In Ireland, ancestry means everything. Yet to an increasing number of Irish people — immigrants and the children of immigrants — Irish ancestry remains painfully elusive. In May this harsh fact confronted Una-Minh Kavanagh on the streets of Dublin. A 22-year-old woman who was adopted by an Irish woman from her native Vietnam when she was just six weeks old, Ms. Kavanagh is thoroughly Irish, down to her thick County Kerry accent and her mastery of the Irish language, which only 10 percent of the country speaks fluently.
But the group of Irish teenagers who accosted her that afternoon only saw her Asian features. In the middle of her capital city, they grabbed her and shook her head, called her a “chink” and spat on her face. Bystanders gathered, but no one stepped in to help.
Ms. Kavanagh’s story is not unique, but unlike many other Irish victims of racial violence, she spoke up, writing about her experience in The Irish Times and on her blog. Her story raises new and uncomfortable questions about racism and identity on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland, like the rest of the world, has changed dramatically with the rise in global migration. Seventeen percent of Irish citizens were born outside of the country. Yet the Irish have been markedly slow — politically, socially and legally — to recognize foreign-born citizens as fellow Irish men and women.
Last year, Dublin taxi drivers were caught putting green lights on top of their cabs, and stickers on their bumpers, to surreptitiously inform prospective customers of their Irish origins — as opposed to the increasing number of foreign-born Irish drivers. Media attention eventually spurred the country’s transportation minister, Leo Varadkar, to call for their immediate removal, declaring the drivers’ actions to be “inherently racist” and “xenophobic.”
The indelicate reality is that public shaming and media scrutiny, rather than legal enforcement or new legislation, is typically how such matters are dealt with on the island. An outdated 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, the country’s main legal defense for victims of racism, has been used to win just one conviction a year, on average.
What motivated Ms. Kavanagh’s attackers, however, may not be mitigated simply by putting more teeth on rusty legislation, because such laws don’t get at the issues at stake: namely, what it means to be “Irish.”
A June report released by the Economic and Social Research Institute, a Dublin think tank, found that 22 percent of Irish nationals, polled in 2010, thought that immigrants from “poor non-E.U. countries” should not be allowed into Ireland, compared with just 6 percent in 2002. The study’s sample of 2,000 people reveals that Irish views on immigration are among the most negative in the European Union.
And, in a report issued in August, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, a nonprofit organization, said that it was fielding five times as many reports of “serious racist incidents” than a year ago — from an average of four a month in 2012 to more than 50 incidents in just the previous 10 weeks. Jerry O’Connor, a spokesman for the council, said he thought that this was less a reflection of rising racism per se, but rather that “people are simply feeling more comfortable speaking up about it.”
For a nation that knows well the tribulations that immigrants face in their battle for social acceptance what may be even more revealing than the spike in documented acts of racism is how the country defines citizenship. Irish immigrants, or Irish citizens who were not born on the island, cannot automatically confer citizenship to their children. A child born in Ireland is not entitled to citizenship unless at least one of his or her parents or grandparents was an Irish citizen and was born in Ireland. This law came under public scrutiny last May, when a resident Chinese couple’s three-year-old daughter, who was born in Ireland, was denied re-entry after a visit to her grandparents in China (she was ultimately allowed to return).
It is hard to imagine how equality can be attained when people born on the island to migrant parents do not have an automatic right to citizenship, while third-generation Irish-Americans are frequently granted citizenship rights based solely on their distant ancestral connection.
So far, though, Ireland seems a long way off from addressing, let alone answering, these questions — which is all the more unfortunate given how intensely the Protestant-Catholic war over Irish identity has raged, with protests and riots breaking out across Belfast as recently as this summer.
In contrast, the injustice done to Ms. Kavanagh seems unlikely to be given the sustained attention and discussion it deserves. “People say that I’ve played the ‘race card’ by highlighting it so much,” Ms. Kavanagh told me. “I’ve also had people use the phrase ‘there are worse things happening in the world,’ which obviously emphasizes my point that there are so many people out there who don’t see racism in Ireland as an issue.”
The group that assaulted her has been identified by the police, Ms. Kavanagh said, but no charges were brought against them.
David Conrad is a doctoral candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.