One of the most striking characteristics of contemporary Ireland that I've noticed since returning home after several years in Britain, is the manner in which racists will openly share their discriminatory attitudes towards foreigners with you, as if it is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Irish racists assume (like racists in all countries) that their national or ethnic identity is superior to all others, and that as you too are Irish you must also be aware of your exalted status and the inferiority of other nationalities and races. This kind of open sharing of bigoted views with a stranger would rarely occur in Britain ( well at least not in the larger urban areas in England), not that there isn't racism there, on the contrary there is an abundance of it, and it emanates from all races, classes and ethnic backgrounds. However, in the larger multi-ethnic urban areas of Britain, interactions between people are more formal and rigid and their identities are less homogeneous than in Ireland. As a result of this, racists are less likely to share their views with you, even when you share the same skin colour and ethnicity. For all they know you could be from a mixed ethnic background or married to a Polish immigrant or a third generation British Asian. Racists across the pond tend to share their views with you gradually; they test the water. Alternatively, they join gangs of knuckle draggers like the BNP or English Defence League. Then they can get drunk together in town and city centres and engage in shouting matches with rival fascists from the Islamic tradition whilst the police act as referees.
Thankfully, in Ireland racial and cultural tensions (two distinctly different phenomena: the former being deplorable and the latter at times unfortunately unavoidable, and in some cases understandable) have yet to manifest themselves to the extreme degree that they sadly do every now and again in Britain. Racism in Ireland presents itself in amiable, comradely tones with a hint of sneering superiority directed at 'the other'.
Last week I had an encounter with this kind of genial racism. It is the type that is common with some Dublin taxi drivers. Only this time it wasn't in a taxi, but as I was sitting on a bench queuing for a space in the sauna at my local swimming pool. At first I thought the man in question might be some kind of pervert, due to him reaching down in to his tight, skimpily fitted swimming togs and shampooing his scrotal and buttock region with gusto in an openly public area,as members of both sexes passed by him. It didn't seem to bother or disturb him one bit that he was on full view to passing strangers. It was like watching an Orangoutang in Speedos. I wouldn't have been surprised if another ape had joined him and they engaged in mutual grooming.
After several minutes of this inappropriate washing ritual he suddenly stopped and sauntered over to where I was seated. He sat what was by now an excessively clean arse next to me on a bench that would be a tight squeeze for anorexic twins never mind two grown men of average builds. I could sense that he was looking at me curiously, as if he was sussing me out in some way. He had a hawk like stare and the beak to match it.
His head was now definitely within my personal body space. After having watched him mess about with the contents of his speedos, as well as now violating my private space whilst staring at me, it would not have been a huge leap to assume he might be some kind of sex pest with boundary issues.
However, in true Irish style I didn't want to be rude and just get up and leave suddenly in case he thought that I thought he might be some kind of creep that hangs out in public swimming pools washing his balls and sticking his head in to people's faces. Perhaps he wasn't aware of how inappropriate his behaviour was I mused considerately. Maybe he's from Leitrim and perhaps public and communal ball washing is part of the culture up there I thought. Who am I to judge? Momentarily succumbing to the deplorable doctrine of cultural relativism. So I just sat there politely for what seemed like a very long minute giving him the benefit of the doubt, whilst hoping he wouldn't start engaging in puppetry of the penis before a space became free in the sauna.
"Where are you from?" he grunted in an indistinguishable country accent.
"I live in Dublin, but I am originally from Mayo."
He said something about Gaelic Football to me then, but as I have almost no interest in any kind of sport and don't speak GAA I just nodded. Then he leaned even closer. Here we go I thought, he's now going to offer to wash my balls with the same diligence and vigor he applied to his own.
"There's Romanians in the sauna," he muttered furtively and ominiously out of the corner of his mouth, as if uttering racist views in this manner was somehow more acceptable, whilst his bird like eyes darted the room to make sure no foreigners were in earshot. To be honest, I was delighted to be talking to just a mere racist as opposed to a creep that might have offered me hand relief in the sauna. Perhaps he mistook my grin of shere relief and the fact that I said nothing as an invitation to come over even more Alf Garnett on me.
"There's even more foreigners around nowadays. There's loads of them in the gym blacks and all."
He was starting to annoy me now. The novelty of him not being a sex offender was wearing off. It irked me that he assumed just because we were both conceived on the same island within decades of each other that this rendered us political allies. I had to say something.
"Lots of these people are here legally as EU citizens and many of the others from outside the EU go on to become Irish citizens. As long as everyone who comes here respects the rule of law and the values that underpin living in a liberal democracy, such as equality for all regardless of their colour, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and freedom of conscience, then personally I welcome them. Many of these people will add something to what it means to be Irish by living here and becoming citizens. In time they will add something to the tapestry of Irish identity, as did other waves of what were once outsiders have done down through our history."
"They might be entitled to be citizens after a certain time, but they'll only be second class citizens the likes of you and I are first class citizens. Natives, the real McCoy."
A man who washes his crotch and reproductive organs in public has no right to assume any kind of superiority over other individuals I thought.