Last March, the organisers of a meeting in Lismore, called to help a Syrian refugee family as they arrived in the picturesque Waterford town, had an uneasy feeling as they looked on the 160 people gathered in the community centre.
"We had an idea it was possible some far-right people might come along maybe. We knew from online chatter that they had got it into their heads that a direct provision centre was going to open in the town," says Lynne Glasscoe of the Lismore Welcome Project.
But Glasscoe says she was not prepared for the level of organisation they displayed, or how disruptive they would be: “There were eight or 10 of them spread throughout the room. They were very, very well organised and they were live-streaming the whole meeting.”
Frequently, they interrupted, asking questions about direct provision, despite it having been made clear from the off that just one Syrian family was coming, and that no centre was planned.
One, self-styled citizen journalist Rowan Croft asked Minister of State David Staunton to guarantee that no members of Islamic State are in direct provision. Another claimed the Government "intends" to bring two million Syrians to Ireland.
“It was getting quite tense. They were trying to provoke us and we refused to be provoked,” Glasscoe said. “They weren’t listening. There was lots of yahooing. There was shouting that you’re going to be raped or killed on the street.”
By the end, though, the interruptions had had little effect, she said, with the vast majority present happy to welcome the Syrian family, who have settled in well since.
In recent weeks, some of what happened in Lismore has played out in Oughterard. Unlike Lismore, Oughterard is being considered for a direct provision centre that could hold "less than 250" asylum seekers. In a town of more than 1,300, this has caused alarm.
As a result, the Connemara town has found itself in the crosshairs of a loose, but increasingly-sophisticated network of far-right and anti-immigration activists which sees such controversies as valuable vehicles for their message.
Fears in Oughterard existed before the far-right became involved. Since then, however, anti-immigration campaigners have attempted to steer the debate itself and exploit the resulting publicity. With some success, it must be said.
It has become a familiar pattern in rural towns. Local rumours of a centre spread quickly. A lack of information from the Government creates a vacuum. That vacuum is quickly filled by far-right online traffic.
Videos and other content is quickly created, and shared widely – not just to influence the local debate, but the national one, too. It is difficult to gauge how successful these tactics are.
Initially, some in Oughterard, including one of the main organisers, Patrick Curran appeared to welcome outside anti-immigration voices. Now they want to exclude them, fearing that they will be tarred by association.
One of the main agitators travelling to towns earmarked for direct provision or asylum housing is Gearóid Murphy, a Cork man, who has visited Oughterard, Lismore, Lisdoonvarna and Roosky.
Murphy frequently promotes far-right talking points on social media, particularly a conspiracy theory claiming the aim of western governments is to replace native populations with immigrants for economic reasons.
In a now-deleted tweet, Murphy describes his political views as “probably somewhere between libertarianism and national socialism with a touch of Christian ethos”.
In 2017 he posted a series of tweets expressing sympathy for white nationalists marching in Charlottesville in the US. Following the march, during which an anti-racism protester was murdered by a neo-Nazi, Murphy posted: "I can't imagine how surreal and frankly terrifying it felt for WNs in Charlottesville. And while I obviously don't condone the car attack..."
A two-hour YouTube video from Murphy criticising the Government and the "asylum industry" was widely shared in Oughterard and praised by some as "a one-stop shop" for information about direct provision.
Such towns, he says, should “identify and marginalise” Government-connected moles, subverters and intimidators within their ranks “who are lurking among you.”
Advising locals to engage in Machiavellian thinking, he states: “They can have no part in this discussion about your community. And they certainly should not be representing you and speaking for you.”
Public meetings are useful, too, to drum up support, especially if they are video-taped, and shared online. His advice, he says, was given in Rooskey, and it worked.
Patrick Curran, a businessman who helps lead the "Oughterard says No to inhumane direct provision centres" campaign initially praised the video which he called, in a Facebook post, "extremely factual and well put together".
Murphy filmed the Oughterard meeting, capturing Independent TD Noel Grealish’s declaration that African asylum seekers are sponging “off the system here”.
