By Elisa Joy White (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa)  

The early twenty-first century marks the beginning of a substantial African Diaspora community in Ireland however individuals of African descent have been notably present in Dublin, Ireland and throughout the country at other periods. In addition to the more well-known presence of Olaudah Equiano, who toured Ireland in 1791, eighteenth century documentation reveals an estimated 1000-3000 Blacks living in Ireland, primarily in Dublin, at various times (Hart 2002: 21) and other research indicates at least 167 “sightings” of Blacks in the nation (Rodgers 2007: 127). The eighteenth century Black population mostly consisted of enslaved and free servants, seafarers, and entertainers (Hart 2002).The nineteenth century African Diaspora presence in Ireland is reflective of the abolitionist movement and the positive Irish reception of individuals, such as Charles Lenox Remond, Sarah Parker Remond, William C. Nell, Henry Highland Garnet, William G. Allen, and Frederick Douglass, who passed through the nation to advance the cause of Black freedom in the Americas. The twentieth century, a period of a newly independent Republic of Ireland after 1921, mostly saw in-migration of Africans arriving to study at the Royal College of Surgeons and other Irish institutions. This small transient population, as a result of relationships between African men and Irish women, also produced children; many of whom were placed in orphanages. The children were often stigmatized in their communities and experienced race-based discrimination, as represented in the stories of Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, who discusses his navigation of anti-Black sentiments and a difficult quest for identity in his memoir, Back from the Brink (McGrath 2006), and the racism experienced as a youth by Irish rock star, Phil Lynott (Putterford 2002). Overall, until the more recent in-migration of the early twentieth-first century, individuals of African descent in Ireland have been a rare presence and mostly considered in the contexts of charity and missionary work abroad.

The in-migration of the African Diaspora to Ireland is reflective of a changing Irish nation, as the formerly impoverished Republic of Ireland is historically known for its out-migration and global Irish Diaspora. The Republic of Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 and, as a result of financial support emerging out of its EEC and, later, European Union (EU) membership, experienced an economic boom in the 1990s that was characterized as a “Celtic Tiger” economy. As a result, Ireland became a destination for immigrants, which included Black migrants already present on the European continent (including EU and European Economic Area nationals) and individuals from continental Africa.
While there were African migrants that arrived with work permits, student visas, business permissions, and travel visas, such modes of migration were mostly inaccessible for African nationals. Prior to the global economic crises manifest in 2008 and the reported end of the “Celtic Tiger” years noted as early as 2001 (see McManus 2001; Hennessy 2001), Ireland needed 350,000 workers, of which 200,000 would be foreign labour (Walshe 2001; White 2002a). However, businesses did not aggressively recruit from African nations, except for South Africa which offered a potentially majority White workforce (White 2009). Africans who desired to migrate to Ireland found their primary option in the realm of asylum seeking and, therefore, significant increases in the Black population occurred in the context of asylum procedures.
Between 1992 and 2002, there was an increase from an overall 39 new asylum applicants in 1992 to 11,634 applicants in 2002 (ORAC 2002). Of the 11,634 in the year 2002 there were 4050 Nigerians, making Nigeria number one in the “six most stated country of origin” list, Zimbabwe number four, with 357 new applicants, and 4349 applicants listed as “other,” which included African nationals (ORAC 2002:6). Even as asylum applications were significantly reduced after 2009, due to economic crises and deportation measures, Nigerian applicants, totaling 569, still held the number one position in the “top 5 nationalities” list, individuals from Zimbabwe, at 91 applicants, were in the number five position, and 1,476 applicants were listed as “other,” which included Africans (ORAC 2009: 6).
The African Diaspora community is nationally, linguistically, ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically diverse. Countries of origin include Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and, inter alia, Zimbabwe. Within each national origin, various regions and ethnic groups are also represented, such as the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria. Statistics on the African community often specify Nigerians and South Africans yet locate other African nationals in an all- encompassing “other Africa” category. Early data on work permit allocation between the years 1994-1996 reflect the diversity of the African Diaspora community at the end of the twentieth century, with permits granted to individuals from twenty-five African and six Caribbean nations (Dept. of Justice1994–1996; DETE 1994–1996). Initially, the community was widely present in the nation’s capital, Dublin. Even after the asylum-related Dispersal Scheme (discussed below), Dublin still served as a locus of the African community because the north city centre areas of Parnell Street and Moore Street contained African shops, restaurants, beauty salons and other businesses that served the diverse community (White 2002; White 2012).Additionally, Africans transplanted methods of worship practiced in the homeland to storefronts and church spaces in Dublin and eventually elsewhere in the nation, particularly in forms of Christian Pentecostalism prevalent in contemporary African nations (Ugba 2007).
The presence of the African Diaspora community was not efficiently documented until the Irish Census of 2006, which included questions about ethnic and national background and racial self-identification for the first time in the Republic of Ireland. The results revealed that there were a total of 4,172,013 persons in the nation with 3,706,683 listed as “Irish” (including members of the Irish Diaspora now resident in Ireland) (Irish Census 2006a). The “Irish” figure includes individuals of African descent born in Ireland before the end of jus soli citizenship rights in 2004 and 5,589 individuals born in Africa (including individuals racialized as Black and others racialized as White). In 2006, 16,300 individuals noted their nationality as Nigerian and 16,677 individuals stated Nigeria as their place of birth (Irish Census 2006a). A total of 35,326 individuals noted an African nationality and 33,466 declared an African nation as their place of birth (Irish Census 2006a).The “Black or Black Irish” category includes 11,068 individuals identifying as “African” and 1,420 identifying as “Any other Black background” who were born in Ireland (Irish Census 2006b). The “Total Irish” category includes 11,440 in the “African” origin category and 1,546 in the “Any other Black background” category (Irish Census 2006b). The 2006 Census data indicate that there is a total of 12,986 “Black Irish” and an overall total of 44,318 individuals identifying as “Black” in the Republic of Ireland; a 1 percent black population in a nation of 4,172,013 people (Irish Census 2006a; 2006b; White 2012).

