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Joanne Ahern

'My life in Ireland is the normal tapestry of pleasure and pain – but the good far outweighs any bad'

It took me a little time to get used to a new culture, but I have discovered that Irish people love spreading happiness and positivity.

I CAME TO Ireland from South Africa with a perfect five-year plan. According to the plan I was to go back ‘home’ armed with a master’s degree at the end of the fifth year to set up my own management consultancy. Ever heard of the saying: ‘If you want God laugh, tell him your plans’? Exactly.

I arrived in Ireland on the morning on the 11th of April 2001 in my leopard print shoes and colourful Zulu beaded jewellery – just in case. It was a typical hope-inspiring spring day – what a shocker! Later, in a taxi headed for Castleknock, on talking weather with the taxi driver, I happened to expresses my pleasant surprise at the beautiful weather. “You must have brought the sunshine with you from Africa,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Even better, when I ventured out for a little nose around later that afternoon, I found I didn’t have to use my then warmest coat. “What a fuss my Dad is,” I thought to myself with a cocky smile, as I recalled one of Dad’s instructions the day before when I left home. “Buy a good coat the minute you get to Dublin otherwise you’ll die of hypothermia,” he warned firmly.

I looked crazy, walking around wearing winter clothes in summer

Of all months, my rude awakening about the reality of Irish weather came in August of that year, when I found myself unexpectedly turning heads on O’Connell Street with my faux fur coat, gloves, boots and faux fur hat. I had no idea why I was attracting so much attention until a concerned man (of African descent) decided to put me out of my misery as I was crossing O’Connell bridge, headed for Dame Street. He told me straight up that I looked crazy wearing winter clothes in summer.

To say I was cold on that August day would be a huge understatement, I was freezing. Now fourteen years on, I live comfortably in sandals and linens from late April right up to early November.

However, the weather is not all that has taken getting used to for me. Having been born and broiled in apartheid, I had some reservations about people of a similar skin colour as that of my oppressors. Although I was and remain profoundly grateful for the amazing contributions that the people of Ireland made in the fight against apartheid, I still found myself putting up defenses similar to those I had learnt to put up against my oppressors in South Africa – like a constant need to assert myself as an equal to them.

For instance I used to get quite incensed (quietly so), when Irish people I was less acquainted with seemed all too eager to tell me about their charitable deeds towards Africa. My long-term conditioning had taught me that such conversations were always meant as subtle reminders that the world was divided into two, a superior camp and an inferior camp, and that I belonged in the latter. I would jump in with the quickness of lightening to make assertions such as that slavery was one of the significant drivers of the industrial revolution in Europe and America in the 16th century, and that due credit should be given to Africa.

Today when I think of such situations I cringe to no end with embarrassment. I have since discovered that Irish people just like spreading happiness and positivity so much so that I almost always take compliments from my Irish friends with two pinches of salt – I mean, everything is brilliant, amazing and awesome.

The most valuable, heart-warming gesture 

All in all my experiences of Ireland, like everyone else’s – immigrants and natives – have been a normal tapestry of pleasure and pain. However, my pleasurable experiences by far outweigh my painful ones.

One such treasured moment took place in 2005 when I worked in Dun Laoghaire County Council as a Community and Enterprise Officer. I worked on a floor that also had a public counter for the public to access council services. There were about 50 of us in the office and I was the only black person.

A young Irish girl of about 20 who was doing work experience on the same floor in a different section from mine, responded to the bell at the public counter. The client at the counter wanted to speak with a ‘Sinead McGee’. Guess what the young lassie did! Didn’t she make a straight beeline for me, the darkest face in the building and said, “Excuse me, are you Sinead McGee?” To this day I regret bitterly that I didn’t hug that girl because that was the first instinct that occurred to me. That gesture, to me, is more valuable than the Irish passport.

I have numerous heart-warming experiences of Ireland and Irish people, in fact I might just put them all in a book in the near future – it’s a promise.

Thabi Madide is the author of A Zebra in My Lounge, a story that helps children build perceptions of equality, sameness, and friendliness between black and white people of South Africa and the world over.

Africa Day celebrations are taking place across the country this week, with the flagship event of music and culture taking place in Farmleigh, Phoenix Park on Sunday, 24th May. Visit for further details.

‘My experience in Ireland has been quite simply incredible’

Ireland isn’t as welcoming as it used to be

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