Minority Ethnic Groups in Ireland - Paulina Chiwangu

I was asked to talk, in this paper, about minority ethnic groups in Ireland. This presented a number of problems for me. Firstly, it was not stated clearly which specific ethnic groups my paper should target. I wondered whether it would not have been a better idea to ask me to talk about racism in Irish society! Secondly, I was afraid, given the connotations which often accompany terms like 'ethnic minority', that it could strengthen the assumption that it is the presence of the 'minority groups' that brings racism into Ireland or elsewhere. Thirdly, most of the time when we talk about minority ethnic groups, we encounter ideas of multiculturalism. We try to find solutions, such as suggesting that members of different ethnic groups learn about each other's culture. There is nothing wrong with learning from other cultures. However, learning about other cultures is not the same as learning about our own racism. If we are going to compare our cultures objectively, we must first know our own racism. Fourthly, I am afraid that ethnicity creates images of racial disadvantages and racial prejudice to such an extent that it dilutes the necessity of addressing institutional racism. It takes away the "objective facts of institutional racism and makes them subjective".1 This leads to the belief that what we have to tackle is not the system, is not power, is not the immigration laws and officers, but instead puts the emphasis on changing people's attitudes.2

This paper has two parts. In the first part, I will try to analyse the position of minority groups in Ireland. In the second part I will highlight the lack of representation of black achievers, which has contributed to racism against them. For the purpose of this paper, minority groups refers to black people, i.e. Africans, Asians, Caribbeans.

Are there any minority ethnic groups in Ireland?

In discussing minority ethnic groups, one of the first questions one could ask is: Are there any minority ethnic groups in Ireland? The answer is simple: yes, there is a diversity of ethnic minorities in Ireland. These include the Travelling community (21,000), which is the largest; Africans, Asians and people from the Caribbean (20,000); the Jewish community (3,000), (some of whom have migrated, mainly to the United States of America); asylum seekers and refugees.3 According to the statistics of the Department of Justice, Immigration and Citizenship Division, there are 33,000 legally registered foreigners living in Ireland in 1995.4

What is their position? Does racism exist in Ireland?

When one asks me to outline the position of minority ethnic groups in Ireland, to me it is the same as asking whether racism exists in Ireland or not! This is the question I have been facing for the six years that I have been in Ireland. In most cases, black people in Ireland, including myself, find this question a very difficult one. Usually the person who asks this question is primarily interested in daily experiences of prejudice. Most often the question does not extend to exploring the manifestation of racism at deeper levels. These shortcomings make the victim give a simple answer, like "yes" or "no". Most often the answer given is "no". However, this answer does not justify the notion that Ireland is free from racism.

The difficulties of analysing Irish racism

The above paragraph gives some illustration of how difficult it is to analyse Irish racism. It is important to note that to some extent, the Irish people and the foreigners share a joint responsibility for this misrepresention of the Irish position. McVeigh noted that some black people are adverse to admitting that Irish racism exists because of the Irish tradition of internationalism and anti-imperialism. He suggests that the reason for this hesitancy is that they are afraid of threatening the Irish tradition of anti-imperialistic alliances.5

The issue of Irish racism is further complicated by a number of factors. Firstly, Irish racism is usually analysed in comparison to other European countries where minority groups form a much higher proportion of the population than in Ireland. Though minority groups do face fascism in Ireland, such comparisons have the effect of curtailing the extent to which Irish racism can become visible. Secondly, the fact that most members of minority groups are in Ireland on a temporary basis (e.g. as students, tourists, or on fixed term job appointments), means that it is more difficult for Irish people to identify them as a threat to their society. Finally, wide-spread generalisations about the overt friendliness of the Irish towards foreigners overshadows any impression of insecurity and fear in the presence of foreigners. In order to identify xenophobia and racism in Irish society one needs to go beyond this shallow or superficial impression of openness.

The specificity of Irish racism

It has been noted above that the number of minority ethnic groups in Ireland is limited. Despite this limitation, however, there are a number of cases where incidents of racial attacks and discrimination have been reported. For instance, "repeated attacks on Jewish shops in Dublin's south inner city in 1986; a group of travelling people were barred from participating in an anti-racism meeting in a Dublin hotel in September 1987; in November 1987, a Moroccan, his Irish wife and their daughter started suffering from physical and verbal abuse … in December the same year, a black man, his Irish wife and three children began experiencing a similar, but more violent ordeal …".6 Considering these cases, Irish racism could be viewed from two angles: 'everyday racism' and 'state engineered racism'.

Everyday racism refers to experiences of day-to-day discrimination in accommodation, buses, night clubs, pubs, restaurants, etc. It is obvious that racism on this level does exist in Ireland. A number of black people have reported facing racially inspired verbal abuse on the streets, including myself. A lot of black people face nightmares in house hunting. As Jose Fernandez7 reports many black people, especially males, face difficulties in getting accommodation. This finding is backed up by a Harmony study which noted that 24% of Irish people surveyed claimed that "people of a different race or colour should live in separate districts".8 One could correctly say that this is a relatively small proportion of Irish society taken as a whole, yet on the other hand one could also argue that this is a microcosm reflecting all the major features at all levels of Irish racism.