The presence of Africans in the asylum process has intersected with xenophobia and the loss of a perceived homogeneous Whiteness in Ireland, which is manifest in anti-migrant organizations, such as Áine Ní Chonaill’s Immigration Control Platform, and anti-immigration sentiments that characterize asylum seekers as “scammers” who take advantage of a “soft touch” Ireland (White 2012). At the EU-level, it is notable that the Dublin Regulation II (2008) [which replaced the 1990 Dublin Convention (I and II)] is so named because the initial provision, now EU law, was written in Dublin, and fundamentally requires that individuals seek asylum in the first nation of arrival. Individuals arriving from locations without direct flights to Ireland, such as Nigeria, must go through the UK or continental Europe before arriving in Ireland and should ostensibly be ineligible to have an asylum claim considered in the Irish state. On the state-level, in 2004 the Irish voted (70% in favour) to amend the Constitution to end jus soli citizenship, which in effect prevented children of foreign nationals from being considered Irish at birth. The support for a constitutional amendment particularly resulted from a widely expressed, yet erroneous, perception that pregnant African women were arriving in Ireland to give birth in order to receive leave to remain due to parentage of an Irish child (Lentin 2003; White 2012).
Ireland’s asylum-related policies have a major impact upon African Diaspora communities, as exemplified by the Dispersal Scheme and Direct Provision. The Dispersal Scheme began in 1999 and reflects an attempt to forestall the concentration of African immigrants in the Dublin city centre (see Brady 2000a). The policy involves the placement of asylum applicants in detention centres, mostly located in former hostels and B&Bs throughout the nation (e.g. Dundalk, Kilkenny, Waterford, Sligo), often in towns and villages that previously had very little to no Black presence. Direct Provision involves the allocation of full board (bed and all meals) and a weekly personal stipend of €19.10 and €9.60 per accompanying child (RIA website). The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), established in 2001 to administer the Dispersal Scheme and Direct Provision, has forty-six centers under its aegis, with a reception center in Dublin, an AC12 center (voluntary repatriation center for destitute EU nationals from the Accession States of 2004 and 2007, primarily from eastern Europe) also in Dublin, forty-two “direct provision accommodation centers” in eighteen counties across the country, and two self-catering accommodation centers, in County Dublin and County Louth (White 2012; RIA website http://; ). Asylum seekers do not have the right to work and must remain under the Direct Provision scheme until their status is determined (either via refugee status, leave to remain, or a manifestly unfounded asylum application resulting in deportation). During times of a backlog in the asylum process (particularly between 1999 and 2002, which peaked in 2000 with 11,437 unresolved cases) asylum seekers have been placed in an extended legal limbo (Brady 2000b; Irish Refugee Council 2005; INIS 2005). The policies have resulted in extreme isolation and, in prolonged cases, African descendent children growing up with parents who have never been permitted to work or cook a meal for the family. The inability to obtain employment also stokes migrant participation in the underground economy.
Deportations have a significant impact upon the African Diaspora community. Nigerians have been particularly targeted through “fast track” measures to expedite their movement through the asylum application process and facilitate deportation. There have been several high profile deportation cases, such as that of Olukunle Elukanlo, a nineteen year old deported to Lagos in his school uniform in 2005, the experiences of Iyabo Nwanze and Elizabeth Odunsi, two Nigerian women living in Athlone, County Westmeath, who were deported in a nationwide roundup in 2005, leaving three of their children behind, and from 2006-2011, the case of Pamela Izevbhekhai, a Nigerian businesswoman residing in Sligo, who feared her daughters would face female genital mutilation if deported (see White 2009; White 2012).

