Who are we anyway?

This piece was first published in Candlelight: the Innishannon annual, Christmas 2018 – here with an update.

As I wrote this in the early autumn there was a young Corkman in prison in Greece. He was working for a humanitarian agency assisting refugees on the island of Lesvos. His name is Seán Binder. I met him a few times while he was studying with our daughter at Trinity College. Asking about him some time after their graduation I heard that the situation on Lesvos was dreadful. Boats full of desperate people arrived each day but many were barely seaworthy and some went down even as they neared the shore. A strong swimmer, Seán was often occupied retrieving the bodies of those who had drowned. Time went on and his short stay became longer. He did not want to abandon people in such dire need. Then news came that he had been arrested and accused of espionage and other serious crimes. As I update this piece he is has been released on bail and is home for Christmas pending a trial.

I know that people will have various reactions to this story. The initial shock at the picture of little Alan Kurdi whose tiny body was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 has given way to a weary acceptance of a new order where people are displaced in their thousands and hundreds of thousands. Internationally, governments are challenged to create new structures to accommodate and integrate refugees crossing borders. Countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have taken vast numbers of people in a short time. A new wave of far-right parties oppose immigration and promote hostility and distrust of migrant people. These groups say that the arrival of many and diverse people will change their countries for the worse. Some of these same countries continue to arm the regimes from which refugees are fleeing for their lives. Humanity and truth are early casualties in a complex world which changes hour by hour.

All of this raises pressing questions, not only about where we stand but about our very identity. What makes us who we are as individuals, communities and nations? What might we gain or lose if newcomers arrive on our shores and make their homes with us? In a time of truth-decay, can we get to the core of the truth about our nation? Does being Irish depend on a skin colour, an accent or a faith? Or is it about a history and a value system – or other qualities which run through our very DNA? Who are we in our bones?

Ireland’s history is that of an island people who have more often been the traveller or the stranger, than the host. This history includes poverty and hunger and need, and days when families said ‘good-bye,’ never to see each other again. Our nation has endured occupation and violence from a foreign power. We are a nation where the hearth is kept warm and the thought of home kept sacred for millions of sons and daughters who have ventured abroad. As a nation we have contributed above our weight to countries where our citizens have settled: in medicine, social development, building, education and the arts. How do these experiences and values inform our responses to this new world order?

When a group of Syrian refugees were allocated to the small Roscommon town Mary Gallagher of Ballaghdereen said:
We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy … if somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say ‘no?’ How could you say ‘no?’ You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

Every single thing we have come from. Every son or daughter put on a boat; every door opened to a neighbour in trouble; every brown cake wrapped and taken across the road to a needy family; every famine ship; every hesitant walk down a gangway to a foreign shore; every prayer breathed that our own young people would find a welcome, a shelter and a place to belong; every hope that a new generation would be free to flourish, to work and marry, to add their own genius to the human melting pot.

Who are we anyway? If we are true to ourselves I believe we know in our bones that we are Seán Binder and Mary Gallagher. We are Adi Roche and the families who welcome Chernobyl children. We are Nasc, the Irish Refugee Council and the Red Cross. We are Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Alma Harrak, Dil Wickremasinghe and so many others who have become and are becoming part of the fabric of our culture.

Ireland is a nation of families and communities who depend on one another. We know that what goes around comes around. We are communities who welcome those in need because it is in our nature to do so and because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t know ourselves and wouldn’t be ourselves. We have in our DNA both the need and the gift of the newcomer. We know if we give people a chance they will pretty much come good as Irish people mostly came good in every corner of the world.

The future is unknown and there is no doubt that it holds many changes. I believe we are wise enough to hold fast to our truth and to build the future on the foundation of this truth, on the values that make us Irish – that make us human. If we do this we will be investing in hope. We will retain and strengthen our identity while also gaining the contribution of diverse and gifted people. We will both stay the same, and change for the better.

Author: realmofsparks

Anne Francis is a Pastoral/Practical theologian and spiritual care practitioner. She has a Pastoral Supervision practice and is author of 'Called: Women in Ministry in Ireland.'

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