By Patsy McGarry (for the Irish Times)
How quickly we forget. When it suits. Last April a small group completed a 155km walk from Strokestown, County Roscommon, to Dublin, in memory of 1,490 people offered assisted passage to Canada by landlord Maj Denis Mahon as he cleared his lands during the Famine.
In 1847 they were frogmarched by his bailiffs along the banks of the Royal Canal to Dublin, where they boarded ships for Grosse Ile in Quebec. Among the 1,490 was widow Mary Tighe (whose husband, Bernard, had already died of hunger), her brother and her five children.
They boarded the Naomi in Dublin, and by the time they arrived in Quebec, just two of the family survived: Daniel (12) and Catherine (nine).
Of the 1,490 of Maj Mahon’s tenants who boarded ships in Dublin, 700 died en route to Canada. Or almost half.
Last April, as the small group began their march to Dublin, it was reported that as many as 700 migrants had drowned off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean. The resonance was not lost on the Strokestown walkers.
One of their number, Carolin Callery, recalled, on arrival in Dublin how, as they set out on April 20th last, she got a text telling her about the drowned 700 off Libya. It was “gut-wrenching”, she said, adding that “while exploring our past, we are always conscious that the experience is someone else’s present”.
Such sentiments were not lost on Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Speaking a month later to the crew of LE Eithne as they prepared to leave Cork to help rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, he highlighted Ireland’s historic familiarity with such tragedies.
“It is in our history and personality, and in our DNA, in Ireland, having dealt with coffin ships after the time of the Famine and the Great Hunger. The humanitarian personality of Ireland is extraordinary,” he said.
That may well be so, but Ireland’s, at least official Ireland’s, record in dealing with migrants/refugees has been shameful.
After the second World War, Jewish groups in Dublin had great difficulty in securing refugee status for Jewish children to come to Ireland. In 1948 the Department of Justice offered a ludicrous explanation: “It has always been the policy of the minister for justice to restrict the admission of Jewish aliens, for the reason that any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem.” Then taoiseach Eamon de Valera overruled the department and 150 Jewish children were brought to Ireland.
In 1956 a group of 530 Hungarian refugees (how quickly that country forgets its own history too!) fleeing the Soviet invasion were accepted into Ireland and accommodated at an army camp in Knockalisheen, Co Clare.
The Irish government made the barest provision for them and considered their presence temporary. The Hungarian refugees complained bitterly about their treatment and soon the vast majority had left Ireland to be resettled in the US and Canada.
In 1973, after the president, Salvador Allende, was deposed in Chile, a group of Irish people lobbied for the acceptance of a quota of refugees from that country. At the time, Ireland and Luxembourg were the only members of the then EEC that had not accepted any Chilean refugees.
A Department of Justice memo of April 1974 expressed reservations about accepting such Chileans, due to their possible Marxist background. It was also felt that Ireland was not as cosmopolitan as other western European countries, and so “the absorption of even a limited number of foreigners of this kind could prove extremely difficult”.
This view was substantiated by reference to the Hungarian refugees who, it was claimed, had “failed to settle down” in Ireland and had re-emigrated to other countries.
Few of the 120 or so Chilean refugees who were eventually accepted by Ireland in the 1970s remained. They too experienced great difficulties. As of February 16th last, there are 7,937 asylum seekers in Ireland, 55 per cent of them for five years or more. They live in inadequate conditions of forced dependency while allowed a weekly pittance and condemned to a limbo of unknown duration.
In the current migrant/ refugee crisis in Europe, Ireland has, to date, agreed with the European Commission to accept a quota of 600 of the estimated 40,000 being dealt with at the time of agreement, while separately arranging to resettle 520 refugees from outside the EU.
Germany has since said it will accept 800,000 such refugees this year, Austria 80,000, and we whinge when German chancellor Angela Merkel tells a press conference, as fact, that “some countries . . . are not participating in common European asylum policy; for instance, Britain, Ireland and Denmark”. Ireland of the Welcomes, how are ya!
Meanwhile, as with our ancestors and their children, desperate people and their children die as they try to escape horror for a better life.
Are we about to disgrace ourselves again?