The Irish should know better than to fear immigration

The Irish should know better than to fear immigration

It’s not so long ago that there were people in this country who we were able to dismiss and put behind the walls of Magdalene Laundries or Industrial Schools.

We did this because we made those people, for instance unmarried mothers or children from poor families, different.

Different from us. Different in the way we thought about them. And different in the way we spoke about them.

We developed, as a society, habits of thought that made these people lesser and other. And we gave voice to those thoughts.

We did it, perhaps without realising it, but we did it. And they went behind those walls with our words ringing in their ears. And we all know now what happened to them once they were there.

Those who dismiss the importance of words might like to remember that.

Those who insist they find political correctness, society’s current attempt to negotiate our language, so smothering might like to remember that.

Those who somehow insist they can’t say what they want to say. Even as they say it.

The latest of these was the billionaire, ex-childhood pupil of the €20,000 per year fee paying school Clongowes Wood College, and self-styled plain-spoken-everyday-I’m-just-like-you-Irishman Michael O’Leary.

O’Leary began with that classic refrain of those who are about to say something about race or gender or disability by stating that ‘you can’t say stuff’ even as he said it.

In fact he said he couldn’t say it in the middle of saying it.

Now I know we all live in a Donald Trump universe where lying is a given but we are going to have to start challenging all these people who can’t say what it is we are actually hearing them say.

In O’Leary’s case he told a British newspaper, speaking on the topic of airport security, that bombers “will generally be males of a Muslim persuasion”.

The irony of an Irishman saying this can’t have been lost on him as in the very same sentence, he added “thirty years ago it was the Irish”, but I’m not sure the deliberate crassness that is Ryanair’s business model has much room for irony.

Even our Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, by no means a radical politician, called O’Leary’s views “simplistic and lazy”.

Of course, there are people with prejudice in Ireland. We can’t sit around all day congratulating ourselves on being the lovely Irish with céad míle fáilte tattooed on our hearts.

Our newest Dail has in it at least four TDs who have been elected after expressing offensive and reactionary views. Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins, and Verona Murphy. All four of those saw the electoral appeal of saying stuff that you can’t apparently say.

Somehow, like O’Leary, like Trump, these types of people turn reality upside down.

They say stuff they apparently can’t say.

They speak as if racism is primarily a problem white people face, that opposing discrimination against that half of the population who are women has gone too far, that the unheard, oppressed voices of the world, are those of our billionaires.

Yes, they turn the world upside down and some are foolish enough to follow them and think that is how the world is.

Irish society is a society shaped and formed by the experience of the immigrant.

Immigration into Ireland might be relatively new but the Irish person as an immigrant is the most defining experience any Irish society has.

It is what the Irish are. Immigrants. In that way it can’t be too much to hope that the Irish, of any people, should know that this idea we are sold of immigrants being bad, of immigration being bad, is a falsehood that serves the purposes of others not us.

The idea that immigrants want to kill us or steal our jobs or our houses is as old as immigration itself. In the current climate of rising nationalism and keyboard cowards whose only weapon is their hostility surely the Irish know enough to know lies about immigrants when they hear them.

And Irish society knows enough now to know where words can lead us, where they end up.

We don’t have to look into the dark history of 1930s, 1940s Europe to see that.

We just have to look at Letterfrack and Tuam, Bessboro and Artane. We just have to look around us. We know this. We know it if we know at all who we are.

We can’t pretend we don’t.