It was back in summer, and a friend was walking to his apartment in the north inner-city of Dublin at about two in the morning. He’d just finished up a shift as a kitchen porter and was heading to the sort of living conditions that ought to have us both ashamed and angry as a people.
He had a far bigger problem than that though. Namely the colour of his skin.
Originally from Mauritius, three men punched and beat him to a pulp, spitting racism as they cut him open. Looking back on it, however, he wasn’t in any major way surprised. Nor should you be. That’s where we’ve reached.
It’s almost expected by those who come to our country to make a life for themselves.
It’s only a couple of years since another mate was walking down George’s Street when he tried to stop a group driving kicks into the body of a man on the ground they were referring to proudly and loudly to as “a black bastard”. They turned on him next for trying to get in the way and left him in hospital as well. Indeed home on a visit recently, the normalisation of racism in public places was disturbing. In two bars on the same day, the word “nigger” was easily overheard. There was no shame from those using it and no reaction from those hearing it.
This is Ireland 2019, it seems.
There’s plenty wrong so blame needs to be apportioned, and the easiest and therefore most common method is to point at those who won’t and can’t put up any sort of defence. They look different or talk different or eat differently or worship differently. Therefore it’s on them.
The above is the anecdotal, but behind it is the sad strength of the empirical.
A recent survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency showed that such racism in Ireland is way above the continent-wide average, with 17 per cent of immigrants saying they faced discrimination at work, three per cent saying they suffered racist violence, and 38 per cent saying they’ve been abused verbally. Think about that. If you’re an immigrant you’ve greater than a one-in-three chance of being picked on and nearly a one-in-30 chance of assault.
What’s this to do with sport, you ask?
Well, nothing. But also potentially, and wonderfully, everything.
* * *
Earlier this month, I stood in a room with one of my modern-day sporting heroes.
Rhasidat Adeleke may not yet be 18, but in terms of reasons to look up to an athlete, she ticks the most crucial of boxes. Basically, she makes many proud to be Irish and proud of what Ireland can be. Rightly or wrongly that’s based on more than even her massive on-track achievements.
For amidst much bile in her homeland, today it’s vital to be able to point to the child of immigrants and announce that she has already done more for her country than most will ever manage to do. She didn’t know it as she went about maximising her talent, but in becoming a champion she also became a face of a modern nation and a telling reminder of so much that’s good about opening borders and slowly and thankfully opening up our horizons. Granted, being at the forefront of a new Ireland isn’t easy for there are those who hate what’s being achieved.
If you want an example, take our latest bunch of athletics stars including Adeleke, and also the likes of Patience Jumbo-Gula and Gina Akpe-Moses. Across their many triumphs in recent years, one person in Athletics Ireland admits they’ve had a task deleting online comments that questioned if they were actually from here, asked where their Nigerian flag was as they celebrated with a tricolour, and went as far as the Cote d’Ivoire-based abuse after a then-16-year-old in Jumbo-Gula hurriedly slapped a sticker of the Irish flag on backwards in a mirror.
That last case reduced a mere child to tears, all for trying to make her country proud and for doing her best.
Have we no shame? That’s not just aimed at those behind the comments, but those who tolerate it.
If more and more people are forced to listen and see this sort of racism in every-day life, such successes help fight back though. After all, while a growing minority and an increasing fringe of lunatics want to tell you that “they” are some sort of problem, those same athletes keep achieving while showing that they are instead the solution. To achieve within such toxicity is amazing. To shut up the abuse with such positive acts is glorious.
Sport is strange for it brings out the worst, but also the very best. Too often we forget to pay homage to the latter.
Of late we’ve had high-profile incidents around racism in sport in Italy, England and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, in recent days, the Ukraine FA banned Brazilian player Taison for reacting to racist abuse from supporters when playing for Shakhtar Donetsk. This, of course, needs to be called out in the most withering terms but let’s not ignore the flip-side around sport. Every day, arguably more than any other activity, it brings together despite those desperately trying to use any and all to divide. It shouldn’t need to, but it shows we’re all the same.
