Banned in the land that made us refugees …



Ireland is facilitating the US travel ban on all Syrian refugees. Empathy with the children of Aleppo is in short supply.

“Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies

  • ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, The Pogues

Between 1847 and 1850, a hundred ‘coffin’ ships sailed out from Galway Bay. The people who made it onto those ships were desperately impoverished and full of fear, and yet they saw themselves as hugely fortunate compared to those who were forced to stay behind.

They were the equivalent of today’s Syrian or Iraqi refugees. Their land had been stolen, the crops had failed, and they dreamed of new lives far removed from the conflict and turmoil which raged across their homeland.

Many were less fortunate, such as little Celia Griffin, aged six, from Connemara. Celia never had a chance in life and was found lying on the side of a road, just one of hundreds of thousands to die of starvation.

The ships were destined for the ‘New World’.

Poor country people from villages and townlands across the West of Ireland, many of whom could barely muster a word of English between them, sailed across the western ocean in search of a chance in life which had been denied them under the British Empire.

I think about those people most weeks when I bring foreign English students on a walking tour of Galway. I think of how forgotten they were for decades in Galway City, their point of embarkation.

It was only when a returned emigrant, the late Mark Kennedy, kicked up a fuss that the city and region honoured them with a wonderful Famine Memorial Park which opened eight years ago.

For many, the collective memories are still too painful … of poverty, of families torn apart, of the pain of long-term emigration. Most of those who made it to the other side – many died during the lengthy crossing – never got the opportunity to go home and visit their loved-ones again.

The Irish fugitives were near the bottom of the barrel in 19th century America. As they flocked into the Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen, or South Boston, it would have been unthinkable to imagine how their lives would have turned out if they had been denied entry at the US border.

Had the US president taken a hardline on emigration, had there been 19th century equivalents of Donald Trump and his “extreme vetting”, then countless Irish would have been turned back as soon as they reached the east coast of America.

They wouldn’t have had enough food to survive the return journey and, if they did, the numbers who died in the Great Famine would have been vastly higher.

Given our terrible history, it was shocking to wake up this weekend to discover that “extreme vetting” – bordering on fascism – has now been introduced just an hour’s drive south of where those coffin ships departed from Galway Bay.

Last October marked the 15th anniversary of Shannon Airport’s complicity in the US ‘war on terror’

At the stroke of a president’s pen, Muslims from seven countries have been banned from entering the US.

Persecuted in their own country and no longer welcome at the end of an arduous journey, Syrians refugees in 2017 have quite a lot in common with the Irish who escaped from the discrimination and hardship imposed by the British Empire.

The Irish died in their thousands on coffin ships in the 1840s and now Syrians are dying on makeshift boats as they make their way across the Mediterranean.

Back then, the Irish were seen as a threat, deeply unpopular, rebellious spirits, who could not be trusted on the streets of New York or Boston.

Today, Muslims are the new “enemies”, even though, strangely enough, Saudi Arabia (who provided the vast majority of the 9/11 bombers) is not on Trump’s list of seven banned countries.

Amazing, too, how Yemen is on the list, considering it has been bombed to bits by US “ally” Saudi Arabia over the past two years. Yemen is on the verge of famine, but any Yemeni who turns up at a US border will be deported and sent back home.

The targeting of an entire race, nation, or religion has brought up understandable comparisons with 1930s Germany.

Back then, good people were afraid to speak out while their Jewish neighbours were being forced to wear yellow stars to make them more identifiable in a growing climate of hatred and intolerance.

Given our own troubled history, it’s incredible to think that racial profiling is now taking place on Irish soil.

The US ‘pre-clearance’ at Shannon was supposed to make travelling easier when it was introduced in 2009, but now it could lead to people being discriminated against for no other reason than their country of birth.

It is unthinkable to imagine the kind of hostility a Yemeni or Syrian would have to deal with if he or she was to try to board a flight to the US at Shannon.

Imagine, the land where hundreds of thousands of people were made refugees is now about to let a powerful nation, motivated by xenophobia and fear, discriminate against refugees on Irish soil.

Of course, Irish people have already been turning a blind eye to what’s being going on at Shannon Airport for the past 15 years.

Last July, for example, 85 civilians – among them almost a dozen children – lost their lives in a bombing in a small Syrian village.

Combatants had targeted a village in Northern Syria which had been held by Islamic State (IS) or Daesh fighters.

The combatants or “terrorists” who carried out this attack on Tokhar stop almost daily in Shannon to refuel their aircraft.

The terrorists were US soldiers. But there was no minute’s silence, no protest, and the bombing did not even merit a mention on BBC or RTE news.

People in Ireland or the UK only found out about it thanks to RT, the Russian channel, and Britain’s Channel 4.

How can we care about the loss of innocent lives when we are not even told about them by many segments of our media?

Most of us just shrug when we hear that over 2.5 million US soldiers have landed in ‘neutral’ Shannon Airport since the beginning of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001.

We didn’t protest when US soldiers who pass through Shannon murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria over the past decade.

We didn’t protest when planes carrying munitions, helicopters, and even deadly chemical weapons to aid the Israeli occupation of Palestine passed through Shannon.

