The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Scholars debate Ireland’s ability to learn from history

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ireland’s ability to avoid the mistakes of past immigration policies in the United States and Europe was questioned by two scholars Tuesday as part of the continued “Race and Immigration in the New Ireland” conference.

Yale professor Matthew Frye Jacobson and Notre Dame professor Tony Messina explored the question of what Ireland can learn from the immigration experiences of other developed nations in front of an audience in the McKenna Hall auditorium.

To begin the lecture, Jacobson – who focuses on American and African studies at Yale – gave a brief overview of the history of the United States’ policies on immigration. He delved into American history with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that only free white persons should be granted citizenship.

“The key phrase in this is ‘free white persons’ which existed in the books for 160 years,” Jacobson said.

He linked the subsequent mistreatment of different racial groups – including the internment of Japanese people during World War II and more recently, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border – with the racist mentality behind the denial of citizenship found in the naturalization act.

“People say there is democracy here in this country, and over there, there is a little glut called racism. But it is over there, away from our democracy,” Jacobson said. “However, racism and democracy have been completely intertwined for 200 years”.

That relationship continues to influence modern immigration policies, which is why Jacobson said he is not sure Ireland can learn from American history and avoid similar pitfalls.

“I am a little skeptical about one nation giving a lesson to another one, but the good news for Ireland is that some things that might be impossible in the United States might be possible in Ireland,” Jacobson said.

Messina, a political science professor, said he was also hesitant and unsure that Ireland could avoid immigration policies that are rooted in racial thoughts by studying the history of both the United States and other European countries.

“I conclude that Ireland can learn very little from Europe, so I change the question. The question I ask is to ‘To what extent does immigration in Ireland’s case look like other cases?'” Messina said.

He said one of the most important and most common forces behind immigration is the need for labor.

“Contemporary immigration is an interest-driven phenomenon. Ireland and the migration to Ireland evolved in direct response to acute labor shortage,” Messina said.

The only difference, he said, is that “Ireland’s experiences are 40 years removed from the experiences of other countries. And also, what has happened in these countries [in terms of immigration] is happening in half the time in Ireland”.

Messina said eastern European, African and Chinese immigrants that poured into Ireland settled down and began participating in the country’s cultural life a lot faster than immigrants in other countries. This difference, he said, sets Ireland apart and consequently, reduces the applicability of the European and American immigration experiences to those of Ireland.

Like Jacobson, Messina said he believes both the outcomes of past influxes and the future of immigrants in Ireland are promising. He showed opinion polls that said Ireland is more tolerant of other races than the native people of other countries.

“I am actually beginning to suspect that the strong civic bonds of Irish society work toward acceptance of immigration and integration,” Messina said.

And although neither speaker assured that Ireland can learn from the mistakes and successes of American and European immigrations policies, they both have a positive outlook on Ireland’s ability to become a diverse nation as a result of its people’s openness and acceptance of immigrants.

“This is a road that has to travel itself out, and the Irish seem to be traveling on a more positive road,” Messina said.

The conference, hosted by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies will conclude tonight with the presentation of the play “The Kings of The Kilburn High Road” in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.