‘I wear the double green shirts – Ireland and Pakistan’

New to the Parish: Kamal Merchant arrived from Pakistan in 1983 to play Irish cricket

 Kamal got his Irish citizenship last month. Photograph: Laura Hutton / The Irish Times

Kamal got his Irish citizenship last month. Photograph: Laura Hutton / The Irish Times

 

Kamal Merchant was in his mid-20s the first time he travelled to the island of Ireland. It was 1983 and the young Pakistani cricketer was looking for an opportunity to develop his skills overseas. Already a serious cricket player with the United Bank Limited team in Karachi, Merchant was offered a contract to spend five months playing with the Northern Irish Downpatrick Cricket Club.

“People talked about the Troubles but from the first day I couldn’t see anything like that. I got such a warm welcome from my club and I remember all the families helping me. I was the only Pakistani on the team.”

Born into a family of cricket lovers, Merchant played the sport from a young age, including a stint with Pakistan’s national junior team. Even at that early stage in his career, he felt the sport was “very competitive” and placed huge pressure on its younger players. But Merchant loved every moment and dreamed of playing for his country’s national team.

Following his first stint in Northern Ireland, Merchant was invited to return and play with Downpatrick the following season. In the years that followed he began dividing his time between Northern Ireland and Pakistan, spending April to September in Europe before returning to Karachi to play with United Bank for the rest of the year.

In 1985, Merchant married his wife Najma and brought her to visit Northern Ireland. “She liked it from the first day and never got bored,” he remembers. “We were the only Asians in the community apart from friends who lived 30 miles away. Every year on the 12th of July we’d go to see the bonfires and watch the bands. But we never got caught up with anything political.”

Kamal Merchant at the YMCA cricket club in Sandymount, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Kamal Merchant at the YMCA cricket club in Sandymount, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Merchant’s four daughters – Heena, Tayyaba, Amna and Mehk – also spent time in the North, with the two eldest girls briefly attending school in Downpatrick. However, Namja and the girls never formally moved over and lived in Pakistan for most of the year.

In 1994 Merchant moved to play with the Cliftonville club, keeping up the routine of spending half the year in Northern Ireland. He then moved to Dublin in 1999 to play with the YMCA club in Sandymount. “Dublin cricket was getting bigger and clubs were looking for me to coach kids. I had done coaching in Northern Ireland and it was going very well.”

At the time, Merchant’s goal was to open a cricket academy in Pakistan. He returned to his home country for a few years in the early 2000s but was back in Ireland in 2008 after his contract in Karachi ended. With the support of former Irish cricket captain Alan Lewis and other friends at the YMCA, Merchant secured a work permit to coach and play cricket in Dublin.

“I was desperate to get back into the game so up until 2012 I kept going back and forward from Pakistan. I was umpiring in Pakistan at that point.”

After a few years back in Ireland, a friend from YMCA suggested Kamal move here permanently with a view to applying for Irish citizenship and bringing his wife to live here. He learned he would only be able to visit Pakistan for one month of the year in order to qualify for Irish naturalisation but was keen to find a way to be with his wife (his daughters had grown up by this point) while continuing to coach cricket in clubs and schools across south Dublin.

He had found that young people in Ireland were “keen and enthusiastic” about cricket and willing to train “even in the wet and cold weather”. “Kids came from far away, from Balbriggan and Kildare. They’d travel hours for sessions, they’re so keen.”

Merchant underlines that he has “real pride” in his YMCA cricket club and says members have only ever been welcoming and helpful

In 2018, Merchant applied for citizenship. In February 2021 became a naturalised Irish citizen through the Government’s new “declaration of loyalty” system, which has temporarily replaced the in-person ceremonies that took place in Killarney and Dublin before the pandemic.

“It was an unbelievable feeling. After getting this paper I feel comfortable and at ease in every sense. This country has been so good to me and it’s easy to move around. No matter the time day or night, you always feel safe.”

While Merchant is hugely positive about his life in Ireland, he admits he has experienced racism on a handful of occasions. While briefly working as a taxi driver, he was racially abused one night by four younger customers.

“I had three girls and a boy in the car and he kept asking ‘why are you in my country’. I told him ‘I’m not here for taxi driving, this is my name, google my name. The next minute they apologised and said we never should have spoken like that. They didn’t know anything about my background. But I don’t get offended by these kinds of things, it was an exception.”

Kamal came from Pakistan to Northern Ireland more than 30 years ago and ended up settling here permanently.Photograph : Laura Hutton / The Irish Times
Kamal came from Pakistan to Northern Ireland more than 30 years ago and ended up settling here permanently.Photograph : Laura Hutton / The Irish Times

Merchant underlines that he has “real pride” in his YMCA cricket club and says members have only ever been welcoming and helpful. Parents of the young children he coaches regularly approach him in the supermarket to thank him for his work, he says. “That gives me such pleasure; the parents give me a lot of respect. It’s not easy to live in a foreign country without your family but my club make me feel like family.”

I’m more than happy I’ve made Ireland my home, you get so much respect from the people around you

Merchant is now planning to apply for his wife to join him in Ireland. “I’m hoping she can come over by the end of the year. The office is closed at the moment with Covid, it will take a while, but once she comes she can settle here.

“My wife sacrificed so much bringing up our four daughters. Living in Karachi for so many years without me wasn’t easy. But now the time has come that we can be here together.

“I’m more than happy I’ve made Ireland my home, you get so much respect from the people around you. I don’t have a single boring day here. The lifestyle here is easy and comfortable. I would like to thank the people of Ireland for welcoming me as an Irish citizen.

“II can proudly say that from now on I will officially be called the man wearing the double green shirts – Ireland and Pakistan.”