“Well, I was at Mass last week and the priest had the kids up on the altar singing the carols. And there was one little one, about six years old, and black she was! Black as the ace of spades! Singing away, God bless her. Do you know, you could hardly tell her hair from her face, she was that black. Grand little thing. Singing away.”
She is in her mid seventies, and is intrigued by Ireland’s first wave of immigration. Her husband joins in. “There was a fella in the South Court when we were in last month–was he Cambodian? Or Mexican? Jesus, I don’t know now.”
“Wasn’t he Albanian?”
“No he wasn’t. He was either Cambodian or he was Mexican. Awful nice fella, anyway.”
The local Bank of Ireland is installing new video monitors, says their daughter, my neighbour. A small Nigerian gang has been carrying out branch robberies, and they smile up at the cameras with pure mischief. “Sure they know feckin’ well we can’t make out their faces on the black-and-white film. Clever, you see.”
There were always a few immigrants in Limerick. We knew them all by sight or name. The Dutch grower, the German staff at Krups, the Hong Kong restarant owner, the Sri Lankan engineer, the Czech teacher. The Regional Hospital hired African, Indian, and Pakistani doctors, whose kids showed up in Mungret school for a year or two and set my mother teaching Limerick five-year-olds about Ramadan and Eid. Once, about ten years ago, she went to great trouble to find Asian figures for the Christmas crib–not easy in Ireland–only to have the sole Indian child in her class ask, “Teacher, why aren’t they pale like us?”
The last five years have seen the first round of concentrated economic immigration to Ireland, the first non-white faces who weren’t on the Irish soccer team and didn’t wear white coats. Middle-aged Romanian women in bright shawls sell _The Big Issue_ and beg for change. Nigerians seek asylum. Filipina nurses make up the staff shortages caused by lousy wages and conditions, and they take endless crap from their Irish sisters. People arrive from Iran, from the Ukraine, from China. A Libyan immigrant recently flustered our legal system when he applied for a visa for his second wife. Meat-processing plants in the west of Ireland imported Polish workers to do the blood-and-guts factory work the Irish will no longer do. I looked twice the other day when I passed a shop labelled “Russian Deli” in downtown Limerick; not since the pogrom of 1904 have we seen borscht and latkes here. And my heart gave a Brooklyn skip when I heard three different languages on Cruise’s Street on Christmas Eve, and I wanted to say, welcome! You’re welcome! to fellow misfits. I wonder if they are lonely here.
Are they welcome? I don’t know. The economy no longer roars, and there are ugly letters to the newspapers about These People taking our benefits and living it up on our taxes. Coming in deliberately pregnant, don’t you know, and being fed and housed instead of deported back to wherever the hell they came from. And then they take up all the private beds in the hospitals, because without medical histories the doctors don’t know what diseases they might have…
We are certainly more generous to our destitute immigrants than the United States ever was–which is not hard–but you get the feeling that these policies are by oversight rather than by design.
It’s not the foaming letters to the _Irish Times_ that intrigue me. It is the unselfconscious reactions of the locals to our new visitors and citizens. In my careful, Ivy League New York world, we rarely even said “Happy Christmas” for fear of causing cultural offence, and so I am gobsmacked when an elderly friend blithely catalogues all the Africans she has seen in the last month. Her great interest has no malice, as far as I can make out (though there is plenty of racist malice elsewhere). It is the curiosity of a woman who would have put her childhood Lent money in the Trócaire box to help the Black Babies far away. “Black as the ace of spades,” she says happily, and I glance at my plate, rigid as the WASPs George Carlin used to parody.