“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” – Irish Proverb
The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny gave some remarks at the White House for Saint Patrick’s Day. Among his comments was a nod to the difficult history of Irish immigration abroad to countries including (but not exclusive to) the United States. You can find video of his speech here.
“Ireland came to America, because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed. Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”
To some observers, this is a reminder of global current events, where refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are seeking sanctuary. In addition, an estimated 20 million people are on the verge of famine in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. Some of this is due to drought, but the primary reason stems from conflict, which blocks access to food, water, and other essential supplies and medicine, as well as a lack of action from other nations.
The subtext of Kenny’s remarks is that at one point, it was the Irish who once suffered, and were looked down upon, derided as crude, belligerent, unintelligent, and unable to assimilate. Irish Senator Aodhán O’Ríordáin, writing in the NY Daily News, suggested that many Irish Americans have forgotten this history and are now guilty of the same offenses once directed at their ancestors:
It’s an odious irony that ought not be lost on the many Irish-Americans surrounding Trump: names like (House Speaker Paul) Ryan, (Steve) Bannon, (Kellyanne) Conway and (Homeland Security Secretary John) Kelly are common in my country. Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer are also Irish-Americans.
For them to support the xenophobic and divisive policies from this administration illustrates clearly they have forgotten their family history and they’ve no comprehension of what it truly means to be Irish.
No other country in the world understands immigration like the Irish do. Our families tell stories of “coffin ships” that carried families fleeing the Irish famine — so similar to those fleeing Syria’s killing fields and risking their lives on the Mediterranean. We have experienced sectarianism, suppression of rights and we have overcome conflict.
The negative stereotypes now attached to other identities were once attached to us. We were the terrorists at one time as Irishmen and Irish Women embarked on murderous bombing campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, forcing every Irish immigrant in the UK to lower their voices in shame.
History repeats itself, albeit with different protagonists and antagonists.
If there is any silver lining in this, it’s that — with some reminding — we can remember that the suffering of others could just as easily have happened to us, or perhaps our ancestors (“There but for the grace of God go I”). It’s the reason that, according to UNHCR: “seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”
It’s the reason that the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”) is found across humanity, not because it is divinely inspired, but because with a little bit of empathy and imagination, we all know deep down that we could be the ones who finding ourselves in difficult circumstances. How would we want others to respond to us when we’re the ones who are suffering? Today we may be in a situation of comfort, or even luxury, but there is no guarantee that will continue tomorrow, or years from now, or for our descendants.
The Golden Rule is an insurance policy — provided that others adhere to it too — knowing that if I want to be treated well, then I owe the same to others. If I do not adhere, then I all but guarantee that when it is my time of need, I (or my children) will be met with indifference too.