Ex-president says Christianity, history save Ireland from xenophobia

Ex-president says Christianity, history save Ireland from xenophobia

Former Irish President Mary McAleese. (Credit: Colin Keegan/Collins Agency.)

Former Irish President Mary McAleese believes that movements such as Brexit in the UK and the Trump campaign in the States are unlikely to have much traction in Ireland, where their history as an immigrant people and their Christian faith still shape popular attitudes.

The rhetoric of wall-building and border controlling has dominated the political cycle on both sides of the Atlantic for some months now.

From the U.K. Independence Party’s successful campaign for Brexit, to the Trump campaign pushing for a wall to be built along the U.S./Mexico Border, there’s a call for tighter controls on immigration, and a sense that the maintenance of a country’s sovereignty is tied inexorably to its ability to control whom it allows in.

The success of these two movements has emboldened other forces, such as the National Front in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, and the Dutch Party for Freedom.

Yet walking the streets of post-Brexit Dublin, you hear Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Italian, Polish, French, and Romanian all being spoken, without any visible blowback. In the neighborhoods surrounding the symbol of Irish cultural identity which is Croke Park, home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, whole immigrant communities have found homes.

Yet the question in Irish newspapers today is not about immigration and protecting Irish sovereignty, but how the country can best benefit economically from the fallout of Britain’s move to leave the EU.

One can’t help asking, what is so different about Ireland that, in stark contrast to its neighbors and most important allies and trading partners, it seems more welcoming of the stranger? I was privileged recently to sit down with a former Irish President, Mary McAleese, to get her perspective.

Speaking on why such trends have not arisen en masse in Ireland, McAleese speculates that “it has to do with our soul and our spirit, it has to do with our basic Christian education, I think that has played a very big role.”

McAleese notes that the history of the Irish as an immigrant people has played a large part in shaping attitudes, as the Irish encountered globally the sorts of resistance around the world that other immigrants face today.

“In the second, third, and fourth generations, they have thoroughly vindicated the role of the migrant, and the wells of thinking and tradition that you bring with you wherever you go,” she said.

Chief among the elements of the culture that the Irish brought with them, McAleese notes, is their own faith, a “faith in a loving God who had to sustain us through many a difficult and tough time, when other people treated us badly, we knew this God loved us because he had each hair on our heads counted individually and I think we had deeply internalized that God, and brought him with us.”

McAleese points to this to explain why anti-immigrant movements haven’t found much traction in Ireland.

“When the immigrants came to our country, they have been by and large welcomed,” she said.

While the former Irish president notes that Ireland obviously isn’t immune to both racism and sectarian violence, she notes that many of those who migrated for economic opportunity during the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger now remain after the economic downturn, and indeed constitute 13 percent of the Irish population.

“If we wait another 25 years, those who are enriching Irish life, culture, dance, and music, could be coming from a Polish tradition and their first language might be Polish, or it could be from Brazil, it could be from Spain, it could be from Romania, and we in Ireland understand those confluences,” she said.

“St. Patrick is our patron saint, but he wasn’t Irish,” McAleese pointed out.

He’s the most famous Irishman in the world and he wasn’t an Irishman, he was an adopted Irishman, and he gave us that understanding, that the person who comes from the outside can bring something quite extraordinary with them, can help you to look at the world through their eyes,” she said.

If Ireland has, at least in part, been dissuaded from anti-immigrant movements because of its rich Christian culture, could Ireland’s perspective change as a result of what many note as a growingly secular reality?

McAleese thinks not, and in fact rejects the overuse of the term “secular.”

“Ireland has an extraordinary story to tell of a country that was, for a very long time, in the grip of a form of clericalism which saw every form of dissent as ‘militant secularism’ when, in fact, a lot of that dissent actually was in opposition to clericalism, not Christianity, and was, in fact, infused with a love of the Gospel,” she said.

“It was a determination that the Gospel would be experienced in a way that was not overwhelmed by rule books or people banging them over the head with the codes of canon law, but that people would experience an accompanying God who was deeply personal and who was like a parent or grandparent to them, who just watched over them, and smiled no matter what they did, and accompanied them in their life, and nudged them in the right direction, but never gave up on them, no matter what.”

For McAleese, the arrival of secondary education in Ireland, with the help of religious congregations, caused the Irish to question clericalism in the structures of the institutional Church. The values of Christian faith remained with them, however, and will always be a part of any decision that they make as a constitutive element of the culture.

“(Christian Faith) is always going to be infused, it’s always going to inform secular thinking,” she said.

Given that the values of Christianity will forever be enmeshed into the tapestry of Irish culture, even in a post-clerical nation, then it seems clear that to McAleese’s mind, precisely because of their identity, movements such as the pro-Brexit push and the populism behind the Trump campaign will not find much support here.

The broader question remains of what lessons the rest of the world can learn from the Irish moving forward, as these debates continue to rage on.

For McAleese, the answer seems clear.

By embracing diversity and a new multicultural reality, what Pope Francis called an “all of us” mentality in his address to the E.U. Parliament, she believes Ireland has become all the richer and all the stronger.

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