Conference told of attacks on Famine refugees


A conference on racism recalled at the weekend how Irish Famine refugees "were set upon and beaten in Britain".

Such was the prejudice against them that even Frederick Engels, benefactor of Karl Marx, could say of the Irishman: "His crudity places him little above the savage."

In a keynote address to the Irish School of Ecumenics conference at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, a Methodist Minister, Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, quoted from The Irish in Britain (1963) by John Archer Jackson.

"Their strange and `foreign' customs represented a threat to the native population. The Irishman's clothes, his brogue and general appearance, even when he was not speaking in Gaelic, singled him out from the rest of the community as an outsider, a stranger in the midst," it said.

Dr Yambasu, who is from Sierra Leone but ministers in Wicklow and Arklow, said that today, however, as strangers came to Ireland "willingly or forced by circumstances", fear of the stranger had taken ugly forms.

Nor was this recent. He quoted from the experiences of a Chilean refugee in the State since the early 1970s. "Racism and prejudice had a big effect on the Chilean refugees and caused many problems for our families . . . We looked and spoke differently from them and rather than talk with us they began to fight with us," he said.

Since 1991 more than 100 nationalities had sought refuge in Ireland, Dr Yambasu said. Scaremongering by some media and authorities had resulted "in an outpouring of racist physical, verbal and institutional abuse directed at anyone considered to be a refugee, especially if they are black". They were "the really unwelcomed strangers in our midst".