Immigrants now account for ten per cent of the Irish population yet it’s rare we talk to them when we’re not at the McDonald’s drive-through. Stuck with low paying jobs Irish people don’t want to do, lodged in housing Irish people don’t want to live in and hidden from a society that treats their presence with ambivalence, beneath the surface of the country there’s a minor revolution going on. And in a nation obsessed with sport, we’ll see it sooner than we think.
Last August Basketball Ireland held a multi-cultural tournament, aimed at bringing different nationalities together on the court. Chinese, Lithuanians and Latvians; even some African Americans flew over from the States for the event, as an emotional coming together of races resulted in a spirit of sporting communion.
Roger Mason Junior and Calvin Booth, stars for the Washington Wizards NBA, showed some of their hands to players unused to their sparkling earrings and designer hoodies. Mason and Booth are multi-millionaires, signed to multi-million dollar contracts, raised in Washington by middle-class families. They are not stereotypes, they are not superstars who found a way out of the ghetto through basketball but they recognise the need to spread their gospel. Basketball is what they love, they cherish it, nurture their talents and work hard to stay centre stage. Someday they envisage scouts coming to Ireland on a regular basis, someday they think the NBA will cross the Atlantic and a European team will take a place in the big league. Someday they hope their acceptance by American society will translate into other languages.
“We have a message, basketball is a universal language, a hook shoot is the same, a jump shot is the same. There are no differences on the basketball court, there are no barriers," says Calvin Booth, a 6′ 11 centre whose difference off the court isn’t so much obvious as shadowing across the floor of the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght.
“The lifestyle that basketball has given us is a privilege. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for basketball, it gives us opportunities to travel, this is my first time in Ireland. It’s a privilege to do what we do,” says Mason Junior, whose ear bling sparkles as he speaks but his manner is grounded, his perspective down to earth. So is his team-mates.
“It’s hard work doing what we do but then hard work is relative. This isn’t hard work compared to a guy working on a building site all day.”
The hard work is off the court. Breaking down barriers, encouraging others and convincing people, today it’s the new Irish immigrants, that sport can help them integrate into society, can help them become accepted and help Irish people become more accepting towards them.
Basketball is a king among sports in Eastern Europe. In Lithuania and the Czech Republic it’s bigger than soccer and the flood of non-nationals to Ireland has seeded a new wave of dreamers. The Lithuanians could run their own league. If they started one in the morning they’d have 12 teams. The Filipinos already have a league with six teams while the Chinese spend their time shooting hoops in Mountjoy Square, in the heart of inner-city Dublin.
Yet they face problems because no one knows about them, their own papers – another industry growing at a phenomenal rate – struggle to publicise and report on their games in the absence of resources, while the Chinese suffer through intimidation and nervousness about playing the game at all.
“They have to play in private now, in gyms and schools where they have to pay to play, because they were abused at the court in Mountjoy Square. They were attacked a few months ago by an inner-city gang of teenagers and three people ended up in hospital,” says Frank Heran Suo, Editor of the Shining Emerald Chinese Newspaper. The hoops were taken down, either by the guards or the locals, and they don’t play basketball there anymore.
Chinese people tend to be excitable and if a Chinese player ever appeared on an inter-county football team or an Eircom League pitch, the turnstiles would be spinning and the tills would be singing.
“Chinese are very emotional people, very excitable. They would get excited if they only got a free ticket for something. China will eventually have the biggest economy, we’ll have a bigger soccer team than Japan. There are two Chinese players at Crystal Palace at the moment and they sell a lot of jerseys for the club,” adds Heran Suo.
It’s not just basketball where the cultural revolution is taking shape. In Cork there’s a Polish six-a-side soccer league, run with the help of Cork City. Of all the new nationalities to find a new home in Ireland, the Polish have done it in the greatest numbers. A white, Catholic country repressed for decades, and often too fond of alcohol, find a lot in common with their Irish cousins yet they sail through their new lives without impacting on their new country to the extent that they could.
“We had a one-off tournament in Nemo Rangers at the start of the year but it was such a success that we helped them start a league which they run every Sunday in Bishopstown. They have 14 teams and in September the top two teams will play the top two teams from a similar league in Dublin. They’re really organised. We had people from the African Community playing in Turner’s Cross another day and there was a kid from Mali there, and he was top notch. We even had managers from local teams in Cork scouting for new players at it,” says Adrian Desmond, Cork City Club Promotions Officer.
The problem is that this new talent is off the radar. Whether it’s through sport or through work.
“I’ve met guys working as cleaners who are qualified PE teachers back home. It’s a waste of their time to be doing those jobs. The money is great for them compared to what they would earn in Poland but they could be contributing to Irish society in a much more meaningful way. If you make Irish a requirement for teaching you’re shutting out a lot of people and you need teachers from different backgrounds because the students are from different backgrounds,” says Garret Mullan, the Irish National co-ordinator of Show Racism the Red Card, an initiative supported by the Department of Justice to combat racism in sport. It’s about more than that though.
“We’ve heard stories of 10-year-old kids getting random, drive-by abuse. In order to have integration in Ireland we need immigrants to look at the GAA, soccer and rugby and think that’s something they can do too. Sport can improve our health, it gives kids something to do rather than hanging around street corners but we’re not investing enough into it. This isn’t rocket science.”
Mullan used to work with the Simon Community’s Outreach programme for homeless people. When he put together a national soccer team of homeless people, he found brick walls instead of funding for some gear. He tells a story of a former U21 Dublin hurler who slipped away from the game, became homeless and was left to waste on the
streets, strung out on heroin. "Homelessness is a state of mind as much as anything. We’re not about charity, charity is a misery business," he argues.
In October Show Racism the Red Card is releasing a DVD featuring well known Irish sports stars in an effort to foster greater social harmony. It’s an attempt to bring more people into sport instead of them looking on from the outside and turning away. The DVD will be sent to primary and secondary schools because this as much an educational effort as it as a utopian dream.
“I worked with the original Red Card campaign in Newcastle. It started in 1995, two years after the Stephen Lawrence murder. We got Shaka Hislop, the Newcastle United goalkeeper to visit all the schools in the area. He told a story of when was at a shop one day and some kids starting abusing him because he was black. When they realised who he was they stopped and went over looking for autographs instead.”
Now the Irish version brings sporting stars like Sean Óg Ó’hAilpín (Cork hurler), Paul Casey (Dublin footballer), Joseph Ndo (Eircom League) Justin Naughton (Irish basketballer) and Kevin Kilbane (Premiership) together to talk about their experiences. Tellingly O hAilpín, the most recognisable face of Irish sport, is reluctant to speak about specific incidents of racial abuse because he feels he’ll open a can of worms.
“The GAA are living in the 1980s and they haven’t moved on. There’s no diversity within either of the clubs I played with in Balbriggan and Howth. Balbriggan is a very diverse town but the GAA club doesn’t reflect that. The GAA has the best facilities of any sport in the country so they are in the best position to facilitate new people.”
Ó hAilpín tells a story on the DVD which offers a glimpse at the future. In his own club, Na Piarsaigh in Cork, there’s a new star rising through the ranks. He’s a twelve year old hurler with bundles of talent. It’s nothing new for Na Piarsaigh, nothing new for the county. Except the kid is from Romania.
New names, new faces. Same stories.