Ancient Irish Racism

I was in Tubber yesterday to stock up on rations. I managed to find one of the treasured parking spots on double yellow lines outside Sorlis’s supermarket. You know, Dan, right by the new pedestrian crossing which no-one uses. Uncle John came along for the ride, knowing that he would be able to sneak out of the car and into the snug when I stopped for diesel at the Roaring Cock filling station on the way home.

John was sat in the car on Tubber’s high street whilst I was in the Wine Cellar eyeing up alcoholic bargains. He was watching the world go by when a passing sight clearly alarmed him. When I returned to move my car from its technically illegal parking spot, John eagerly told me about his observation.

“A tall black lady walked past. Jet black, she was. Never seen one like that before. I wonder what breed she was.” It could have been Naomi Campbell for all I know. Unlikely though, on a wet weekday in Tubber.

I have witnessed the spectacle of 89 year-old John gazing intently (and very rudely) at the locality’s very few dark-skinned immigrants before. This used to baffle and concern me, but now I understand him, sort of. The old rural farmers round here just haven’t ever seen a coloured person in the flesh until the last 10 years. It still bothers me that the many Polish exiles have been accepted into the community with open arms, but the African families have to put up with disconcerting stares from the elderly natives. How ironic that the brothers and sisters of these same old Irish locals had to put up with negative discrimination when they emigrated to the American cities. One returning US immigrant from the parish once retorted that “I was treated like a black when I first arrived in the States.” Have the old-timers not learned?

I must declare that I disagree wholeheartedly with any form of racism. The fact that the English branch of my extended Family Tree now has some Caribbean roots bears testimony to the open-mindedness of the younger generations. But – I cannot change decades of ingrained ancient Irish racism brought about through ignorance and naivety.

The wariness of many God-loving white Irish pensioners towards their darker-skinned neighbours is rarely reported upon. When you overcome the blissful ignorance of the situation, some of the older fellow’s outwardly shocking remarks become amusing, as you try to debate the inappropriateness of overheard comments. However, I have got to admit that a statement made one day by fervent church-goer Pious Peter did make me spit my beer out, unwillingly. He said, “When we were collecting for the African babies years ago, I didn’t expect that they’d come and live here.”

When challenged, Peter defended his honest opinion by claiming that the cultural attributes of African “tribes” would not meld into the ways of the Irish countryside-dwellers. I baited Pious Pete about the finer aspects of life in a rural Irish parish; brewing illegal spirits, occasional intoxication, wild dancing at hooleys, a belief in the power of the fairies, etc. I tried to argue that maybe Peter was right – maybe our African friends would not wish to sink to such levels of debauchery. Peter indignantly stormed out of the bar (as he often does) when “housing needs” were discussed. I circumvented his ignorance by telling him that our Irish forefathers were still living in filthy timber one-room shacks with straw for a roof and pigs as room-mates just over 100 years ago, so any comparison with the bigoted image of Africans living in mud huts in the jungle was unreasonable. I argued that the African mud hut was a much cleverer and sturdier design than the Irish counterpart. Pious Pete had reached the door as I shouted, “Why, they even had separate sleeping quarters and an outside loo – not like your grandfather’s hovel.”

Of course, the most worrying belief of lots of white Irish Catholics is that civilization as we know it will end if ever a black pope is elected in the Holy City. Which strain of Christian dogma preaches this disgraceful garbage? Like every other rural Irish parish, we have our fair share of “holier-than-thou” committed RC churchgoers who think that weekly attendance at Mass then permits all kind of un-Christian wrongdoing through the week …. so long as the sinner then makes a Confession on a rare outing to Knock Shrine once in a while. Witnessing this type of pompous hypocrisy turned me away from formal church gatherings when I was in my teens.

Regardless, I do think that the local RC churches serve a great purpose in the community for those that need to follow services “religiously” as their ancestors did for centuries. The turn-out at Sunday Mass (even on a Saturday nowadays) is still spectacular around here. It’s a chance for many to meet their distant neighbours on a regular basis. Afterwards, the ladies swap gossip, and the menfolk inch their way to the boozer. Funeral masses are even bigger events, just like they were decades ago. The churches have to employ traffic police and parking attendants to control the cortege. At least one representative from every local RC family will attend the funerals, or the preceding removals, or the subsequent burials. This means that work stops on the funeral day. With an aging population, I often wonder how our community survives economically when regularly reduced to a three-day working week by funeral interruptions.

I prefer to be a member of the more enlightened and unassuming Christian brethren. We do not need to donate large chunks of our hard-earned income to a tax-dodging priest in order to secure entry into Heaven, if such a place exists. We certainly do not need a weekly sermon from the pulpit telling us what we are doing wrong – given by a man (never a woman!) who represents a Church which has institutionally participated in some of Ireland’s worst atrocities. Don’t get me wrong; many, probably most, RC priests do the best job they can, in very trying circumstances. There have been good and bad RC priests in my own family. One was a saint (more than helping to overcome white supremacy in New Orleans of old) and one was a sinner of the worst kind – a child abuser. We can’t choose our relatives and ancestors.

I like to help out in small ways around our parish, quietly. Ensure that the vulnerable and elderly are cared for, fed and warm. Make sure they’re safe from harm, whether that be domestic dangers or the unwanted attention of predatory strangers. That’s what Christianity is all about in my mind – maybe with a small “C” for no publicity.

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