PORTLAOISE, Ireland — As revelers worldwide celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a pint of Guinness, dyed-green milk or visions of red-bearded leprechauns, it’s a good bet that few of them will have Rotimi Adebari in mind.
But, for those seeking an authentic vision of today’s Ireland, perhaps they should.
The election last year of Nigerian-born Adebari as mayor of Portlaoise is the most prominent manifestation of the changes sweeping this island, which is rapidly evolving from a land of emigration into one of immigration, where at least 1 in 10 people is foreign-born.
This transformation — fueled by a decade-long economic boom and relatively liberal immigration laws — means Ireland has gone from Western Europe’s poorest and most homogeneous country to one of its wealthiest and most cosmopolitan in little more than a generation.
For the first time in its history, Ireland, which sent hundreds of thousands of emigrants to the United States, Britain and elsewhere, is wooing large numbers of migrants.
That has forced the country — and communities like Portlaoise, a commuter town of 14,000 residents 50 miles southwest of Dublin — to get a crash course in integration.
“When I came into this town in 2000, I could count the number of people that are born outside of Ireland that live in Portlaoise,” said Adebari, the country’s first black mayor.
“But today it is a completely different story. The town has become so diverse, so multicultural,” he said.
Fastest-growing country in Europe
The Irish economy now depends on migrant workers — whether Asian medical personnel, Eastern European service staff or Polish construction workers.
“Whether or not we should have migrants in Ireland is not the debate in Ireland now. It’s actually all about can we retain the medium- to highly skilled migrants that we have,” said lawmaker Conor Lenihan, who was appointed as the country's first-ever integration minister in 2007.
In the 1980s, Ireland was barely able to retain its own. The unemployment rate was around 18 percent and thousands of young people were fleeing the country annually for Britain, the United States and elsewhere. The endless conflict in Northern Ireland along with divisive battles over social issues in the south combined to scare off the best and brightest.
The newest arrivals have helped boost Ireland’s population — now at around 4.2 million — to its highest level since 1861. It’s the fastest-growing country in Europe.
“I think attitudinally one of the issues that people took some time to adjust to was the idea that migration would be a permanent feature of Irish life,” Lenihan said. “People have now moved on and realized that they’re here to stay, they’re here for a long time. We’ve got to in a sense adjust ourselves to that reality.”
Under the most generous immigration laws in Europe, Ireland until 2003 automatically granted citizenship to foreign parents of Irish-born children and, until 2004, gave citizenship to Irish-born children whose parents were not Irish nationals.
A nation transformed
As the number of asylum applications and economic migrants rapidly began to increase, both laws were rescinded — the former by the high court in 2003 and the latter by national referendum the following year.
Although official statistics vary due to difficulties in monitoring movement within the open-bordered European Union, estimates for the number of Eastern Europeans — mostly Poles — living in Ireland range from 150,000 to 300,000. Since the mid-1990s Ireland also accepted an estimated 30,000 asylum seekers, especially from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Compared to the United States, the influx may not appear significant. Ireland remains nearly 95 percent white. But in a country that had virtually no people of color just a couple of decades ago, the change on the ground is unmistakable.
Parts of north Dublin, chiefly Parnell Street and nearby Capel Street, are developing into the country’s first Chinatown. Just yards away, on Moore Street, the Dublin brogues of the loquacious market vendors would be familiar to generations past, but the noodle shops that line the street would not.
On the south side of Dublin's River Liffey, the influx of young people from across Europe has helped the emerging arts and cafe culture in the trendy, cobble-stoned Temple Bar district rival its better known continental counterparts.
James Joyce once wrote that a “good puzzle would be [to] cross Dublin without passing a pub.” Soon, the riddle may be to cross the city without passing a Polish shop, Asian restaurant or Italian espresso bar.
The changes have extended to the entire country.
Brazil in the West
For example, in the western town of Gort (pop. 2,500) half the population is non-Irish, including nearly 900 Brazilians. To the south, in Ennis, Nigerian-born physician Taiwo Matthew became the first immigrant elected to local office when he won a seat on the town council in 2004. A Dublin-based South African dance studio owner, Joshua N. Amaechi, choreographed last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in the capital, the country’s largest.
In Portlaoise, Adebari, who arrived here as a refugee, has witnessed a transformation.
When he enrolled his son in the local primary school in 2000, he became the only foreign child out of a student body of around 300. By 2007, the school included more than 30 non-Irish children.
“I’d never have described Portlaoise as the hub of intercultural activities in the country, but that is how it has been in the last four years,” Adebari said.
Warmth and openness?
But the absorption of so many foreigners — especially those who may be nonwhite and non-Catholic — has at times tested Ireland’s reputation for warmth and openness.
Many economic migrants from non-EU countries complain the country appears to have an ad hoc immigration policy that, at best, leads to administrative headaches and, at worst, leads to abuses of vulnerable workers.
“They seem to not know the rules of their own country. One person at Immigration will give you one bit of rules and then the next person will tell you something totally different, which is contrary to what they’ve told you,” said Mark, a professional in his 40s who came to Ireland from a non-EU country three years ago. He spoke on condition his last name wasn't used as he's involved in a lawsuit with a former employer.
But unlike other European countries, Ireland has yet to have any major anti-immigration political parties. Still, acts of racism — and violence — are not unheard of.
“I mean, I lived in South Africa in very rough places like Jo’burg but I was never attacked, you know,” he said. “There are quite a few (attacks on non-Irish) but maybe they're not publicized as much as they should be.”
In Balbriggan, a Dublin suburb, children of African immigrants found themselves attending an all-black school this fall because the country’s overcrowded education system could not find a place for them in any existing schools. The incident was blamed on a paperwork snafu, but suspicions of racism lingered.
An open question remains how welcome recent arrivals will feel should the Irish economy begin a downturn and the competition for jobs becomes fierce.
The soaring cost of living is already testing Ireland's lure as a base for international companies.
"[The immigrants] have been a solution to the employment situation in recent years when there was extra labor wanted in the country," said Pat Martin, a Dublin wholesale vegetable retailer.
Speaking just steps away from Slattery's, a legendary pub whose staff is now almost entirely Eastern European, and bustling Capel Street, with its profusion of Polish bakeries and Asian foodshops, he noted that the economy seemed to be slowing, "which is not going to encourage [them] to stay.
“They could be going back to their home countries," he added, "or other countries which are booming.”
In Portlaoise, Adebari has tried to head off any future problems by starting a consultancy providing advice on getting immigrants and local residents working together. He hopes that his historic mayoralty will be a model for socially disadvantaged people in Ireland and beyond.
“I took on board the norms and values of the host community without throwing away my own norms and values as well,” Adebari said.
“Now I have two cultures, I can come in and out,” he said.
Straw in the wind
Lenihan, the government minister, called Adebari’s election an “interesting straw in the wind” regarding public sentiment toward immigration.
“He’s as clever and as ingenious as any Irish politician and I think that’s what comes across to the public down there, that this guy — forget about his color, forget about where he’s from or his ethnic identity — this man can deliver the goods in terms of his service to his constituents and his service to the town,” Lenihan said.
Some observers point out that immigration — whether by Celts, Normans, Britons or Vikings — is not a new phenomenon for Ireland.
In fact, the figure who arguably had the greatest single impact on the course of Irish history was a bearded, snake-charming holy man who hailed from Roman-ruled Britain.
His name was St. Patrick.
Multimedia producer John D McHugh contributed to this report.