The meeting was also addressed by Gerry Kinneavy, a local organiser for the far-right National Party whose leader Justin Barrett has been linked in the past to a German neo-Nazi group.
Kinneavy said Ireland should follow Poland and Hungary's anti-immigration lead. Leaflets critical of the asylum system containing some misleading claims were distributed by Curran and others.
Murphy said he distributed similar leaflets in Rooskey, stating, among other things, the false claim that asylum seekers are given priority on housing lists. This, he admitted in a YouTube video, was “a little bit sketchy”. (After publication of this article, Murphy contacted The Irish Times saying he "misspoke" in the video and that leaflets containing the false claim were never distributed.)*
He was joined in Rooskey by Rowan Croft, a former builder and soldier in the British army, who now campaigns against immigration on YouTube under the name Grand Torino.
Today, it is one of the more popular Irish far-right channels on YouTube, where he has interviewed Irish Freedom Party's Hermann Kelly and Jim Dowson, founder of the anti-Islam Britain First party.
Most of Croft's videos portray migration negatively, or promote other far-right talking points such as Qanon, a conspiracy theory that the American "Deep State" is secretly plotting to topple US president Donald Trump.
In a broadcast in March referring to demographic changes and globalisation, Croft said Ireland is changing drastically but may go “feral again and become the barbarians that we were”.
He added: "Just because we don't have the right to bear arms doesn't mean we don't have them." Croft, who funds his activities through soliciting donations and selling merchandise branded with his face, was not in Oughterard. Instead, he was at a rally in Italy for the far-right Italian League party where he posed for selfies with party leader and former interior minister Matteo Salvini. Neither Murphy or Croft responded to an interview request from The Irish Times.
The vast majority of local concerns in Oughterard are not grounded in anti-immigration or racist sentiment. There are signs from the campaign’s Facebook page that many locals are angry that they are being exploited by anti-immigration campaigners.
"(Most) people of Oughterard would have no idea who these individuals are," says Joe Loughnane, chair of the Galway Anti-Racism Network and former People Before Profile local election candidate. "They would have no reason to suspect their motives."
It is a view echoed on the campaign’s main Facebook page. One member complained about people who appeared to be on their side “but a quick click into their profiles confirmed extreme right-wing agendas”.
But locals remain angry about the issues raised – the lack of services, a belief that no background checks will be done on those who will come there if the project goes ahead, and the refusal of the State to involve locals.
If there is frustration with the far-right input, many in Oughterard are also angry with left-wing activists who they believe are trying to brand their town, and them, as racist.
Loughane was removed from the Facebook group after one member complained. Curran said the page had been made private because “people with a political agenda” were trying to sabotage the conversation.
Although initially appearing appreciative of Murphy’s help, including his assistance in setting up a petition, Curran has told The Irish Times that he wants to distance the campaign from any political ideology, left or right.
“From the beginning we’ve had people trying to hijack our cause from both sides. Left-wing people are trying to brand us as racist and we’ve had right-wing people trying to infiltrate Oughterard and try to influence the campaign.”
Curran, who described himself as a “centrist”, says he has “dropped” Murphy from the Facebook group. He also says he rejected an offer from National Party leader Justin Barrett to make a speech at the protest on Tuesday.
In their public comments, campaigners now focus on the “inhumanity” of the direct provision system rather than concerns about those in it. Racist commentary on the Facebook page will not be tolerated, Curran says.
"Even if it was 300 guys from Belmullet we would be campaigning," he says. Not everyone on the group is on message however. A comment posted when the group was set up last week wrote that Ireland was at risk of being "governed by foreigners" who would rule "under sharia law" while a video from the Irish-born white supremacist Stefan Molyneux was also shared.
Murphy, Croft and their associates are part of a growing online network of Irish anti-immigration activists, nearly all of whom are strong supporters of Gemma O’Doherty, who tried and failed to get a nomination last year to run in the presidential election.
