THE SCENE must have been like a vision from hell. Dead bodies were being thrown overboard. Some of those still alive were confined to the ship’s hold writes, Michael Clifford.
More who managed to get off the ship onto small crafts rowed for the shore, where they fell out of the boats and crawled on hands and knees towards an unlikely salvation.
These people were the wretches of the world, fleeing certain death and a cruel regime, having spent days at sea. Now they had arrived at the Promised Land and what they found was that far from being welcomed, they were despised and wished dead rather than be a burden on the native population.
The foregoing is not taken from an account of refugees fleeing Syria, but from one of the many recorded about the Irish coffin ships arriving in Grosse Island, Canada in 1847.
“Most of the immigrants who landed here at the height of the famine were Irish,” according to the official account at the Irish memorial, at the Canadian port of entry in the 19th century.
“Already weakened by malnutrition and starvation, they had been crowded aboard unsanitary sailboats, unfit for transporting human beings. They reached their destination in a deplorable state, many already infected with typhus, a disease which soon reached epidemic proportions.”
In all about 100,000 Irish people sailed across to Canada that year at the height of the Famine, with one in five dying on the journey. Around 5,000 are believed to have died at Grosse Point. They had made it to the Promised Land, only to find all promises were revoked.
The natives didn’t just despise their famine survivors for their disease and pitiful and ravaged state. They also had a problem with the religion of the Irish. The Catholic religion was regarded as being dangerous, led by a Pope who was regarded as the anti-Christ. Catholics were to be feared, in a manner not dissimilar to how some in the West have now come to fear Islam.
Those experiences left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche, and even on the language. The Irish word “doicheal” is the opposite of “fáilte” but has no English translation. It means “no welcome”, and many speculate its origins date from the Famine, when those fleeing certain death were regarded with blind indifference.
That was then. Today, Ireland is a fully paid-up member of the developed West, long since removed from its colonial past, perched insecurely among the wealthy nations of the world.
Today, the coffin ships cross the Mediterranean. The journey does not take more than days, but the perils loom just as large as when the Irish took to the Atlantic waves. People die at sea, suffocate in holds, drown on the high seas, breathe their last on a journey for survival. That’s what happened three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the photograph of whose body washed up on a Turkish shore has come to symbolise the ballooning humanitarian crisis.
If the hazardous sea journeys are reminiscent of our coffin ships, then the mass movement west over land has a biblical resonance of a whole people on the move to a land which promises salvation.
Perhaps the reaction in Europe has not been as hostile as that which met the Irish in North America and elsewhere. But it sure has not been welcoming.
There are exceptions. Germany has not been backwards in coming forwards, pledging to accept 800,000 applications for asylum. If Ireland were to accommodate a per capita equivalent it would amount to 40,000 applications. Instead, the State is, as things stand, scheduled to accept about 600 over the next two years.
Some are quick to offer “excuse” for Germany’s apparent generosity. Apart from the relative health of its economy, and its demographic frailties, there is the matter of guilt for the horrors perpetrated in the Second World War, which precipitated the last great refugee crisis.
That may well be true, but if a national psyche draws comfort from confronting its history, why has there not been an acknowledgement in this country that once it was the Irish who fled en masse, once it was Irish children who were washed up on foreign shores.
In other countries, citizens have rushed to dispute the paucity of compassion expressed by their government. The Icelandic people have a reputation for a degree of warmth that is in inverse proportion to its climatic temperature. Over a week ago, after the government announced it was accepting 50 refugees from Syria, a prominent author, Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, initiated a Facebook campaign asking citizens to open their homes to those fleeing the conflict. There was more than 10,000 positive responses in a country with a population of 300,000.
The photograph of Aylan Kurdi has moved many in this country, as evidenced by the Uplift.ie Pledge A Bed campaign, which has been raking up thousands of pledges to house refugees since it went online on Thursday. Yet it remains to be seen whether the natural emotional response to being confronted with the reality of the crisis will endure.
So far, the response in this country has been heavily weighted towards political considerations rather than compassion. The deployment of the navy on a humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean was a positive move, but largely cost free. Media coverage of the mission has been self-congratulatory, as if the harrowing work being undertaken by naval personnel suffices is a national response.
There is also an undercurrent in some quarters of deep antipathy towards refugees, reflected in cyberspace in general, and comments on online media websites in general. As such, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that any moves by government are being informed by the kind of caution that pertains in an election year.
It remains to be seen whether the photograph of a dead three-year-old boy will have awakened a slumbering compassion, or will be quickly forgotten.
Is it possible that the transforming 20 years the country has gone through has left the national psyche with a colder disposition? There is no doubt but that the years when the country got wealthier engendered a greater Mé Féin impulse in many sections of society. This wasn’t just among the wealthy, or the so-called “elite”, but right across most sections of society.
Then when the economy collapsed it was hoped that the old values might be recaptured, but this didn’t come to pass. Instead, every section viewed their own drop in living standards, with precious little concern for those who were faring worse, and far worse in some cases. Every section was too busy feeling its own pain.
Now along comes a crisis that puts our own recent travails in perspective.
Now is the time for action, and if the Government is not prepared to act appropriately, then pressure should be brought to bear.
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