We didn’t protest when prisoners were renditioned through Shannon on their way to be tortured at Guantanamo Bay.

Mind you, we can’t be sure about that one … because not one person in authority in Ireland has ever searched a US military plane during 15 years of Shannon’s use as a military base.

But surely, finally, it’s time to protest now. Is it acceptable that people in uniforms standing in Co Clare can now prevent people from getting onto a ‘plane on the basis of their nationality alone?

The Americans have made a mockery of international law by effectively turning a civilian airport into a military base. Now they want to discriminate against refugees before they even leave Ireland.

In light of our own terrible history, can Irish people really stand idly by when we hear that racial profiling has become a fact of life just an hour south of where the ‘coffin’ ships once set sail from Galway Bay?

  • Shannonwatch, who have monitored the US military use of ‘neutral’ Shannon Airport for the past 15 years, have organised a protest at the airport this coming Thursday (6pm)

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Protesting against US President Donald Trump in Galway last weekend.

Scanning the social media ‘sewer’

The social media reaction to the Women’s March in Galway was venomous

A former newspaper colleague recently confided in me that she never reads any of the comments under her articles whenever they appear on-line in national publications.

Even though she has written brilliantly about her own personal struggle with depression, attracting the admiration of thousands of readers, she has found some of the comments just too hurtful, too ignorant to ever pay attention to them.

By her reckoning, it’s better to ignore all comments than to trawl through them in search of genuinely engaging responses or feedback from readers who have enjoyed – or want to criticise – her work.

One of the Rubberbandits, the satirical comedy duo from Limerick, recently described the comments section of a major Irish news website as a “sewer”.

I got a taste of how the Rubberbandits and my former colleague felt at the weekend when I was commissioned by Irish Central, the US-based website, to cover a Women’s March in Galway on Saturday afternoon.

It was one of almost 700 events taking place across the globe on the same day in solidarity with a march in Washington DC, in which women across America were expressing concern at the Inauguration of the new President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

This was a man who had boasted about groping women “by the pussy”, who had mocked a disabled reporter, and seemed to have racist and Islamaphobic views about Mexicans and Muslims.

I went to the Galway march as a reporter, with the intention of talking to people – mostly women – about their motives for taking part.

My own views on Donald Trump didn’t count, although I admit I was shocked by Trump’s election victory in the wake of so many divisive comments during the election campaign. Not that I was a fan of Hillary’s . . .

I was hugely impressed by the turn-out at the march. There were hundreds there on a cold but beautiful January afternoon in Galway and it was remarkable to see so many young women at the march – these were not the kind of people who would normally attend a ‘loony lefty’ demonstration in my small city.

The speeches were defiant and there was a real sense of solidarity among the hundreds who turned up.

I quite enjoyed my couple of hours in Eyre Square, talking to peace activists, Irish-Americans, and anti-racist groups who were all horrified or frightened by Trump’s election.

And then I went home to file my piece for Irish Central, which was published online the following day.

You can read the piece here:

The piece was shared on Facebook 200 times and attracted hundreds of comments.

A day or two later, out of morbid curiosity, I flicked through them and I was shocked by the tone.

Some commentators claimed that the entire piece was “fake news”, that the march never took place at all.

As if a journalist could make the entire thing up after going along to a demonstration, taking photos, and interviewing a dozen participants in the march.

But, no, I was wrong. It was all anti-Trump lies. The march had never taken place, I read, according to commentators who attracted dozens of ‘likes’.

Others attacked the Irish ‘liberals’ for their cheek in complaining about the new President of America, as though politics in the US had no impact on our lives.

That’s news to the thousands of Irish families who have family members in the US, the thousands who rely on US multi-nationals in Ireland for jobs, and those of us who see US troops fly through our local airport every day to bomb children in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

But, no, I was wrong. I had joined the ranks of these “fake news” proponents so hated by Donald Trump during his divisive election campaign.

For a few moments, I tried to reason with some of them, to point out that I could not possibly have just invented a march which was attended by hundreds of people.

But I was told to “get off my high horse” by those who were clearly enraged that Irish “liberals” would dare to criticise their new leader.

For a few brief moments, I got a taste of this “post-truth” world which seems to have torn the US apart when it comes to social media.

Normally, people only read what they want to read. They spend their social media lives in echo chambers in which everyone agrees with them.

And when someone comes along and threatens their grasp of reality, they are ridiculed, libelled, and attacked. Because anything is better than reading an opposing point of view these days.

Social media allows us to make instant contact with people all over the world, which can be fantastic. Sadly, it also allows people to fabricate and distort the truth, to such an extent than a Facebook user in Virginia or Texas can convince people that a march in Galway never took place.

Before, instead of fact checking, they just move on to the next story. Full of bitterness and hatred towards those who have an opposing point of view.

Because that’s just the nature of the social media sewer when it comes to political discourse in 2017.

If you don’t like someone’s message, just keep repeating the mantra that it’s “fake news”.

Social media commentators in the US were not happy after hundreds attended a Women’s March in Galway.

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