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Fintan O’Toole: Do Fine Gael MEPs ever think about their own recent ancestors?

Migrant workers, like our ancestors, are heroes and heroines of the global economy

While 39 people were dying in a trailer in Essex, the fruit was rotting on the trees in Kent. Sixteen million apples have been left as a windfall for the foxes and the worms. Autumn in England may be John Keats’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, but the blueberries and the strawberries and the raspberries are being left for the birds.

The mercenary army of migrant labourers from eastern Europe that English farmers rely on has not taken the field this year, deterred by the fall in the value of sterling and the uncertainties of Brexit. Only when they are not there do such people matter. Only when they die on land, near to us, (drowning in the sea does not count) do they have names, like Pham Thi Tra My, who texted her mother in rural north Vietnam: "I'm sorry Mum. My journey abroad hasn't succeeded. Mum, I love you so much! I'm dying because I can't breathe."

Money order offices

Not so long ago, we were those people. At the front of Myles na gCopaleen's satiric novel An Béal Bocht, there is a map of the world as seen by the people of the west of Ireland. The dotted lines moving north are keyed as "Pratie hokers' routes" – pratie (or tatie) hokers being the migrant labourers from Donegal who went to pick the potato crop in Scotland. The most crucial features of the lands to the east and west, representing Britain and the United States, are marked MO for "money order office", just as in most big Irish towns today, as in every western city, the places where the rich and poor worlds really overlap are Small World, Western Union, MoneyGram.

For most of the last 150 years, there were Irish versions of Pham Thi Tra My all over the English-speaking world – except that their journeys succeeded. We too had our coffin ships, but after them our passage was seldom fatal. We were white, English-speaking and for the most part legal. But many of us did the same kind of jobs that she and her kind do now in the rich world, the lousy ones beneath the natives. We did them for exactly the same reasons, reasons that are deliberately obscured in so much of the political discourse about migration. When migrants are condemned as opportunists or praised as rugged individualists, what is left out is that most of them are not just seeking to better themselves. They are trying to earn money for their families.


Of all western European peoples, we have the least excuse for not knowing this. For decade after decade, a big part of the Irish economy was the silent flow of money from the invisible people. The term “emigrants’ remittances” was part of the national economic discourse. Between 1940 and 1970Irish migrant workers in Britain sent the equivalent of €5.7 billion back to their families in Ireland. Nearly as much again came from the US and other countries. Just as, now that we are part of the rich world, €785 million was transferred out of Ireland last year by migrants sending money back home to their families. There are surely, in the mental maps of some communities in eastern Europe and the Philippines and India, places all over an imagined Ireland marked MO.

Fine Gael MEPs

I wonder whether the four Fine Gael MEPs who voted last week to block a European Parliament resolution to try to stop migrants drowning in the Mediterranean ever think about their own recent ancestors, just a generation or two back. Did a migrant worker ever pay for a new barn, or for the house to be wired for electricity, or for a kid to be sent to school, or for a communion outfit or a cataract operation? If not, they are unlike most Irish people I have ever known. But if so, did it never cross their minds that the best way to honour the memories of those benefactors might be just to try not to be the kind of hard-faced, thoughtless fool who makes life (and death) so miserable for their successors in today’s world?

Last year, migrant workers worldwide sent €621 billion home to their families. For low- and middle-income countries, these remittances are larger than all the foreign direct investment plus all the official development assistance they receive.

We are rightly proud of Ireland’s aid programmes, but if you want to see the real Irish aid programme go to your local post office or money transfer service where the doctor and the nurse, the technician and the security man, the carer and the porter and the cleaner are filling out the forms. They are the heroes and heroines of the global economy, doing more than governments and corporations to keep it in some kind of balance, however tenuous.

We know them. They are our grandparents and aunts and uncles. They are not commodities to be trafficked or spectres to frighten voters with. They do work that needs to be done. They have names and lives and families and the same desire for decency and dignity as we have. They are us and, if we let them die so casually, we kill something in ourselves.