Rosita Boland: The very Irish term ‘blow-in’ stigmatises newcomers

A particularly Irish way to put people down, it says they’ll never belong, no matter how hard they try

‘It’s a very Irish way of putting people down, most especially those newcomers to a place.’ Photograph: iStock

‘It’s a very Irish way of putting people down, most especially those newcomers to a place.’ Photograph: iStock

 

“I’m only a blow-in.”

“No, I’m not from here. I’m a blow-in.”

“Ah, I’m just a blow-in. Only been here 30 years.”

I cannot count the number of times I have heard versions of these statements over the years. Sometimes I hear them all in a single day. This summer I was on the road a lot, and the expression “only a blow-in” was again faithfully repeated to me like a cultish mantra in locations both urban and rural all over the country.

In Ireland we all hear some version of those words daily or weekly, no matter the size of the community we live in. They are words I wonder if anyone really hears any more, whether it’s the person saying them or the person listening. They have become accepted rote.

Does anything sound familiar about this narrative? Does the xenophobic nationalism peddled by the far-right media in Britain ring any blow-in bells? Of strangers coming in here, stirring things up, and taking our houses and our jobs?

The notion that someone’s right to belong in a community is based on the fact that they were born there, and have lived there all their life, is ridiculous. It’s also dangerous to automatically classify new members of a community as outsiders due entirely to the fact of their having been born elsewhere.

Does anything sound familiar about this narrative? Does the xenophobic nationalism peddled by the far-right media in Britain ring any blow-in bells? Of strangers/migrants coming in here, stirring things up, and taking our houses and our jobs?

Oh, but we’re not like that here, you say. We are much more sound and much more sussed than those people over there, meaning those people in Britain who voted for Brexit, or those people in the United States who wanted a wall built between them and Mexico, to name just two long-running examples.

Is the “blow-in” narrative in Ireland really so different? It’s more subtle, but at base it is still just a slightly more lyrical way of declaring to outsiders: ‘You’re not welcome. At the very best, we’ll tolerate you. But step out of line and we have your number.”

It’s a very Irish way of putting people down. You can join as many local societies as you like, or volunteer to pick up rubbish from the shared streets we live in, or attempt to integrate into a community via schools, or through marriage, but the “blow-in” message is always that you don’t actually belong here: you never did and never will. It’s essentially a message about shaming the outsider.

‘I’m only a blow-in’ is usually delivered with a knowing laugh. Except it’s not funny at all. Behind this very Irish hierarchy is a flat message of small-mindedness and autocracy

For a country whose message to the wider world is that Ireland is the land of the céad míle fáilte, this could not be a more cynical contradiction. You may be welcome if you’re a tourist staying only a short time, with cash to spend, but in fact you’re not that welcome if you want to come and live in a community you weren’t born in.

What’s worse is that this unwritten rule is seemingly unquestioningly accepted by new arrivals to a place too. The expression “I’m only a blow-in” is usually delivered with a knowing laugh. Except it’s not funny at all. Behind this very Irish hierarchy within a community – where people such as priests were once at the top of the societal pile, whether from there or not, which is yet another twist of logic – is a flat message of small-mindedness and autocracy.

If you begin to unpick this I’m-only-a-blow-in rationale from the other side, from the perspective of the person “born, bred and buttered” in the place, something else becomes clear. A latent suspicion of otherness. Of travel and exploring other places, or new experiences. Of going away from the place you came from, and forging new friends, of living in different communities from the one you came from. Of broadening your mind, and opening it to other cultures, other ways of life, by living in other countries, or even simply living in the next county.

Is it really something to be proud of that you have never lived anywhere else your entire life except the place where you happened to be born?

I have thought about this “blow-in” culture a lot over the years, trying to puzzle out why it is so prevalent in Ireland, as insidious and strangling as Japanese knotweed.

To me, it all comes down to something we are grimly familiar with in Ireland: other people wanting to exert power and control over us

To me, it all comes down to something we are grimly familiar with in Ireland: other people wanting to exert power and control over us in different ways. In the past it was the Catholic Church. Its power has long since waned. So something else has seeped in to fill some of that gap.

To peddle the message that you do not belong to a community unless you – and preferably your ancestors – were born there and lived there all their lives is nothing less than a method of control. It is also one that has been remarkably effective. Because blow-ins are expected to know their place, and that is preordained to be a lesser one.

It’s time we stopped repeating this nonsensical stigmatic expression about only being a blow-in. It’s time to make our communities truly inclusive, and places where some people are less equal than others just because they were not born there.