Looking different. Feeling Irish
The grown-up children of immigrants talk skin-colour, college fees, sport and national identity in multiethnic Ireland
Twenty years ago Gretchen Fitzgerald from Goa wrote Repulsing Racism, an insightful essay about living in an overwhelmingly white Ireland with dark skin. “I was stared at, often to the point of rudeness,” she wrote of her college years. “My social relations with other students became limited and distorted.”
She questioned “whether I had the right to bring a child, whose cultural origins would be as complex as my own, into such an unthinking society.”
Today there are many Irish children with complex identities. From 1992 Ireland experienced rising levels of immigration. The last Irish census records that 12 per cent of the population was born outside the country, with the biggest groups being Polish and British. More than 100 nationalities now inhabit our towns, cities and villages.
The children of those migrants have have grown up in a changed Ireland. The Irish Times asked six of them to participate in a discussion this week about their experiences of growing up in multiethnic Ireland.
They are Raf Diallo, who is 23, Lee Chin, who is 20, Veena Kumar, who is 16, Hailuu Netsiyanwa, who is 25, Daisy Onubogu, who is 18, and Nally Silva, who is 20.
Young people from immigrant backgrounds face a number of issues, from citizenship rights to cutbacks in language support at school and many pay higher non-EU third-level fees despite living here for most of their lives. They often find themselves without the community networks accessible to long-term residents. Some face explicit racism.
Their experiences are hugely diverse and differ depending on class, gender, location and luck. Of the six young people taking part in this discussion, one was born in Ireland and others came here in childhood or early teens. One is at school. Some are at college. Some were working. One had experienced severe racist attacks, two no racism at all. Some have a strong sense of having a double identity.
And if the conversation repeatedly returns to issues of identity and racism, this doesn’t mean their day-to-day lives aren’t concerned with the same things that obsess other young Irish people: sport, music, family, friends, college and work and the lack thereof.
The school years
Daisy: “In primary school there were me and three other people who weren’t Irish. I wasn’t really conscious of that. Now I know that it was quite a small contingent, because I teach sometimes in primary schools, and there’s massive diversity now. Then it was just girls with different types of hair. That’s the best type of categorisation I had.”
Hailuu: “I did my Junior Cert in a private fee-paying school, and in that school they had children of diplomats. I did my Leaving Cert in a Christian Brothers school in the inner city, and there were over 46 nationalities. It was extremely different. In the private school, difference wasn’t that big a deal, and it wasn’t looked upon as a negative. The bigger inner-city school was almost segregated. You’d know your place and what you’d be expected to be.”
Veena: “My school isn’t like that at all. In primary school it was all Irish people, and I got on well with them. In my school now there are loads of different nationalities, but everyone gets along.”
Nally: “I was one of three dark people in primary school, and they got the same abuse I did. So the three of us just stuck together and shut everyone else out. What we really should have done was gone out and talked to the others and told them we weren’t that different . . . but I remember coming home and asking my mom had we bleach, because I didn’t want to be dark any more. There’s a huge emphasis on bullying and suicide, but they don’t think of racism as something that could make you feel suicidal. I remember being suicidal because of the abuse I was suffering when I was nine or 10.”
Raf: “In Leitrim there are more cows than people. Back in the 1990s I was the only person who looked different. I see myself as Irish anyway, but I only ever hung out with Irish people. I was never made to feel different in any way. It never really came up. It still hasn’t come up. I guess it’s because I came at such a young age, and if you get to know people at that age I think they just accept you as you are.”
Lee: “I knew I was different, but I didn’t look at myself in that way. In primary school kids are going to be kids and wouldn’t know what they were saying. In secondary school it was mentioned once or twice. It was playing sport where I really got abuse.”
Identity and Irishness
Daisy: “I think I’d predominantly see myself as an Irish person. We had a very non-Nigerian-specific upbringing. My mum travelled a lot and so did my dad. She was an air hostess and he was a businessman. We always spoke English. We ate European food. I wasn’t immersed in Nigerian culture . . . All the things that make you a person or a grown-up I figured out in Ireland. I hung out with Irish people. There were more of them. I wouldn’t say there’s no Nigerian influence, because my mother is involved with the Nigerian community. But with the younger generation I think you’ll find a lot of people my age saying they’re Irish, because that’s all they’ve known.”
Hailuu: “I’d call myself Afro-Irish. I’m a lot more Irish than a lot of Irish people. I’ve spent almost half my life here, but I’m very conscious of my cultural education . . . I think a conflict does exist for a lot of young people with dual identities . . . My parents are economic migrants, so their reality is that they came here to work. It’s like they paused their normal life to come here. They don’t really mix or engage with society the same way the young kids do because they have to go to school and get the bus every day. For me a conflict between the two identities existed for a long time. [He laughs] That’s why I’m a rebel now, because I’m sure in my ways.”