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Opinion: Learning from the Paris bloodshed – the need for an intercultural Ireland

Irish sports clubs, and in particular the GAA, have been immeasurable helpful in warmly welcoming young people from diverse backgrounds.

Orla McGarry

THE SHOCKING AND tragic events that took place in France last week and the new revelations that the attacks were funded and orchestrated by a branch of Al-Qaeda operating from Yemen, should prompt us to take a closer look at the type of pluralist society we are creating in contemporary Ireland.

The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper were French citizens. They were born in Paris and raised and educated in France. Yet in spite of this life lived in the birthplace of liberté, égalité, fraternité; they were drawn into the ranks of an Islamic extremist organisation located almost 6,000km from their birthplace. Surely one of the most vital questions now raised by this tragic event is how these brothers could have felt such empathy with the cause of Middle Eastern Islamic extremists and so little affinity for French society and for the people around them?

Understanding the nuances of religion, culture and identity

In 2010, I conducted an in-depth study with teenaged members of an Irish based Muslim population. The purpose of this study was to discover how Muslim teenagers negotiate a social identity that is compatible with their religious beliefs and with their need to fit into Irish society. It aimed, in short, to explore what it means to be an Irish Muslim teenager.

The participants in this study had been born in Ireland, others had arrived as young children while others had arrived in their teenage years. The study revealed how complex and challenging life can be for Muslims growing up in Ireland. Life in an Irish secondary school can be isolating, lonely and frequently dampened by incidents of racism. Getting to know their Irish peers was frequently described as an impossible task. One participant described his isolation: ‘I came here June something. June to August I didn’t talk to anyone at all!’

There are few extra-curricular supports for teenagers in Ireland and few public spaces where they can spend time and mix with people from different backgrounds. This means that teenagers from ethnic minority backgrounds have few opportunities to get to know their Irish peers and to gain a foothold in Irish society.

GAA, in particular, offers many minority young people a place to belong

However, the research also highlighted the immensely positive work being done by some local organisations in extending a warm welcome to children and teenagers from diverse backgrounds. In particular, membership of the local GAA club offered an opportunity to take part in and to contribute to one of the richest aspects of Irish culture, creating a close social network: ‘We play a lot of sport and […] we know all the people who play Gaelic and we know all the people who play hurling, and they’re all our friends and they stick up for you’.

For these teenagers, balancing religious practices, such as prayer and diet, with fitting in to Irish society was a natural and automatic process. The benefits to members of ethnic minorities of being afforded an opportunity to be part of clubs like the GAA can’t be underestimated. Being welcomed into a sports team or other extracurricular activity can be life-changing for any teenager, and this is particularly true for members of ethnic minorities.

None of the participants in this study showed any tendencies towards extremism. Indeed, they were the most generous, welcoming and accommodating group of young people that I have worked with. However, the absence of supports to help members of ethnic minority groups find their way in Irish society results in many teenagers being excluded. This undermines the project of interculturalism that is vital to the creation of a cohesive, pluralist society and risks exposing Irish society to some of the negative and at times tragic effects experienced in the US, the UK, and – most recently – France.

The events in France should prompt us to examine what is being done in Ireland towards the creation of a cohesive, pluralist society. As a country where mass migration is a relatively recent phenomenon, we have an opportunity to take on board lessons from countries with a much longer experience of immigration and diversity. We should also open our eyes to the many positive examples of intercultural mixing that are happening around the country and seek to build on this. The need to provide practical social supports for young teenagers, both Irish and migrant, is an issue that should inform social policy and educational measures for decades to come.

Dr Orla McGarry a visiting research fellow at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre in NUI, Galway. Her main research interests are religious and cultural diversity and the experience of migrant youth in intercultural Ireland.   

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Orla McGarry

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