Gary Quinn of the Irish Refugee Council9 reports that: "We are getting more and more reports from people who have been attacked because of their skin colour.. and the frequency of these attacks is beginning to erode the myth that racism does not exist in this country". One could easily view these incidents in isolation and thus misjudge the general Irish attitude towards foreigners. To underline this, one could quote from the Report of the European Parliament.10It stated that: "it is precisely because of the insignificant foreign population (that) the few cases this report... mention(s) are indicative of some racism and xenophobia, which could reach more dangerous levels if there were more foreigners, in particular, non-Europeans".

State engineered racism refers to acts of racism which are perpetrated by state legislation, society's organisation and institutionalised frames of mind. The institutionalisation of structures that stimulate racism may be achieved consciously or unconsciously. This type of racism manifests itself by the fact that it does not leave room for the realisation of rights by non-whites. Neither can non-whites expect protection in such a system, nor does it encourage avenues for their protection outside the formal protection of all citizens.

Lack of representation of black achievements in world development

So far, I have tried to give an overview of the position of minority groups in Ireland. However, I feel the urge to go a little bit further, because my own experience makes me believe that what I have presented so far is not the primary issue in the whole discourse on racism in Ireland or elsewhere. It is the case that racism has been there for centuries. Racism had been the ideology of the colonial powers - racism as a reflection of their new consciousness of power and as a justification for their claim to world domination. I believe, however, that it was academia that gave racism a theoretical formulation and a scientific basis and thus its modern currency. One could mention, for instance, the anthropologists who pioneered studies in Third World countries and, applying evolutionary theories, identified the so-called 'primitive societies'. Among these academics were the Germans Blumenbach and Meiners; the French Gobineau and Virey; the Dutch Camper and Lavater and, in the English-speaking world, the famous Malinowski and Radcliff Brown. These academics not only invented the concept of 'race', but they also imposed a scale on human kind according to which, of course, blacks were at the bottom and whites at the top. Blumenbach started the practice of creating a hierarchy of the 'races' from an aesthetic point of view, and this was then refined to the method of skull comparison whereby a standard of bodily beauty was established. It was these academics, the first to place racism on a scientific footing in the academic world, who gave currency to the expressions "beautiful and white", as against "ugly and black".11

One could argue that all these are old fairy tales. However, these old stories are being revitalised in our present day. A current example could be seen in what is happening in the University of Ulster. John Connolly, in an article entitled "Of Race and Right" in the Irish Times,12 gave a detailed account of how a Professor of Psychology in the University of Ulster, Richard Lynn, has been receiving funds from the Pioneer Fund. Connolly noted that the Pioneer Fund was established in 1936 by Harry Laughlin and Frederick Osborn, two American scientists with suitable Nazi credentials. According to Connolly, the main concern of the Pioneer Fund is to "encourage research into race and, in particular, into eugenics" (the study of race improvement by selective breeding). Connolly goes further to highlight that the main interest of the Pioneer Fund was and probably still is the "...improvement of the white race...". The article reported that Professor Richard Lynn has already received a total of $325,000 from this fund and this has been going on since the early 1990s. It can be assumed that Professor Lynn is well aware of the nature and philosophy of the Pioneer Fund. If this is true, it is indeed a bad reflection on the academic world. This is one incident which has come to light. One could wonder what else is happening of which we are unaware.

The above discussion has given hints as to how academia has been part and parcel of the project that Garvey13 described as follows: "whites have tried to rob the Black man of his proud past... Blacks have a beautiful history of their own and none of any other race can truly write it but themselves". The achievements of blacks in world development have been made invisible. For instance, the same article we have discussed above revealed that Professor Lynn is also involved with an anthropology journal called Mankind Quarterly, which once claimed that: "Pure Negroid blood never evinced highly intelligent abilities" and that no black nation had made any worthwhile contribution to the life of man in over 5,000 years.14

It is this invisibility of the achievements of blacks that has fuelled racism against blacks over the centuries. Because capitalist societies only recognise achievements that can be translated into monetary terms, the portrayal of blacks as poverty stricken, criminals, etc., has led many, the Irish included, to view blacks as the burdens of history. But did you know that the inventor of the seed planter was a black man, Henry Blair in 1834; that the inventor of the multiple-effect vacuum evaporation process in 1846 was a black man, Horbert Rillieux; that the inventor of the first electric lamp with a carbon filament was a black man, Lewis Latimer (after the civil war); that the inventor of the shoe lasting machine in 1891 was a black man, Jan Matzeliger; that the inventor of the automatic lubricator for use on locomotive engines in 1872 was a black man, Elijah McCoy; that the inventor of a belt fastener for sewing machine in 1921 was a black man, Garret Morgan, who also invented the smoke inhalator in 1914 and in 1923 the automatic traffic light.15 Academics have made their achievements invisible and hence themselves too.

