Respecting and supporting migrants and culture is key to protecting against racism, Chai Brady hears
Racism is sadly part of every society, mostly due to fear of the unknown, although fortunately it exists relatively to a lesser extent in Ireland as the country is more tolerant than many others according to a Jesuit sociologist and author who has spent decades researching the topic and promoting pluralism, but there is still a long way to go and some “serious” problems to tackle in order to create a society that puts everyone on an equal footing.
Fr Micheál Mac Gréil SJ tells The Irish Catholic with a growing migrant population, particularly since the Celtic Tiger, there must be an emphasis on housing and tackling ghettoisation. Currently living in Mayo, Fr Mac Gréil has a doctorate in sociology and spent time as a lecturer in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and UCD. He has published several books about social issues and attitudes in Ireland.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, he said: “In my understanding having looked at the whole situation since 1973 in Dublin, we are a relatively tolerant society but there are elements in our society who make expressions which are not tolerant.
“We have become a pluralist society ever since the Celtic Tiger and we have become an attractive society to a lot of minority people and it’s a pity if anything should in any way interfere with that.
“There are a few things I don’t like at the moment, not enough attention is being paid to the accommodation of minority people coming into the country and we have to avoid anything like ghettos, now at the same time we must respect pluralism. I believe the final solution is integrated pluralism.”
Fr Mac Gréil explains that the idea of integrated pluralism he endorses is based on three pillars: acknowledging difference – religious or cultural – supporting it and facilitating it.
Regarding housing scarcity, which has become an issue for everyone in Ireland, Fr Mac Gréil said it is a “very serious problem” as the minority is becoming bigger and “we have to make room for them”.
“Now we’re lucky enough that we have respect for Muslims, for example, we have a pluralistic hierarchy in the various Churches and that is most wonderful to see, that people are not being defined as heretics and things like that so there’s an awful lot of positive things going on,” he said.
Coming from an area in Dublin that has a large migrant population, one missionary priest says they are trying to bring people together and break down barriers.
Originally from India Fr Binoy Mathew SVD of Mountview and Blakestown parish, who has spent 10 years in Ireland, tells this paper he has experienced a few prejudiced and/or racist incidents in Ireland but overall has felt very welcome.
When he was based in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, people would regularly think he was the cleaner when he answered the door to the parochial house when parishioners visited. Fr Binoy said: “But I’m not blaming anybody, I’m saying they are used to a surplus of Irish priests and to see somebody from a foreign country as the full-time priest, it’s something beyond what they can understand initially. More or less the country has treated me fairly well.
“The first wedding I was supposed to do the couple asked the parish priest they wanted the priest to be changed because I was a foreign priest, I knew straight away, the parish priest was trying to communicate that news with me but I accepted it. I had no issues and then after a year, one day the parish priest told me, ‘You remember that incident? That was nothing but pure racism,’ he said, and I told him I knew straight away. But I’m not complaining, the country has treated me well, I am a naturalised citizen here, I have lots of good memories of the country, the way it has treated me, the way it has welcomed me,” he said.
Despite some challenging circumstances during his ministry due to his ethnicity, Fr Binoy says it’s an element in everyone’s life, with all people experiencing their own tribulations due to societal issues. “What we call in India the caste system, here this is the class system. That element is part and parcel of every society,” he says.
As time went on, Fr Binoy says people in the parish began asking him personally to celebrate their marriages and he was “delighted”.
“What I feel is that once they get to know us people have changed their opinions, the way they approach us, initially the fear of the unknown is there in everybody’s mind.”
Fr Binoy is a Divine Word Missionary, an order which was one of the first to reach a consensus that Europe was missionary territory. One of the most challenging things Fr Binoy finds is that Irish people find it difficult to see priests like him as missionaries.
“If a westerner goes to another country he is always looked upon as a missionary, whereas it is beyond people’s comprehension that somebody else from another part of the world could be a missionary in Europe,” he explains.
“We are here to give birth to something new and that is our approach. If it’s to maintain a structure, you know anybody can do it, we’re trying to do things that will help us help the local Church, our focus is not on anybody else, not on the migrant community or anything, we would like to see everybody together as one Church in the sense of an integrated Catholic family parish.”
“What we’re trying to do is sow some seeds of it and gradually hopefully it will take shape and root, the celebratory mode which the African and Asian communities offer to the Irish local Church I think it’s very, very vital.
