‘Once you are not lily-white or freckle-skinned, you are labelled as non-Irish’
Dr Mary Toomey, an Irish citizen for 45 years, arrived from Sri Lanka in 1967
Dr Mary Toomey: the ecologist cites Maya Angelou’s clear, simple message to show other human beings respect. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
“When you know better you can do better”
Dr Mary Toomey’s reference to this Maya Angelou quote remains cemented in my mind long after we meet. It’s early July and my first face-to-face New to the Parish interview after months of using Zoom to speak to people during lockdown.
I feel enormously relieved as I settle into an armchair in the livingroom of Dr Toomey’s home, in Deansgrange in south Co Dublin, and pull out my dictaphone, a pen and a notebook. This prominent ecologist cites the influential American poet and civil-rights activist numerous times during our chat. Angelou’s message is clear and simple, she tells me: show other human beings respect.
My meeting with Dr Toomey is not a regular New to the Parish interview. The woman facing me is in no way new to these shores. Yet she finds people still regard her as foreign and un-Irish.
I’ve been part of this society for well over 50 years, so I forget I’m considered an outsider. I’ve been an Irish citizen for 45 years, but even after all that time I wouldn’t dare refer to myself as Irish
“I’ve been part of this society for well over 50 years, so I forget I’m considered an outsider. I’ve been an Irish citizen for 45 years, but even after all that time I wouldn’t dare refer to myself as Irish.”
Originally from Sri Lanka, Dr Toomey arrived in Ireland in 1967 to do a PhD in ecology at Trinity College Dublin. She met and married Barry Toomey, an Irish engineer, and the couple had a daughter, who now lives in the United States.
“I elected to stay and live in Ireland because of the professional opportunities,” she explains before detailing a long list of accomplishments, which include writing the first biology textbook for Irish schools and travelling the world to give lectures about biology and gardening.
“I brought an immense amount of educational assets to this country – I travelled across Ireland showing teachers at primary and post-primary level how to teach science in schools. Two generations of student in this country used my books. I could have gone anywhere in the world with my qualifications, but I elected to stay here.”
When Dr Toomey arrived in Ireland most people were innocently curious about her darker skin. The arrogance and cynicism that come with becoming a wealthy nation replaced this curiosity with a desire to push away those from “poorer nations”, she says.
“For a long time we in this country were struggling. But from 1996 onwards Ireland crossed that line to become a place of wealth. There was this fear that people were coming here for a share of that pot.”
As a result, many people lost sight of the humanity of others, particularly during the 2004 citizenship referendum, says Dr Toomey. Ireland’s history of missionary work also contributed to this sense of superiority and reinforced the belief that we Irish were saving people in African countries, she says.
“Ireland needs to stop pretending we were not colonials. We gave pennies to ‘black babies’ so they would stay at home. When you bring home a Trócaire box what does that say to a child? It says these people need our help and we should save them.”
I would consider every child born in this country as Irish. But the problem is, once you are not lily-white or freckle-skinned, you are still labelled as non-Irish or a non-national
Irish people’s use of the term “Third World” to describe many African and Asian nations also denotes a perception of poverty and backwardness while western countries are guilty of stereotyping people from the continent of Africa, she says.
“There are 54 countries in Africa. We are the Irish, the Austrians, the Germans, the English. We don’t call ourselves Europeans all the time, so why do we still call anyone who is black African?”
A member of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil group, Dr Toomey was familiar with racism and discrimination long before coming to Ireland. “I’m a production of discrimination. People forget, racism is universal at all levels.”
However, she is eager to shift the focus from her life story to her thoughts on how Ireland has developed into a more multicultural nation.
Dr Toomey was deeply affected by the results of the 2004 citizenship referendum, which saw 79 per cent of Irish people voting to amend the Constitution so babies born in the Republic would not have an automatic right to citizenship unless one of their parents was Irish.
“I would consider every child born in this country as Irish. But the problem is, once you are not lily-white or freckle-skinned, you are still labelled as non-Irish or a non-national.”
The protection of children – regardless of nationality, race, caste, creed, physical and mental disability or socio-economic status – should be Ireland’s primary focus, she says. But, 16 years on from the referendum, Dr Toomey says racism towards children of colour in Ireland has become noticeably worse.
The recent report from the Ombudsman for Children on the racism children in direct provision suffer at school, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted her to contact The Irish Times.
Irish people, who are part of a “highly educated nation”, have a responsibility to use this education to build a more inclusive society, she says. “When you know better, you can do better,” Dr Toomey repeats.
The best thing we can give our children are roots and wings – roots to know that they belong somewhere and wings to fly away and exercise what they’ve been taught
If we want to end racism in this country, children must learn civics and the history of all nations at school, she says, adding that this change in attitudes rests in the hands of educators and parents.
“Of all the things we give a child, our words must be most carefully wrapped. It’s the duty of every parent, regardless of their level of education, to find the right words to answer their children’s questions.”
After 53 years in Ireland, Dr Toomey no longer dwells on where in this world she belongs. “I simply live each day and am grateful to the people who care and share. As a committed citizen of Ireland I am happy to be part of this nation and contribute my best locally and nationally. As I said, I forget I am still an outsider here.”
Her hope is young Irish people of colour growing up in Ireland today never feel this rootlessness.
“I want children growing up here to feel like they belong and are a part of this nation. The best thing we can give our children are roots and wings – roots to know that they belong somewhere and wings to fly away and exercise what they’ve been taught.”
A few days after we meet, Dr Toomey sends me an email with some follow-up thoughts.
“I realise most people are well intentioned but it is the impact of our words and actions that is important,” she writes. “I’m just hoping people who care to read your column will realise the need to do what they can do to make the lives of our children better.”