‘Great Replacement’ theory
Since then, O’Doherty has been active almost daily online, proposing, amongst other things, that governments are blocking out the sun with chemicals to perpetrate the “climate change hoax”.
Croft has repeatedly attended O’Doherty’s long-running demonstration outside Google’s offices in Dublin against its decision to block her YouTube channel after it ruled that it breached their hate speech rules – a charge she vigorously denies.
One of the key aims of the far-right activists seems to be to use situations like Oughterard to gain the attention and amplification of far-right personalities abroad. In this they are sometimes successful.
Katie Hopkins, the British media personality and far-right political commentator, has tweeted about Oughterard, claiming locals are "afraid for their country".
Laura Southern, a prominent Canadian white nationalist, who is banned from entering the UK, was welcomed to Ireland last year by Croft while making an anti-immigration documentary.
A common talking point among most, if not all, is the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory which argues that Western populations are being systematically replaced with Third World immigrants, leading to the eradication of Western culture.
Irish proponents of the “Great Replacement” theory charge, without evidence, that the Government’s Ireland 2040 investment is a bid to replace the native-born population.
The claims gained international attention thanks to a video by Molyneux which gained hundreds of thousands of views before being removed from YouTube.
The Irish version of the Great Replacement theory is often linked with the legalisation of abortion.
"The first thing they want to do is kill Irish kids and [they] want to replace them with every nationality who wants to come into our country," Irish Freedom Party leader Hermann Kelly told Croft in an interview this year.
In essence, it is an updated version of the “white genocide” theory which often claimed Jewish people were behind attempts to wipe out white people through inter-marriage and immigration, according to Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, a geography lecturer at UCC who specialises in migration.
“I know this will all sound crazy but the extraordinary thing is (a) the extent to which these people have bought into this (b) the fact that the same core beliefs come up, again and again, in different places (c) the fact that for people who hate globalists they are themselves a global movement,” Mac Éinrí said via email.
Ireland’s far-right and anti-immigration activists regularly promote each other, appear on each other’s platforms and occasionally solicit donations for each other.
Many of their videos are diatribes alleging that Irish culture is being destroyed. Others, such as Murphy’s are more technical, drawing on official statistics to argue immigration is a deliberate Government policy to drive down wages and living conditions.
A favourite tactic by some such as O'Doherty and Croft is to highlight crimes committed by non-Irish people. Last July Croft travelled to Courtown, Co Wexford to "investigate" the alleged rape of a Dublin teenager in the town.
He spent much of the short video he made in the town speaking about asylum seekers being accommodated in Courtown and complained that nobody wants to speak about “the elephant in the room” in relation to rising reports of sexual assault. There is no evidence to connect the rape to asylum seekers.
Despite their increasing sophistication, the network of far-right and anti-immigrant remains a loose one, united by similar talking points and tactics rather than any overarching organisation.
At first glance they also seem to be having little impact politically. O'Doherty got 1.8 per cent of the vote when she ran for a European Parliament seat in May while the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party have yet to win a seat in any forum.
However, there is some evidence that the rhetoric is bleeding into mainstream political discourse. Grealish has so far declined to retract his "spongers" comment, while some TDs, including Cork's Michael Collins, have refused to condemn him.
Greater leadership by politicians is needed, says Bryan Fanning, UCD’s professor of migration and social policy. The vast majority of Irish politicians are not racist but they do not try to calm fears.
“It isn’t rocket science, there needs to be far more engagement with communities. Direct provision is a dreadful system but it’s also an imposition on local communities. We’re sending people into these communities on bad terms,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Oughterard campaign leaders say the vigil outside the Connemara Gateway Hotel will continue and insist the help of the far-right is not welcome.
"We have always welcomed people of all races and creeds," Curran said in a WhatsApp message last week accompanying a photo of local restaurateur Sammy Nawi, who is from Morocco, bringing food to the protesters.
“We are making a stand for something that is right and we have the people behind us.”
* This article was amended on September 27th 2019.