Overall, in the early days of the African Diaspora experience, incidents of anti-Black racism, including shouts of “nigger,” racist text messages, and skewed media that negatively characterized Blacks were the norm in Ireland. The first anti-racism protest was held in Dublin in 2000 when demonstrators marched on O’Connell Street to the Fitzgibbons Garda (police) Station after a Nigerian teenager was physically attacked in a Parnell Street fish and chip shop (see Dolan 2000; RAR 2000). Early studies revealed that numerous Blacks had experienced discrimination in housing and pubs, as well as physical and verbal abuse (Casey and O’Connell 2000; White 2012). For example, out of a sub-group of 121 African Diaspora immigrants, 58.6 percent said they had been discriminated against in “gaining entry to pubs,” 26.7 percent noted they had experienced “persistent verbal harassment,” and another 26.7 percent noted they had experienced “actual physical violence” due to their race (Casey and O’Connell 2000). A 2006 Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report revealed that “Black Africans experienced the most discrimination of all the groups studied. This is true of racism/discrimination in the work domain, in public places, in pubs/restaurants and in public institutions, even after accounting for other factors like education, age and length of stay” (ESRI 2006). Meanwhile, over the years non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organizations, such as Residents Against Racism, Anti-Racism Campaign, Anti-Fascist Action, the Irish Refugee Council, Africa Centre (African Solidarity Centre Limited), SPIRASI, AkiDwA, the Integration Centre, Comhlám’s Anti-Racism Awareness Project, Immigration Council of Ireland, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and the now-defunct National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI), inter alia, have worked to prevent racism in the nation, advocate for migrants rights and provide support for immigrant communities. At the state level, the Equality Authority was established in 1999 and the Irish Institute for Human Rights, in 2000, to address related violations, compile data and research solutions in an effort to enforce corresponding Irish Constitutional acts and EU directives.
An Garda Síochána (Ireland’s National Police Service) has attempted to rectify instances of racism and bias advanced by garda, which is particularly important because the police enforce immigration laws in the nation. The Garda Racial, Intercultural and Diversity Office (GIDO) was established in 2000 and holds an annual Diversity Consultation Day for community members and Garda staff. Additionally, in 2002 the Garda Commissioner authorized the appointment of Garda Ethnic Liaison Officers (ELO). Emerging out of the Irish government’s National Action Plan Against Racism 2005-2008, An Garda Síochána launched a Diversity Strategy and Implementation Plan 2009-2012, that advances “action, beyond mere legal compliance” and “sets out how An Garda Síochána will deliver on its commitment to champion, value and accommodate, where possible, all aspects of Diversity…” (An Garda Síochána 2009: i; emphasis in original).
In 2011, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) reported violations of United Nations Human Rights stipulations in the context of ethnic and migrant profiling – particularly of Blacks – crossing the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and at police, immigration and security checkpoints throughout the Republic of Ireland, including train stations, bus depots, and airports (MRCI 2011). The report notes that ethnic profiling, in addition to related racism and xenophobia, also “Damages Relationships between Minority Ethnic Communities and Police” and includes a quote from one interviewee stating: “I would have to think twice before going to them [An Garda Síochána], because of their attitude to Black people…” (MRCI 2011: 15).

In 2004 refugees and asylum seekers were granted the right to vote in local elections. In 2007 Rotimi Adebari, a former asylum seeker originally from Nigeria, became the first Black mayor in Ireland when he was elected mayor of Portlaoise in Co. Laois. By the 2009 elections, Black candidates represented a generation of former asylum seekers who were now residents and Irish nationals, with fifteen men and women of African descent running in local elections across the nation. The candidates, running with major political parties or as independents, notably included three Nigerian candidates competing in a County Council election in Mulhuddart, a Dublin suburb (see Anny-Nzekwue 2009). The outcome was not successful for most of the Black candidates, with the exception of Rotimi Adebari who won seats on his Town and County Councils in 2009. Even though the election experience was not devoid of anti-immigration sentiments and racism (see Onyejelem 2009), post-election analysis suggests that the low success rate was due to candidates’ unawareness of the Irish political system, multiple immigrants competing in the same jurisdiction, and canvassing in locales that did not include eligible constituents (Reilly 2009).
While the March 2011 Irish elections did not result in seats for Black candidates (Onyejelem 2011), two months later the African Diaspora was present in the political context of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland in May 2011. The American president, who has both Kenyan and Irish ancestry, was embraced by Ireland. The visit included a trip to President Obama’s Irish ancestral village, Moneygall, which was represented in the news media as a homecoming (Carty and Stack 2011; Lord 2011). Numerous individuals of African descent in Ireland celebrated his visit, which was both an important moment amidst a country in economic crisis and a representation of the nation embracing an individual of African descent as one of their own, a circumstance that many Blacks in Ireland continue to anticipate for their own future.

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