black babies?"

It was what I would hear my sister call out every morning as I was just waking up. She would be downstairs all ready for the bus to take her seven miles to school and her last thoughts would be for those little children in Africa whose imploring innocent faces we saw on the pages of the mission magazines, waiting for the nuns to send on to them the shillings and sixpences as soon as the tin boxes were full.

Many years later, when I arrived in Dublin, there was a Tanzanian civil servant staying in my digs in Kimmage, run by one Mrs O'Brien. Peter was in Ireland for a course at the Institute of Public Administration. He was quietly fastidious about his appearance, far more elegant and exacting than the rest of us students and young teachers. Such pride was something Mrs O'Brien had not reckoned on in a Tanzanian. She was flustered by his request to have a bath every day, especially as this entailed boiling water in oversized aluminium kettles and carrying them upstairs to the bathroom.

On the first morning of this onerous operation I awoke to hear Mrs O'Brien calling with some urgency to Peter from the bottom of the stairs - rather like hearing my sister all those years ago - "Peter! Peter! Be sure to put the stopper in the bath: that way the water won't run out."

For years this was the extent of the engagement that Irish people living in Ireland had with what is known as the race question. From this perspective it appears both distant and innocent. It's about the days when strangers were a novelty and people offered to give a foster home to children from Biafra.

Occasionally there would be someone returning from London or New York for holidays, explaining that they had moved house because their area was being taken over by blacks. You could be contemptuous of them or not notice the remark, but either way it hardly ruffled the national self-estimation that we weren't racist. This nastiness was the preserve of our erstwhile masters and the other European powers who had pillaged Africa and even more distant shores. We had suffered these conquerors ourselves. Ergo, we were entitled to an honorary ticket to the theatre of the oppressed.

I remember clearly an incident during the early seventies, when for the people in the Republic the troubles in the North were still a big morality play. Our teacher in primary school, a progressive educationist in every respect, had a lot of time for the IRA. But his imaginings about the purity of the republicanism practised across the border received a nasty setback when a man from the North who visited the school with a travelling zoo told him a story about an incident in Belfast.

A British army patrol had intervened to save a row of Catholic houses from being attacked by a Protestant mob. With the aggressors repelled, a woman brought tea to the soldiers, cheerily remarking to one of them that he had put a lot of boot polish on that morning. When he pointed out that he was black, she had a fit and threw them out. Even our teacher - who disapproved of us eating fish and chips because they were a British invention - was momentarily affronted by the indignity meted out to the soldier.

Now repressed Irish feelings about race are truly being confronted by the steady arrival of refugees.

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