Noel Whelan: Migrants revitalise and renew us
Their life stories and their heritage will be part of the narrative of our country’s future
Heba Alsharbaty (Mother) , Khilood Jaddoa (Grandmother) of 10 Month Old Yousif Hussein and (Grand father) Fadhil Alsharbaty origionally from Baghdad in Iraq, now living in Rathfarnham during the first of three citizenship ceremonies held at the Convention Centre earlier this year. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
On Wednesday US president Barack Obama altered his schedule to represent the United States government at a naturalisation ceremony in Washington. His effort to attend the event was clearly designed as a retort to the anti-immigrant rhetoric prominent in US politics recently, most noticeably out of the mouth of Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.
Thirty-one emigrants were formally granted US citizenship at the event. Their countries of origin included Uganda, Jamaica, Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong and Iraq. Also among them was Michael Hennessy, from Westmeath, who moved to Washington in 1999 to work in the hospitality industry. He is now sales and marketing manager of the Washington Mayflower hotel. He told Simon Carswell, this paper’s Washington correspondent, that he took out citizenship so that he can vote in US elections.
Watching the event online was quite moving, in part because I had the honour of attending a similar naturalisation ceremony this week with a family friend who became an Irish citizen in Dublin.
These events on both sides of the Atlantic were simple and solemn ceremonies marking the formal conferring of citizenship. Each featured some military music and colours. Each featured short speeches from a politician. At the heart of both ceremonies was the taking of an oath in which the new citizens swore fidelity to their adoptive nation.
Naturalised citizensIn the years before Ireland experienced substantial immigration, naturalised citizens were simply posted out their certificate or were invited to swear an oath in front of a district judge at the start of an ordinary court day. However, 4½ years ago, Alan Shatter, the then minister for justice, moved to formalise these occasions. Now several such ceremonies are conducted in one day every six months or so in the impressive setting of the Convention Centre Dublin.
Since 2011, 94,000 people from 127 countries have become Irish citizens by means of this procedure.
In Washington, Obama spoke of how just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants. America however, he said, was unique: “We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals – we are born of immigrants. That is who we are. Immigration is our origin story.”
Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, whose responsibilities include “new communities”, represented the Irish Government at the ceremony I attended in Dublin. He too seemed genuinely moved by the occasion. It was his third citizenship ceremony that day but he spoke in a manner that clearly appreciated that, for the recipients, this was probably the most important single moment of their recent lives.
After they had sworn their oath he joked that they were now as entitled as the rest of us to give out about the Irish weather. He spoke too about how, for many of his generation, this time of the year was particularly moving as we grew up because siblings had emigrated; we missed them in a special way on Christmas Day or, if they had travelled home, knew that the family would have to say goodbye to them again early in the new year. Although the audience included many different religions, the sighs of recognition of separation and loneliness at holiday time were almost audible in the hall.
Ó Ríordán spoke about the unifying and inclusive symbolism of our national flag and how the white represented the need for reconciliation between the nationalist and unionist traditions. He spoke of how, as a nation, Ireland has learned in recent times to be more open to a wider diversity of traditions and culture.
Obama recounted how eight of those who signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 were immigrants. Ó Ríordán spoke of how two of the seven men who signed our Proclamation in 1916, James Connolly and Tom Clarke, were born outside Ireland.
In the US, Obama told the gathering how, as and from the moment of their naturalisation, the stories of the new citizens were “woven into the larger story of this nation . . . You have rights and responsibilities and now you have to help us write the next chapter of America’s history.” Similarly, Ó Ríordán told those in Dublin that our national history was now part of their history and their life stories and their heritage would be part of the narrative of our country’s future.