Integration in Ireland's most diverse towns: Ballyhaunis

The small Mayo town has changed massively since the 1970s

Integration in Ireland's most diverse towns: Ballyhaunis

The Mosque in the compound of the United Meat Packers factory in Ballyhaunis Co Mayo. 20/3/1992 (Rolling News/Eamonn Farrell)

In a four part series, George Hook is examining integration efforts in the most diverse towns in Ireland, as recorded by the 2011 census.

Those include Ballyhaunis in Mayo, Longford Town, Oranmore in Galway, and Balbriggan in Dublin.

The first to be discussed was Ballyhaunis, which according to the 2011 census has a population of 2,269 - just over 40% of whom were not born in Ireland or the UK, the highest figure anywhere in the state.

George spoke to a number of residents about how the town has change since immigration began in the 1970s and how new communities have integrated with Mayo locals.

Evan O'Dwyer, solicitor and resident

Local solicitor Evan O'Dwyer identified three phases of migration into Ballyhaunis. The first was during the 1970s, when a Pakistani man bought a local abattoir with the intention of providing to the expanding market in halal meat.

He arrived in 1974, bringing along his immediate and extended family. The factory was a huge success, employing over 1,000 people at its height, but has since fallen into financial difficulties and entered liquidation.

In the '90s, a number of Syrians moved into Ballyhaunis, also to work in the meat industry, but not in connection with the abattoir. Around this time a mosque was established in the town by the burgeoning Muslim population.

The third phase came with when a local convent was turned into a Direct Provision centre to house several hundred asylum seekers, many of whom arrived from Africa.

Though O'Dwyer was broadly positive about the town multi-cultural makeup, praising the efforts of schools and the GAA, but said there has still not been "full integration", especially regarding those resident in the Direct Provision centre, which has been described as holding people in "abject poverty."

He said there was no communication between the Department of Justice, which operates the highly-controversial Direct Provision system and the local community, which has been left to manage integration by itself.

Eoin Butler, journalist and resident

Ballyhaunis resident Eoin Butler said integration efforts have left much to be desired:

"There's very little in the way of obvious racial tension; everyone gets along fine [but] there is a sense of different communities living parallel existences to each other and not really interacting," he said.

When he was in school during the '80s and '90s, children from non-Irish backgrounds spoke English without difficulty, but he said this has changed.

Butler believes the growing migrant community means there is less impetus to learn English, which could impede integration.

He identified the Direct Provision centre as a gloomy, unpleasant 19th Century building, where families have no private space, and residents are unable to interact with locals in the town due to a measly weekly stipend of €19.10 and restrictions on admitting guests.

"In 20 years time... people will recognise it for the injustice that it is," he said, adding that he "would feel tremendous sympathy for those that are stuck in that system."

The United meat Packers plan in Ballyhaunis .20/3/92 (Rolling News/Eamonn Farrell)

Fr Stephen Farragher, parish priest

Though the majority of arrivals since the '70s have been Muslim, local priest Fr. Stephen Farragher has seen his flock grow too, largely due to the African community living in the Direct Provision centre.

Farragher said schools are the crucial site for integration, but that those in Ballyhaunis are not given enough language support.

He identified a number of cultural issues including the social dependence of the Irish on drinking and the role of women in Muslim households, and said the town must continue to strike the balance between "recognising diversity without emphasising difference."

Though he said the size of the town makes ghettoisation highly unlikely, but more support needs to be given to the community to ease integration.

"There's only so much voluntary bodies can do," he added.

Darren Conlan, GAA volunteer

Each resident George spoke to highlighted the mix of cultures seen at Ballyhaunis GAA club, where Darren Conlan organised an integration days last July.

Conlan was prompted to run the event after visiting the Direct Provision centre, where he believes residents are unable to engage with the local community.

"Every day is integration day in Ballyhaunis GAA because it has to be," he said.

The club faces some competition from a cricket club set up by Asian residents. Though the cricket club does not attract a lot of Irish, it did provide one of the best received floats in this year's St Patrick's Day parade, of which the Pakistani community were a "pivotal part."

The same was not true for Direct Provision residents, Conlan said. One parent he spoke to was unaware of the parade even though it was due to pass by the front of the centre.

He expressed sympathy for the residents, saying the converted convent "wouldn't be conducive to normal family life." 

Recently, a group of local business people have gotten together with the goal of promoting local business and raising the town's profile as a place to do business.

You can follow the Go Ballyhaunis campaign on Twitter https://twitter.com/goballyhaunis and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/goballyhaunis/

The series on Ireland's most diverse towns will continue throughout the week.