‘No colonial baggage’: how Ireland differs from Europe

Suburban students: children at  St Benedict’s National School, Ongar. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Suburban students: children at St Benedict’s National School, Ongar. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Ireland’s experience of migration has been outward for most of its recent history. While much of Europe was dealing with inward migration after the second World War, Irish people were leaving for the UK, Australia and the US. It wasn’t until the 1990s and the Celtic Tiger that Ireland started to experience immigration in any significant way.

“If you actually look at immigration in Ireland compared to Britain or France, there are some good things and some bad things,” says Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, a social scientist at University College Cork. He points out that Ireland’s lack of colonial baggage has affected the immigrant experience here.

“Even a place such as Belgium, which is the size of Munster, had the Congo, which is the size of western Europe, so there are a whole lot of trappings that come with that. The racialisation of those kinds of relationships is enmeshed in the nature of how immigrants fit into British or French or Dutch or Belgian or other societies.”

Ireland doesn’t have that issue, he says. “One positive thing about that is there’s no strong political party in Ireland which is explicitly anti-immigrant or racist, and at this stage we’re nearly the only country in Europe that doesn’t have such a party.”

But Mac Éinrí says we’d be naive to think that a history free of colonialism somehow makes us nicer people. Most immigrants in Ireland are white Christians. “There is still a strong element of what you might call old-fashioned racial prejudice here, and it comes out against people whose skin colour is different”.

But it helps that “there isn’t that immediate and very scarring experience like, say, the French had in Algeria . . . There isn’t any of that baggage here, so it does make for an easier relationship.”