Consider what it’s done from those trying to fit in and find a constant in a new place and also consider the effect it has around perception.
This is the Ireland where Sanita Puspure can come and make a life for herself and adopt the country as her own.
This is the Ireland where Zak Moradi can arrive as a refugee from Iraq and swing a hurl for his home of Leitrim in Croke Park.
This is the Ireland where Rhasidat Adeleke’s parents can arrive from Nigeria to make a life for themselves and where their daughter can wrap the flag around her shoulders and give us all moments to bask in.
These additions to the sporting and general landscape have made for the most brilliant tales.
Theirs aren’t the stories you hear from a growing alt-right, because they are exactly the true stories which show the reality of immigration and the reality of the island as a melting pot of cultures. That’s important beyond what they ever signed up for because there are some relatively prominent voices suggesting they are some sort of threat.
During the week Gemma O’Doherty’s latest video (we have long been reluctant to give her acts oxygen but there’s a line that’s been crossed) showed her adding to the racist statistics and she harassed a Muslim man working as a butcher. In his shop, she insisted she wanted pork and got mad. Her mental health isn’t an excuse for her outlook anymore, but if she has issues then a bigger worry is she can still attract a serious and growing following.
Those who goose-step in her shadow are a baffling and dangerous bunch who believe in pushing the idea of white, European, Christian fundamentalism and exploit a disillusion to gain a following. At best, they are putting in the same ingredients as the Nazi movement and expecting a very different ending, at worst they know exactly what they are doing and push on anyway.
Their argument makes little sense as they see Irishness as some sort of stand-alone concept exempt from the world, when in fact the Irish came from central Europe and over the centuries mixed with, among many others, Vikings, Normans and English, thus producing the culture we have today. It’s not under threat as those who come integrate as they’ve always done, and that very culture evolves as it has always done. Sport shows this, as it’s a cornerstone of who and what we are, with the likes of Adeleke adding to this hugely. She’s a massive part of Irishness.
And yet, despite their arguments being farcical, O’Doherty and her ilk are far from alone.
On the other side of the country, Noel Grealish has seen an opening in the domestic market for a right-wing xenophobe, deciding that those who risk limb and life to get into our brutal direct provision system fall into two groups, with the non-white non-Catholic variety not being the sort he wants around him. It’s not that long since a similar attitude of us-and-them bumped Peter Casey from two per cent to 23 per cent in the presidential vote, and all for attacking the Travelling community. Even the main political institutions are turning a blind eye, with Verona Murphy on the Fine Gael ticket despite saying, and therefore believing, that Islamic State was “a big part of the migrant population” and Fianna Fail candidate and Seanad member Lorraine Clifford Lee managing to have a go at Travellers, Brazilians and black people all in one outburst.
They all want to scare when there’s nothing to be scared of. And it’s working.
The great boxing coach Nicholas Cruz Hernandez spoke of how most in Dublin had never seen a black person in the 1980s and how those in the pub called him Black Paddy as a term of endearment and helped him to settle. Come the 1990s there were seeds of hope too when a young Traveller by the name of Francis Barrett went to the Olympics with the heartwarming tale that was supposed to smooth over the gaps we like to create, as his qualification for Atlanta was more about trying to get electricity for his site rather than winning a medal.
But curiosity and hope have given way to devolution and a whole lot of hatred.
This is where sport comes in for there is no comeback for those desperate to degrade.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get Casey’s thoughts on Barrett and more recently Joe Ward?
Wouldn’t it be nice to get Grealish’s and Murphy’s thoughts on Moradi?
Wouldn’t it be nice to get O’Doherty’s and Clifford-Lee’s thoughts on Adeleke?
Regardless of what these tell you, a generation are giving us a very new and exciting reason to be proud of where we are from.
This is sport at its very best. Just as these athletes are our Ireland at its very best.