“Being Church is more about a celebration, being part of a community that supports and celebrates faith and life, I think that’s how the Africans and Asians would see the Church. But here, it’s like the spontaneity here is thrown out the window, being a faith community here, it’s more formal.
“So therefore, other than being together as worshipping community, what kind of personal connection, attachment and all are they gaining from being a community? I’m not sure what people are gaining.”
Due to the vast change that has occurred over the past several decades in Ireland, people are still trying to grapple with this new reality, Fr Binoy says, “we cannot force that to grow, it has to emerge as something new very, very gradually”.
Regarding the integration of migrant communities here he says it is a long-term process. “Now you see when you walk into a school or when children go out of the school, they are mixed nationalities, they play around and you see all these good elements”.
“The migrant community in Ireland may not be very old, it’s only in the last 15-20 years it has taken shape so actually when these children grow and when they’re children come, the second generation, things will become more integrated so for that what we need will be more and more initiatives and reassurances to both sides, we are here as a nation, we are here – from the Church point of view – as one faith community working together.
“That kind of constant project I think is important. Even for parents to educate their children, we are one nation, we are one faith community and therefore the colour, the language, they are not determining factors.”
He adds: “I can see the other as somebody who brings richness to my life then at the same time I can also see others as a kind of a threat to my existence and so on. The Irish people have migrated a lot, it’s not a concept that is new to them – that you know lots of family members who have travelled abroad. It’s not a concept that Irish people are not exposed to, but when it’s home, it’s difficult for people to accept it, that’s it.”
Fr Mac Gréil also brought up the fact that Ireland is a country where historically there was huge amounts of emigration. When asked about the growing sentiment and subsequent political movements with negative views regarding immigrants and immigration in other European countries, and if this could lead to similar large-scale movements in Ireland, he said: “Ireland has been an emigrant country, until very recently it’s become an immigrant country, it was an emigrant country for years and years and years. We’re the last in the world to be putting objections to people. People went to England or America, anywhere, to get work, it wasn’t to avoid persecution, and now we should do the same for people coming in.”
The first movement to promote integrated pluralism in Ireland Fr Mac Gréil says, is the ecumenical movement and was a huge success in how it changed hearts and minds particularly regarding Catholics and Protestants who went from “killing each other 100 years earlier, to loving each other now”.
“So that’s what integrated pluralism does, enemies become friends. If I was to make a last will and testament for Ireland it is to do everything to bring in integrated pluralism and to avoid forced assimilation.”
When it comes to the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US, Fr Mac Gréil says he did research in the 60s and 70s in Kent State, Ohio and Ann Arbour in Michigan. “America has disimproved in many ways but it’s improving in other ways, I think this election is one of the best things that’s happened in America. The US is copping on at the moment, the US should be hopeful.”
When asked about prejudice and how to confront it when it may be subconscious, Fr Mac Gréil says: “Most people have prejudices that they’re not aware of. A prejudice exposed is a prejudice undermined.” For that reason he believes that intergroup relations should be taught in the senior cycle of every secondary school.
“The colour of your skin is as important as the size of your boots. The Christian message, if properly understood, is totally pluralist,” he says.
“I think we have to have a complete look at how we are integrating the minorities in society and we are not doing it properly at the moment and we’re not doing it properly enough. The classic example of course is the Travellers whom I would define as Ireland’s apartheid – that is a quotation I got from the late Professor Liam Ryan.”
“I think with all our faults we’re one of the best but it’s a pity to see – we have a high standard – but when you see a breach in a place of high standard it’s worse. If we were just a racist society you would ignore it and say they’re at it again but we can not allow that now. You cannot, according to the law, incite people to hatred.”
Fr Binoy, in his ministry in Ireland, says that despite differences in ethnicity and race the universal Church speaks a much louder truth. Part of his charism, as a Divine Word Missinoary, is that of internationalism, of bridging the divide between nations no matter what the geographic barriers; bringing people together to celebrate the faith that is universal to all human beings.
Fr Binoy says: “The more and more we speak about it – this has to be out in the open – even maybe Irish people taking the lead recalling their own experiences abroad, and that, I think, could give a good insight, or maybe remind ourselves that we were migrants on a different land and how we were treated. Now people are coming over here, how can we become a community that welcome other people?
“People come with different intentions but I think a lot of people come with good intentions looking for a better life, a better future and I think people should be guided and helped to achieve that noble, noble cause.”