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Letters to America: ‘The streets may look the same, but the faces of Dublin are changing’

Last update - Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 11:34 By Caitlin McGough

  In the first of this summer’s new series by students on the DukeEngage programme, Caitlin McGough explains how working amid Dublin’s migrant communities has given her a new perspective on integration

It was a simple question with a short answer, directed towards the Nigerian-born Irish citizen for whom I am working all summer: “Is there no provision for equal protection in Irish law?” The quick and, upon reflection, obvious answer was: “No.”


This is what I know. The Irish know the proper way of saying my surname. Nowhere in America can I go to Starbucks and expect ‘Caitlin’ to be spelled correctly. Despite a month of sunshine before arriving, I blend in on the streets of Dublin, and I feel no stares curious about my ethnicity or country of origin. A Claddagh ring rests on my right hand, the design of which originated near Galway in the west, where my family members saw their last glimpse of home before departing for New York.

I grew up hearing stories of my family’s immigrant past, Irish from my father and Slovak from my mother. As I got older, I learned the history of the places those generations came from. Famine, poverty, and war made the decision to emigrate easier, but the promise of a new life and a safe community in America drew them away. I have read Oscar Wilde, applauded Beckett’s masterpieces, and attended plays at the Gate Theatre. A week ago, I stepped off the plane to receive the second Ireland stamp in my passport.

Dublin looks exactly the same. The lush, rain-fed greenery of St Stephen’s Green stands as it has for hundreds of years. There is a comforting permanence in the eternally damp stones of the streets, a sacred mysticism in the houses of worship. The buildings along the canal are right where I remember them.


Not quite the same

And yet, Dublin isn’t quite the same. Last time I was a tourist, on a pilgrimage of sorts with my family to the homeland; this time I am working to serve the migrant community. 

I spend most of my days north of the River Liffey, which is both a geographic and social barrier that tourists only traverse as passengers on double-decker sightseeing buses. Historically a region of working-class housing, in the past two decades the northside has become home to much of the city’s migrant population. Immigrants stand out on the streets, but there are not enough from any single country to make uniformly homogenous communities within Dublin. 

For an afternoon I sat with two other students at a café, watching rush hour traffic and listing all the ethnicities we thought we could discern: Brazilian, Thai, Polish, Filipino, Nigerian, Chinese, Hispanic, Japanese, Hungarian. Our categories broadened: Asian, Arab, African, South American, Eastern European, Arab again. The streets may look the same, but the faces of Dublin are changing. And to an American, the circumstances are deceptively familiar.

Failure to prioritise

There are superficial similarities between Irish society today and the challenges the US has faced. The current Irish discussion is centred on the principles of equality and integration, as was the civil rights agenda in America 50 years ago. For instance, voting in the recent local elections was open to all residents of Ireland, but many ethnic minorities say they were stopped and questioned at the polls based on their accent, or the colour of their skin. 

There is a shallow push for integration in many institutions. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) have had their own elaborate integration plans in place for years, yet the will to prioritise those strategies is lacking. In fact, the failure to prioritise and the tendency to ignore migrant communities seems to be the Government’s current strategy.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that America did it better, and I am not implying that our battle for equal rights and opportunity is finished. I am saying that cultural context and historical precedent render it shallow to apply one nation’s solutions to another’s unique set of challenges. 


What I know now

How would America perceive outsiders today if we had not always been a nation of immigrants? How would we admit to our oppression of others if we ourselves had historically been the victims of foreign imperialism? And the biggest question: how would the federal government have enforced civil rights legislation without the 14th amendment, which had already been around for a hundred years?

I have been here for less than two weeks. I don’t know how Ireland’s past will determine its treatment of immigrants. I don’t know what the uphill struggle for equality under the law will bring. But I do know this: despite my name, despite my pale complexion, and despite the Claddagh ring resting on my right hand, I am more a stranger here than the Nigerian-born Irish citizen for whom I am working all summer. And he knows all too well that there is no provision for equal protection in Irish law.



Caitlin McGough is a student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in Ireland as part of the DukeEngage programme.

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