The history of the world is continually being rewritten to exclude all black achievements. Ancient Egyptians are constantly portrayed as whites, but anyone who has visited the tombs of the Pharaohs and Queens of Egypt will clearly see that many were black, including the most famous Cleopatra. Academia has made all this invisible.

Reflection in the Irish Universities

Academia could play an important role in raising awareness of racism, but if we examine the course curricula in Irish colleges, we find that racism is hardly targeted at all. In UCC, for instance, only the departments of Adult Education and Applied Social Studies offer full courses on racism. However, in both departments they are offered as optional courses, with the result that the proportion of students attending these courses is, relatively speaking, very small. Gender studies, by contrast, have been promoted, both world-wide and in Ireland. Sexist language has been reduced or, at least, people are more cautious and try to be more gender neutral. With respect to language which is biased against blacks, however, nothing has been done to bring about change. Whereas 'chairman' has changed to 'chairperson' in politically correct circles, expressions such as blackmail, black market, black day, black Friday, etc., remain firmly entrenched. One can argue that, surely, users of such terminologies do not intend black people, and that only a paranoid person would make such an association. I beg to disagree. If it was important to change sexist language because of the connotations it carries, I believe the same should apply to 'black' terminologies. The academia in Ireland has done little or nothing to bring this to the level of reflection and discourse.

Even using the terms racism, racist, etc., does injustice, in that it perpetuates the harm that is inflicted on the victims and reduces the gravity of the misdeeds of the perpetrators. When black people have attacked white people, it has been referred to as 'barbaric', 'animalistic', 'irrational', 'unintelligent', among other things. For example, in some parts of Africa the first contact with Europeans was greeted with violence by the Africans. The Europeans interpreted this as animalistic because only an animal attacks what it is not used to. On the other hand, for over 200 years, Europeans have attacked blacks. This has been called racism, but not 'animalistic', 'barbaric', 'irrational' and 'unintelligent'. With every incident, well-wishers claim that more interracial understanding will end discriminations. This is an issue which could be highlighted by academics. Perhaps people who perpetrate racism would be less inclined to do so if they knew that their behaviour would be seen as animalistic, barbaric, irrational and unintelligent.

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Census of Population of Ireland; Stationery Office; Dublin; 1991.

Curriculum Development Project Steering Group (ed.), Setting the Context for Change; Northern Curriculum Development Project; Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work; Leeds; 1991.

European Parliament Report, Committee of Inquiry On Racism and Xenophobia; European Communities; Luxembourg; 1991.

Fernandez, Jose, Irish Racism: perceptions of the Problem by Travellers and Non-white Groups in Ireland; Unpublished Thesis; UCC; Cork; 1994.

Garvey, Marcus, 'Black History' in Introduction to Black Studies, 2nd Edition, Kalenga Maulana (ed.); The University of Sankore Press; Los Angeles; 1993.

Geiss, Emanuel, Geschichte des Rassismus; Suhrkamp Verlag; Frankfurt; 1988.

Harmony, Racial Discrimination in Ireland: Realities and Remedies; Harmony; Dublin; 1990.

McVeigh, R., 'The Specificity of Irish Racism' in Race and Class; Vol. 33;4; 1992.

Quinn,Gary, Irish Refugee Council; 1996.

The Irish Times, 6th December, 1994.


1: Curriculum Development Project Steering Group (ed.), Setting the Context for Change; Northern Curriculum Development Project; Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work; Leeds; 1991. P.42.Return to Main Text

2: Ibid.Return to Main Text

3: R. McVeigh, "The Specificity of Irish Racism" in Race and Class; Vol. 33; 4; 1992. P 33.Return to Main Text

4: Census of Population of Ireland; Stationery Office; Dublin; 1991.Return to Main Text

5: R. McVeigh, op. cit.Return to Main Text

6: Harmony, Racial Discrimination in Ireland: Realities and Remedies; Harmony; Dublin; 1990.Return to Main Text

7: Jose Fernandez, Irish Racism: perceptions of the Problem by Travellers and Non-white Groups in Ireland; Unpublished Thesis; UCC; Cork; 1994.Return to Main Text

8: Harmony, op. cit. P.2.Return to Main Text

9: Gary Quinn, Irish Refugee Council; 1996.Return to Main Text

10: European Parliament Report, Committee of Inquiry On Racism and Xenophobia; European Communities; Luxembourg; 1991.Return to Main Text

11: Emanuel Geiss, Geschichte des Rassismus; Suhrkamp Verlag; Frankfurt; 1988.Return to Main Text

12: The Irish Times; 6th December, 1994.Return to Main Text

13: Marcus Garvey, "Black History" in Introduction to Black Studies, 2nd Edition, Kalenga Maulana (ed.); The University of Sankore Press; Los Angeles; 1993. P. 160.Return to Main Text

14: The Irish Times; 6 December, 1994.Return to Main Text

15: Kalenga Maulana, op. cit. PP. 160-163. Return to Main Text