Years ago I spent the summer in the Netherlands at an international agricultural institute. One of my co-workers on the course hailed from Madagascar. His name still rings in my mind – Rakotodramananana: just that, no first name, no last, just the whole chunk. How wonderful is that? Of course, from his perspective Aimairaghan Ui’Sulliebhean is quite exotic too. Which is my point. Diversity is delightful: it adds spice to the daily grind and makes a much more interesting cake of life. And about 70 years after the foundation of the state (that’s after seven decades of colcannon and Catholicism, hurling and horses) Ireland started to climb exponentially up the diversity scale. Polish shops appeared in every small town selling kielbasa and frozen piroguies. Bacon and cabbage families started to have frozen pizza for dinner. It was great. Nobody was compelled to eat vindaloo or go fishing for pike but if you wanted to try something different it was increasingly easy. The downside was that bargains were less easy to come by – you couldn’t buy tiny delicate delicious dabs at 28p a pound at the fishmongers or chicken livers for half nothing as we did in the 70s of the last century when there was no demand for those things.
Ten years ago, I started a new research project funded by the Department of Agriculture. It was fundamental research that brought lab work and computer-power together to help make Irish food-production safer and more efficient. The group hired a highly effective molecular biologist trained in the best US colleges and currently working in an Irish university. He was old enough, smart enough and skilled enough to be running his own research group but was still working as a humble post-doctoral researcher. These things happen; you keep applying for posts and coming second. You keep applying despite knowing there is an internal candidate. It takes ‘bottle’ under such circumstances to keep slogging along in science and applying for jobs because you’re good at it, because you love finding out what makes the world tick, because you can’t stop saying “that’s what I am”. So we were fortunate to get him.
One teeny problem was that, because he hailed originally (before his stellar career in the US) from the Indian subcontinent, monoglot me could never remember how to spell his name. His first name that is, because his given name was easy even if it came last. How cool is that? A place where you’re called Murphy Paddy. Rather than asking him, I thought I’d take a guess and google it. Ooops! The top three hits referred not to his science but to a sorry series of reports from the Dublin Equality Commission. My colleague lived in the outer suburbs and commuted in by bus, so he bought a season ticket and used it every working day for months until one day it was seized by the driver as invalid. My pal argued that his ticket might be tatty from use but was still valid. It was clear, however, that everyone was being held up. So he paid full fare to get to work and was told he would have to go to the central Dublin Bus office to get his season ticket back and sort it out. In the afternoon, he took time off work and trogged across town to O’Connell St where an inspector apologised and gave him his full fare back but advised him to get a (free) replacement season ticket to avoid such problems in the future. It was clear from the record that my pal snapped at that stage and took a case against the driver to the Equality Commission. He did this not for himself but for his children, and the single mother from Nigeria, and the student from Ethiopia whom he saw getting dissed every day in some, often trivial but cumulatively demoralising, fashion. As a middle-class educated man with a suit and a mortgage, he himself could rise above The Look, The Not-look, The Hesitation, The Unaccountable Difficulty. The case was, I think quite properly, eventually dismissed, from lack of admissible evidence, but it has the ring of truth doesn’t it?
If we’re to benefit from the colour, the energy, the opportunities, the availability of scrumptious food that cultural diversity provides, we all have to work at making New Irelanders welcome.