It’s quite clear, based on my surname, that I am of Irish descent. Both my paternal and maternal lineage can be traced back to the Emerald Isle. As of this moment, I don’t actually know when my ancestors upped sticks and crossed the Irish Sea to take up residence in England. None of the relatives that I knew where born in Ireland and I can only guess that it was during the 19th century or earlier that my particular branch of the Boyle family tree floated its way over.
Recent events have made me think about this more and more lately. The truth of the matter is that I am not, strictly speaking, English. I am the descendent of immigrants.
Let’s assume that my ancestors were forced to come to England because of the infamous potato famine. Faced with the prospect of poverty and hunger, and seeking a better life, let’s assume that my great-great-great whoever came to England searching for work and a more comfortable future. Could I imagine what kind of welcome he would have received? After a very quick trawl on the internet it seems that I don’t have to imagine. I simply have to switch on the news.
Racism towards the Irish is a matter of historical fact and in Victorian Britain they were portrayed by the media as alcoholics who monopolised certain, low paid, job markets (sound familiar?). They were often depicted in political cartoons as apes and regarded as an inferior race.
At the time, the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stated:
“The Irish hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”
Nowadays, I’m sure he’d include the word “swarm” in there somewhere.
So, now let’s look across the channel to Calais and ask ourselves “what’s changed?” In the 150 years of ‘progress’, how have our attitudes changed towards people seeking a better life? People fleeing poverty, disease, genocide? The answer appears to be that it hasn’t. We will still demonise these people. Portray them as an epidemic swarming across the continent to rip our country apart.
“But we need to look after our own!”
They are our own. They are human beings. And you may have to have waited in a three hour queue on a motorway to get on a train. You may have had the start of your holiday ruined. But then again, you’ve never seen your village destroyed by war and spent weeks travelling in horrendous conditions hoping to escape it? Have you? Only to be met with hostility and the assumption that you have the magical ability to affect house prices in Kent?
And do you know what? I’m one of the lucky ones. A hundred years later and nobody bats an eyelid at my pasty complexion and suspiciously gingery beard. My English accent disguises my foreign heritage. For a number of refugees entering this country their children and their children’s children will still live with the suspicion and the hatred. It’s time it stopped. It’s time we all stopped and helped. And we can start by all being a little more sympathetic and thinking about the reasons why these people are risking their lives to enter this country. It’s not, as The Daily Mail would have you believe, for a £35 a week handout. A life is worth more than that.