BBC, May 18, 2007
In the run-up to the Irish general election, the BBC News website is looking at some key issues affecting modern Ireland. Here, the BBC’s Stephen Fottrell considers the mass immigration that has transformed the country in recent years.
It is almost difficult to remember pre-immigration, pre-multicultural Ireland, such is extent of the change it has brought to the country.
Before the Irish economic boom the only form of migration the country knew was outward—with thousands of graduates and young unemployed people leaving every year to seek work elsewhere.
However, prosperity has reversed the trend. Many emigrants have returned and foreign nationals now make up 10% of Ireland’s workforce and wider population.
Immigrant communities have been established across the country, not just in urban areas but in smaller towns that were previously known only for being stop-offs between cities.
Gort, in the western county of Galway, is one such town. Home to the biggest Brazilian community in the country, a third of its population of 3,500 now come from Brazil.
Language and permits
Nilton Souza De Viera, chairman of the town’s Brazilian association, came to Ireland in 2002, following two friends who had already moved over.
He worked as a kitchen porter before opening two businesses of his own in the town centre—an internet cafe and a car wash.
His internet cafe is full of Brazilians using the web and special rate long-distance phones to keep in contact with those back home.
Many here are originally from Anapolis, a town in southern Brazil, which in turn has benefited from money sent home by those working mainly in Gort’s factories, construction sites, restaurants and hotels.
“They are a breath of fresh air,” says Frank Murray, who runs a community project with the Brazilians. “They have really added to the local area.”
However, concerns have been raised about exploitation, stemming mainly from the fact that many of Gort’s Brazilians do not speak English. One community support worker estimated that as few as 10% can speak it comfortably.
“All problems centre around language,” Mr Murray says. “It opens the door to exploitation.”
Lidiane Castor, from Anapolis, has been living in Gort for four years and runs a hair salon.
“I have never had problems myself, but that’s because I speak English,” she says. “I see with some of my friends that if you don’t speak English, you can have problems.
“It’s very important for us to mix with the local community. The big problem is that a lot of the Brazilians here are illegal. I find it difficult to get work permits for staff.
“I am lucky as my husband, who is also originally from Anapolis, has Italian citizenship, so we can both stay. But many have been deported—including my brother-in-law, who was deported twice.”
Solving a problem
Despite any problems language and documentation may pose to integration, local people seem to have reacted positively overall to their town’s transformation.
“Well, it’s little Brazil now, isn’t it?” says Gort resident Martin Donohue.
“It was a culture shock at first, but they’ve blended in well and filled a lot of the jobs that needed filling.”
“Gaps in the job market” is as ubiquitous a term as the Celtic Tiger in Ireland now and the country is as reliant on foreign workers filling the openings as immigrants are on the jobs themselves.
“Immigrants solved a problem we didn’t even see coming,” says Cork farmer Frank O’ Mahony.
“We were in trouble labour-wise up until EU accession. The Irish just didn’t want to do certain jobs any more and there were huge gaps opening up in the labour market.
“But the immigrant workers filled them. Now, for instance, there are a lot of Polish and Lithuanians working in agriculture.”
Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, represent some of the largest groups of immigrant workers in Ireland.
Ola Waliszewska, from western Poland, came to Cork to work and learn English two years ago.
“I’m very happy here,” she says. “The Polish are very similar to the Irish. They share our experience, as many Irish had to emigrate for economic reasons.
“There are a lot of immigrants here now, from Poland and many other countries, but we are welcomed by the Irish.”
But is that welcome universal?
Ping, a Chinese restaurant manager in Limerick, says she heard Ireland was racist before she came over from Hong Kong five years ago.
But she found the opposite to be true when she arrived.
“I was a bit of a novelty when I arrived first as I was living in a small rural area,” she says. “But after a while I just became part of the community.”
Taiwo Matthew, originally from Lagos, Nigeria, became the first immigrant to be elected to local office when he was voted in as an independent member of the Ennis town council in County Clare, in 2004.
He ran for office, he says, “because the immigrant community was being misconceived”.
“There was a gap in understanding, but no bridge across it,” he says. “The one thing that breeds prejudice is not knowing anything about each other.”
Mr Matthew, a trained doctor, has lectured secondary school students about the dangers of prejudice.
“It is important to inform the younger generation about the benefits immigrants can bring to their country.
“After all, no country can be great without a diversity of people.”
Taiwo “Paddy” Matthew