Sometimes it feels that history repeats itself and only the names change. This is certainly the case with the current refugee crisis which parallels many previous refugee crises and migrant waves. People fleeing war and poverty in the search of a better life is not a new occurrence, in fact you could say it’s an eternal issue. Other writers have drawn attention to how current attitudes to Muslims resemble that towards Jews in the 30s and 40s (the family of Anne Frank applied for refugee status but were rejected). I can also see a strong resemblance between Muslims and my own people, the Irish.
Leaving the country and migrating to another country is a huge part of our history, more so than practically anyone else. In fact emigration has had such an influence that the language of emigration, English, even replaced Irish as the main language of Ireland. For centuries, we’ve been going abroad to find a better life and in the process facing sometimes hostile reactions. There are tens of millions of people with Irish heritage around the world, which is very impressive for a small island with only 5 million inhabitants. The foundations of America, Canada and Australia were laid by Irish people.
The Great Famine (referred to as the Irish Potato Famine by non-Irish people, for us, the Irish and potato part is goes without saying) caused the greatest exodus of Irish, as more than a million people (out of a total population of eight million) fled the country. This was not a planned migration of skilled workers, prepared for a new life, for the most part, they were poor unskilled, illiterate people with no savings or idea what they would do when they arrived abroad. Their religion seemed strange and superstitious, almost pagan. Many of them didn’t even speak English or spoke it with an incomprehensible accent. Even the transport was desperate, the ships were so awful and conditions were so bad that they became known as “coffin ships”.
Nor were the destinations ready for them. Britain and America already had plenty of poor people and not much social services to provide for them. Instead the Irish mostly crowded into already overcrowded slums in the cities. Some say that the situation was different because America had space for them, but this ignores the fact that most of the land belonged to Native Americans and that the vast majority of the initial wave of Irish stayed in the cities. They simply didn’t have the capital to travel west, buy land and farm equipment.
The reaction of the British and Americans is very similar to the modern reaction to Muslim immigration. They feared they would be drowned by the waves of foreigners and their alien culture. Many explained the multiple ways in which Irish culture simply couldn’t mix with English culture, they were just too different. How could ignorant peasants from such a backward culture possibly cope in a modern industrial society? Most of them didn’t even speak English! Many warned that it would be the end of civilisation as we know it and high barriers must be built against them.
Their religion also was a cause for concern as Catholicism was treated with a sense of suspicion that seems bizarre today. Catholics were seen as superstitious and untrustworthy as their first loyalty was supposedly to the Pope instead of the government. Catholicism was seen as backward, a religion that censored what believers were allowed to read and even think, that restricted their right to choose even about crucial life issues like divorce and contraceptives. It was hostile to other religions, insisting that it was “The One True Church” and all others were false. To marry a non-Catholic, permission was needed from the bishop and only given on the condition that the children would be raised as Catholics.
There was also the host of stereotypes: they drank too much, they were violent, always fighting, and even wife beating somehow became a stereotype. There was always the whiff of dynamite, a suspicion that the Irish were supporters of terrorists and would aid foreign enemies like the French and Germans. There was anti-Irish riots and job advertisements that explicitly said “No Irish Need Apply” (and a lot more which did so more discreetly).
Ellis Island is a place with special meaning for Irish people. Here, immigrants were examined and it was decided whether or not to let them in. To the Americans, it was a necessity to keep hordes of diseased and violent masses from overwhelming the country. To us Irish, it was a place of heartbreak where families could be separated and people who came all this way, were rejected and forced to return alone or die on the island. It was a place where uncomprehending officials would often change the name of migrants taking their heritage away at a stroke. I wonder how many people would have died or been left in dire poverty had more stringent requirements (such as certification that they didn’t support revolutionaries) been imposed.
Of course, there was also the threat of terrorism. The Irish were infamous for their rebellions against the English which occurred at least once a generation. Arguably the first modern terrorist campaign was launched by Irish revolutionaries when they planted bombs across England in the 1880s. In fact, up until 9/11 the stereotypical terrorist was more likely to be Irish than Muslim (especially in Britain). During the Troubles, a lot of pressure was put on the Irish in Britain and many were infamously arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. Many presumed that Irish and IRA supporter were the same thing. In fact, loyalist paramilitaries would kill random Catholics because they presumed that by definition they supported the IRA. Revolutionary activity continued in America and even one of the main rebel groups, the Fenians, were founded in New York. There were even several attempts to invade Canada from America (which all ended in disaster). The submarine was originally invented to smuggle weapons into Ireland. For about 150 years, America was a major source of funding for revolutionaries and to this day Irish Americans have a reputation for being more extreme than the Irish themselves on the national question.
Every Irish person faces question of how much of their culture they will keep when they move abroad. No matter what, we always (even without knowing so) take on some of the local culture. In olden times, the demands were much stronger, assimilation was demanded. People presumed they wouldn’t return so there was no point in keeping their culture and this played a major role in the decline of the Irish language, even in Ireland. English was needed abroad, not Irish. Most Irish people regret the loss of our language and culture, yet demand that new immigrants must suffer the same.
So the Irish assimilated. Sometimes this happened quickly, sometimes it took years, but usually the second generation had little of the original culture and the third next to none. Most Irish people view Irish-Americans as Irish in name only. It was a somewhat rocky road as the Irish formed criminal gangs, ran corrupt political machines, planned revolutions, but in the end they assimilated. Now the Irish are seen as a core part of America and many boast that the Irish built America.
Nowadays the Muslims are following the same path. Many are fleeing from poor and/or violent countries in search for a better life. The Mediterranean today contains many coffin ships and like the old song, thousands are sailing. Likewise, they are often met with suspicion and mistrust. The internet is full of fear mongering about how Islamic immigration will supposedly destroy Western Civilisation and Islam is too backward to co-exist with progressive Western culture. The leading candidate of a major party in the largest and most influential Western nation, wants to ban all Muslim immigration of all sorts.
It is the Muslims turn to be tarred as revolutionaries and terrorists and to fall under suspicion. They have now replaced the Irish (and Communists) as the greatest fear of many, the enemy within. Just as all Irish people were held responsible for the IRA and felt shame that such murders were being carried out in our name, Muslims too have to suffer having their name and identity hijacked by extremists. The murderers and killers of innocents, who are deeply unpopular in their own community (contrary to what many outsiders think, most of us don’t view the IRA as heroes) are taken to be representatives of the whole community.
Muslims are supposedly very backward in their treatment of women, homosexuals and people of other faiths, which is bizarre, because the Bible is just as bad as the Koran. Up until recently, Ireland too was disgracefully intolerant of these issues too. Homosexuality was illegal as was divorce, contraceptives and our constitution still states that a woman’s place is in the home. The Irish were conservative in their ways and many left Ireland precisely for this reason. Many gave “Catholic Ireland” little hope of becoming a modern, liberal country, yet here we are.
So history repeats itself. Just as in the past crowds of Irish fled to America, now Muslims fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are coming to Europe. As before this has lead to hysterical doomsayers proclaiming the end of the world, proclamations that are just as inaccurate this time. Now it is the turn of all Muslims to be forced to apologise for actions they had nothing to do with and despise themselves. Now they are forced to prove their innocence and prove their loyalty. This wave of hatred will eventually pass and future generations will wonder how decent Muslims, who are as much a part of Western society as anyone else, were ever treated with suspicion.