Gort—Brazilian flags hang from pubs, posters in Portuguese advertise the agricultural fair and the vibrant green-and-yellow paintwork of the ‘Real Brazil’ food store stands out in a drab row of shops.
Tucked between western Ireland’s stark Burren region and Slieve Aughty mountains, Gort is fast becoming the country’s very own ‘Little Brazil’ with a Latin American community that now accounts for over a third of the 3,000-strong population.
Even in the capital Dublin, where growing Polish and Chinese communities are beginning to make their mark, there is nothing to match this rural town’s vivid illustration of the demographic changes being fueled by Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom.
“We are now a flagship for other communities on how integration should work,” said Adrian Feeney, chairman of the town’s chamber of commerce.
On a rainy morning in Gort’s main square, around 70 Brazilian men wait to be hired by farmers and builders. Few speak English, and they shout to each other in Portuguese.
FLAGS & PAINTED FACES
In Gort, however, the workers have come from the other side of the planet and the town is developing a distinctly Latin American feel with its ‘Samba Celtic’ soccer club, church services in Portuguese and an annual ‘Quadrilha’ carnival.
Ireland’s absence from this year’s soccer World Cup finals did little to prevent the sports shop doing a roaring trade.
“It was brilliant, huge,” said 17-year-old John Moylan Jnr. who is minding the family store. He estimates they sold up to 300 Brazil strips and 100 flags during the tournament.
The immigrant population has mushroomed since half a dozen Brazilians first arrived to work in the meat processing plant. The owner sought workers from Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, because of a local shortage of skilled labor.
“They’re good workers, the best workers, and they don’t create any trouble,” said Moylan Jnr.
On the town’s Web site, only two out of 10 anonymous comments on the Brazilian community are negative.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have people who are noted the world over for their friendliness and hospitality,” reads one response to concerns over the dilution of Irish culture.
When fumes from a heater killed two Brazilian men in their beds last year, the town rallied round with a fundraising campaign that has so far paid for two houses for their families back in Brazil and a fund to provide them with an income.
Frank Murray, a Portuguese-speaking Scot working in Gort for a community project run by the National University of Ireland in Galway, says many locals feel empathy toward the newcomers partly because of Ireland’s long history of economic migration.
“Some of the older people have found it difficult to see their town change so much so fast and there may be some underlying resentment but it’s brought the town alive again,” Murray said.
For the Brazilians, the first months can be tough, he added. “Brazilians are a bit like Guinness, they don’t travel well.”
Nonetheless, more and more are opting to stay for longer.
“They love the Irish, they think they’re so well-mannered, but the biggest thing is the lack of violence which, for all the great things in Brazil, is certainly hanging over you there,” Murray said.
Emerging from the “Real Brazil” convenience store next door, Marelene Xavier di Paula says there are some problems.
“Sometimes people have difficulty about their English and people have some difficulties about jobs—the men can go for construction but the women only clean,” said the greengrocer’s assistant whose 15-year-old son attends the local school.
Brendan Smith, who teaches computer skills to the Brazilians as part of the university outreach project, puts the integration success down to a healthy gender and age mix and a lack of ghettoisation.
“That’s important because otherwise you get a situation like in France: a ticking time bomb,” he said, referring to last year’s riots in French cities by youths, many of them descendants of immigrants.
“What happens when the economy turns down? That’s a question all of Ireland will have to answer.”
For now, Smith believes the Brazilian influx is benefiting everyone.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship, the two sides feed off each other. Gort was a sleepy backwater before. It needed a buzz and they’ve supplied that buzz.”