Ballaghaderreen locals feel compassion for refugees but unease
'I think Irish people are sympathetic because after the Famine, where would we have been?'
Douglas Hyde used to pop into Gallagher’s shop on Main Street Ballaghaderreen for his morning newspaper and no doubt would have had his own views on the debate swirling around the festive Christmas lights still illuminating the town’s market square yesterday.
Mary Gallagher, the woman of the house, had her own views which reflected the mixture of compassion and unease voiced by many in the Roscommon town.
“Wouldn’t it break your heart to see Aleppo” she remarked, expressing sorrow for the people of “St Paul’s country” who have seen their homeland devastated. “It’s like a broken jigsaw,” said Mary who also tut-tutted about the way words like “racist” and “bigot” can be bandied.
“If they are Syrian, they are welcome – as long as they are not infiltrated by jihadists,” she said.
Standing in the doorway of the shop which is approaching its 200th anniversary she pointed out all the closed-up businesses and declared that Ballaghaderreen had got “an awful kicking” in recent years. With some reporting that 14 different nationalities live in the town of about 3,000 Mary Gallagher worried that there is a “fearful resentment” bubbling beneath the surface.
“I think Irish people are sympathetic because after the Famine, where would we have been?”, she said.
If there was a pattern in the commentary in Ballaghaderreen after the announcement that 80 Syrians will be moving into the former Abbeyfield hotel in a matter of weeks, it was a mixture of exasperation at the lack of consultation by the powers that be, and compassion from those who have endured hell on earth.
One woman waved away the reporter’s notebook in a fury. “I am raging with the way this has been done,” she said.
Joe Quinn, a farmer in his seventies from two miles outside the town took his time when asked for his opinion. “I think it is good they are coming to Ballaghaderreen – especially for the kids,” he said. “But the people in charge should have let people know about this 12 months ago. Everything is underhand in this country.”
Mr Quinn says he doesn’t like to think of children sleeping out exposed to the elements. Asked if other people would be as sympathetic to the Syrian newcomers he seemed uncertain. “It’s early days.”
Retired public servant Frank Grehan had no reservations. “They deserve a chance. Everyone deserves a chance in life,” he said. Pointing to the number of Irish people who had sought a better life in Australia, Canada and the US, he said there should be no worries about who might come under cover of the genuine refugees. “The law is there to deal with anything like that.”
People who expressed unease about the number of immigrants already in Ballaghaderreen, mostly preferred not to give their names. A significant Pakistani community was first attracted to Ballaghaderreen by work in the former Dawn Meats factory. Some locals believe the numbers have swelled since Brexit with more people of Pakistani origin moving from the UK in recent months.
In Kelly’s TV and electrical shop, managing director Gerry Doherty said the news yesterday morning was like a “bolt out of the blue”.
He was adamant that he does have sympathy with the people of Syria but wondered would they be better off in a bigger town with more facilities. “People are annoyed,” said Mr Doherty who believes that the loss of AIB and the opening of the bypass has added to the gloom. “It was unfair the way this news was released,” he said reiterating the widespread anger that people were kept in the dark until the last possible minute.
A short distance away camera crews were pulling in at the former four-star Abbeyfield hotel where the gates were shuttered and forbidding signs warned of CCTV cameras and asked “unauthorised persons” to keep out.
The words on the street were a lot more welcoming even among those who feel they should have had a say in this latest chapter in their town’s illustrious history.