Belfast Telegraph

The Irish are coming, but Christchurch needn't fear

An exodus of Irish builders, from north and south, will help to re-build earthquake-hit New Zealand, proving that emigration is still a huge part of our story, writes Malachi O'Doherty

It's a nice thought that, though the Irish never colonised any part of the world, they have influenced most of it. In fact, it used to be a proud boast of Irish nationalists that British colonisation could not have proceeded without Irish people being on hand to do the spadework.

A verse in an old song, quoted by Daniel O'Connell in some of his speeches, celebrates that smug thought:

At famed Waterloo

Duke Wellington would look blue

If Paddy was not there too,

Says the Shan Van Vocht.

Irish emigrants in New Zealand are contributing now to the reconstruction of Christchurch, damaged by earthquake. The city needs 8,000 construction workers and one uncharitably phrased news report in the country says Christchurch is about to be "overrun by Irishmen'', as if that is something to be dreaded.

The construction companies are advertising on Irish websites, with high expectations of finding eager builders who have been impoverished by the economic collapse here. It is the old story; that employment prospects for the Irish are often better abroad than at home. And a workforce with that tradition is well-attuned to opportunities for making big money in far-off places.

When I look at my own family, all of the four brothers have worked abroad. One had holiday work on Butlins holiday camps. Another worked on oil rigs in the North Sea. Another was a fitter for Mackies, working in several European countries.

I picked fruit in England, taught English to the Libyan army in Tripoli and took things at a more contemplative pace for a few years in India. At a St Patrick's night party in New Delhi, I drank Jameson's whiskey with grumpy Christian Brothers.

It seems that an essential part of growing up Irish has been to be shaped by exile and nostalgia. Our songs are replete with that pining.

And future songs will be about repairing New Zealand while dreaming of good stout, or the Atlantic breeze, for we do homesickness like no one else can.

Of course, the construction workers will have less to complain about when they can talk to home on Skype every night.

It may be that the old version of exile and estrangement has been overtaken by technology and that the thousands heading south to rebuild Christchurch will never be as decisively cut off from home as earlier generations were. And maybe it won't be possible to produce those doleful songs of lonely nights under foreign skies when you're just a text message away.

The Irish workers have not always been loved. There is a hint of the expectation that their arrival in New Zealand will not be warmly received by everyone in that use of the word "overrun'' in the newspaper article. But why should anyone think that Irish builders who need work and money would be a problem? It appears that the reputation of the hard-fighting and hard-drinking navvy is pestering the New Zealand imagination.

Irish navvies built the North American railways and buried many of their own dead beside the track, but this is not remembered as heroic endeavour and self-sacrifice. Instead, the stories and songs recall fighting and drinking. It may well be that the cliche of the drunken Irishman derives more from the behaviour of lonely and frustrated bands of men in foreign countries than from the sights seen on Irish streets.

But surely that derives, too, from the unhappy condition of men who were overworked and underpaid, who had no prospects of getting home again.

William King's wonderful novel, Leaving Ardglass, describes the angsts and antics of Irish builders in London in the 1950s, many of whom wasted their lives there, making only enough money to drown the pain of separation, getting further each year from any prospect of going back home with savings and dignity.

Many of those men were homeless and pathetic on the streets of London for years afterwards, believing that no one back in Ireland would welcome the sight of them on the step.

Ireland is misunderstood abroad if it is understood through the legendary squalor of the migrants and pettiness of missionaries. For the other stereotype is of our cloying religiosity. The most common human export from this island was the missionary priest.

And the days of our exporting religion are not quite over, though recruitment to Catholic missionary orders has virtually stopped.

We may not be exporting Catholicism anymore, but this country generates an awesome enthusiasm for evangelical religion and literal readings of the Bible.

When Armenia had an earthquake in 1988, Irish people flocked there, too, but they were not all construction workers. They included fishers of souls.

Years later, I was invited to meet the head of the Armenian Church, the Catholicos Karekin II, when I was at a conference there.

I saw the ancient foundations of the historic church at Echmiadzin, including the relics, among which was the blade of the sword that pierced the side of Christ on the cross. Well, that's what they told me.

As soon as the Catholicos heard I was from Northern Ireland, the man's face darkened. He said people from here had taken advantage of the earthquake to evangelise among Armenians and turn them away from their church. He seemed afraid I might get up to the same kind of carry-on myself.

And that's why Christchurch fears being "overrun by Irishmen''; because we are naively expected to be like those who went before us.

And some of us are and some of us aren't.

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