Whilst sitting and writing here, I am enjoying a nice coffee and provided to me by Bernie Coleman and family in the Spellman’s Motel in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon.
In January of this year, the Department of Justice and Equality on behalf of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme decided to contract the new owners of the AbbeyField Hotel and with a Cork based properties company and a group of investors in local housing grouped together to provide temporary accommodation for the incoming Syrian refugee families.
A town of welcoming.
Incredibly, since the beginning of the year, this small town has now welcomed up hundreds of Syrian refugees and these families are now waiting to be rehoused and integrated into homes and schools around the country.
The story of this remarkable town reminds me of other far places and how history does indeed repeat itself. At the time before the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852), the population of Ireland (then under British control) was almost nine million. The potato crop failed and we fled the island on ‘coffin ships’ in desperate need of opportunity. We Irish bombarded the shores of New York. We quickly moved into Boston and Chicago and surrounding hinterland. We escaped turmoil and poverty here in Éire. Our great great great grandparents, and ancestors were full of dreams and hope. Due to emigration and famine, the population of Ireland never reached those great heights like before. Many died on the journey but those who survived spread the USA and the UK like an ‘infected plague’.
For we were considered a plague. We were coming from a country infected by the potato blight. The land was of no use. The potato was the staple crop. Agriculture had failed. People starved and got sick. Lack of clean drinking water. Disease spread. The Irish were cast off as dirty drunks. Nothing to offer. Unemployed. Unskilled. Uneducated.
Despite this, we were eager to get down to work and get on with our lives. No matter how dirty, dangerous or degrading that job was.Now the locals of this town are showing empathy and talking to them here, they are very enthusiastic despite the influx and massive growth of the town in recent months.
We Irish were the immigrants on far off shores not so long ago. We have much in common with many Syrian families here now in this small town.
“The way of the little oak tree”
The Syrians we have met so far here are such friendly people. Many with good English. Much like the local people here! This cannot be stressed enough. Although the Roscommon/ Mayo accent is a little different to that I’m used to given the fact I have been living abroad for quite some time.
Those that I have met are eager to get on with their lives and put their past traumas behind them.
No wonder that the USA is often considered ‘the land of opportunity’. It was. Indeed, even before the famine, many of our ancestors had travelled to England to work in the steel, coal and iron industries at the turn of the Industrial Revolution (1750s onwards…)
Telling our story. The importance of the arts.
This tiny island is well known for its music, poets, culture and dance. It’s through the arts that we express ourselves and our identity. The phenomenal advances in technology give us platforms to show this. For a country so small, our culture of music and the arts has spread far and wide across the globe. The Irish know how to have a good time in more ways than one. This great U2 song reminds us of the past, of our ancestors and of how many villages, towns and cities in the USA grew and expanded over a long period of time.
Hospitality, openness, perseverance and determination.
In many places around the world, some of these stereotypes remain. However, as a country are also well known for our friendliness and hospitality. Perhaps the reason for this might be due to the fact that so many of us were welcomed on other shores and then returned to our small emerald isle to settle, marry, live and work. Could these feelings and character traits of perseverance, determination and overall sense of welcoming been passed on down through the generations? My great aunt moved to New York with a big family in the 1950s. Many of that family now have their own family. They live around the world. Some have moved home and some have moved elsewhere. These people are the kindest and friendliest people you could ever meet.
Stretching far and wide.
The Republic of Ireland has come full circle. Once we were the ones in dire need of food, clean drinking water, shelter, care and love. Some would argue that despite our small island, we are a country with far more resources than we used to have and that we should be taking in more refugees than we currently do. However, what is happening here in Ballaghadarreen is remarkable.
A big shout out to Pauline and Vinnie in Texas. To Jennifer and Sheridon and his family in Jamaica. To Valerie and Vincent and Takyo’s family in Japan! To my distant cousins who spent time in Hawaii and lived in Florida, California, Vancouver and Canada and beyond. My mum’s side of the family, in particular, spreads far and wide. Hello to my Aunty Anne in Greece, my half Irish and half Greek cousins Ricky and Tara. A big hello to my Godmother Carol living in Swindon in the UK for the past thirty odd years. To my cousins Mark and Niamh who have travelled and lived abroad far off places. They have travelled much more extensively than I ever have!
Many thanks to those of you in Spellman’s Motel for their lovely hospitality.