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The Road To Being Irish by Clare O'Beara

Two immigrants, two different journeys.

Author and artist Shabnam Vasisht.

Andree Gonzalez Logo is a media student from Mexico who has come to Dublin to study and work. Artist Shabnam Vasisht came to live in Dublin decades previously. I interviewed them recently to find out how their experiences differed.

Traditionally a land of emigrants, Ireland has become a desirable destination for immigrants. Shabnam Vasisht, Indian-born artist and author, came here before Ireland was fashionable; before we were on the map. Her bookshelves blend Irish and Indian books; biographies of Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister after Independence, jostle for space with histories of Irish artists. Asian framed mirrors and palms furnish her conservatory, which overlooks a lawn shaded by apple and pear trees.

Shabnam has been forty years in the country and thirty years a citizen. Borders used to be more porous, procedures simpler, she says. She laughs as she tells me about wearing a blue sari recently because it had been a gift, although she hadn’t worn a sari in decades. Her mother Anu wore traditional dress to the end of her life, but Shabnam, even when she was a professional dressmaker, preferred the practicality of jeans.

12,500 citizenship applications are in progress at any time, and by September 2019 this queue had reached over 16,000.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan told the Dail that at the end of September 2019, Ireland had 6,094 persons residing in 38 asylum seekers’ accommodation centres, and 1,453 applicants provided with accommodation in hotels and guesthouses. Applications to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had risen by 53 per cent during the first nine months of the year. 12,500 citizenship applications are in progress at any time, and by September this queue had reached over 16,000.

To find out why so many people want to come to live in Ireland, and what is involved – in the past and present – I spoke with Shabnam and with a Dublin Business School student from Mexico, Andree Gonzalez Logo, who is experiencing quite a different process as Ireland has had to adapt.

Andree Logo, media student.

Shabnam Vasisht, author and artist.

Where are you from?

India.

Where did you live before leaving India, and what were you doing?

I was working as a free-lance Commercial Artist (as they called it then) in Central India. Middle-class women mostly went into education and medicine but almost all professions were open to them. Poorer women worked in the domestic sector.

When did you come to Ireland?

1977.

Shabnam came here before Ireland was fashionable.

How did it happen that you came to Ireland?

I was travelling overland through Asia and Europe. I intended to spend a week in Ireland but then someone saw my art and offered me an exhibition. One thing led to another and I never left Ireland.

Was it easy or difficult to come to live in Ireland and get a visa?

There were fewer people looking for visas. In fact, I had to ring a bell to bring a Garda to the window to stamp my passport. At that time the Guards cleared applicants and gave a recommendation to the DFA. In the 1990s people had to take a ticket and wait their turn. In the 2000s after the EU expansion, queues were around the block at the official building and some applicants were begging while in the queue. The Guards had warned that what was happening in England would happen here, but the DFA said no, it will never happen here. Ireland is a country of emigrants, not immigrants.

At that time there were not many Indian faces on the streets, so what was the general reaction to you? When did you meet other Indian people?

Sometimes Irish people stopped me on the street and asked me “if I liked it here”. I met Indian people in the Indian Embassy when I attended National days. I also joined an Irish — India Society. [My researches later tell me Shabnam was President during 1997 when the Society celebrated 50 years of Indian independence.]

How easy was it for you to buy a house, given you were a single woman?

The problem was the deposit. But once I had it, I was able to arrange a mortgage with a female bank manager I knew through a society for women in business. Luckily it was just before the Celtic Tiger roared.

You brought a family member to Ireland — why was that?

My mother Anu was a retired Principal of a church boarding school in India. All her three daughters lived abroad. When I bought my house, I felt secure enough to ask her to come and live with me. She was 74 years old and was comfortably off with a house, but living alone, and I did not have children, so I had room to invite her.

When you both wanted citizenship, what was involved?

Both had a relatively easy time as our papers were in order. Over thirty years ago, I had to fill in a form, then I had three interviews, in the offices and at my home. In my mother’s case a Garda came to the house to interview her.

What kind of support have you gained from the social services in Ireland?

Support from the Social Services has been good — particularly when my mother was ill in the last six years of her life.

Migrants today?

They need to be self-supporting or a business needs to sponsor them, to work. The Irish are seen to have a desirable social welfare system and are considered naïve by some, while other people come from desperate circumstances. The Refugee Appeal Council hears various appeals against refusal, and people will appeal to gain another year in Ireland while the case is being reconsidered.

Anything else you would like to add?

My mother loved living in Ireland and I have lived here contentedly for over forty years. The Avoca River carried away my mother’s ashes and I hope the Irish Sea will be the resting place for my ashes.

Andree Logo in Dublin Castle Gardens.

Andy came here because Ireland is fashionable; his journey has been quite different. Presently he is looking forward to gaining a degree at Dublin Business School. I spoke with him in a seating area for students. Classmates from his Digital Photography module greet him as they pass, and he makes friendly replies, arranging to meet later. Andy’s English is excellent, and he smiles frequently. He brought his own DSLR camera for class.

Andree Gonzalez Logo is a media student from Mexico, which is the most dangerous country in the world for media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Where are you from?

Monterey, Mexico. Monterey is not well off as it is on the edge of the Sonora Desert.

Why did you come to Ireland?

I came to study film and media, aged 24.

Andy came here because Ireland is fashionable.

How easy or difficult was it to come here?

For me it was not hard to come here — I just needed to manage paperwork, the plane fare, college fees. I came on a student visa and made the application from Mexico. I did not need to have the visa in my hand before arriving in Ireland, but I need to have it before I can apply for part-time work.

How long will your visa last?

I am planning to stay for the three years of my degree, and I will need to reapply every year for the visa.

Student accommodation is reportedly very expensive, did you find that?

My brother and I came together, and it took us a week to find somewhere. We learned that the nearer we looked to the college, the harder it was to find a place. Now we are in Santry with a commute of one hour fifteen minutes. This is a less expensive rent than closer places.

Is Dublin expensive to live in?

The cost of living is higher than Mexico, but I always knew it would be more expensive. Some items are crazy. Cigarettes are three and a half times dearer. I still think in my native currency and have to convert. Friends of mine drink Guinness at home and it’s a similar price here. I drink Corona, and again it’s a similar price.

If you want to stay in Ireland do you think it would be easy or difficult?

If I want to stay, I think it would be easy after living here for three years. I intend to be a law-abiding citizen. I would like to stay as work prospects are better here. Mexico is not doing well economically. In Mexico a new president has been elected and I do not think he is making good decisions. I voted at home and if I lived in Ireland permanently, I would want to vote.

Any more thoughts about your journey?

I wanted to see more of the world and meet lots of people as I had never travelled off the American continent.

It’s difficult to bring everything you need when coming over, especially flying. Mum sent me some more of my clothes but right now they are held up in customs at the courier office. At home I have worked in coffee shops so I would like to do something similar here while I study, but I have to get the student visa first. I’m chasing up these two items today.

Immigrants shine a new light on the Irish experience.

Shabnam’s exhibitions have included twenty paintings with fabrics representing multi-cultural festival days of India. Her most recent exhibition, opened in Signal Arts Centre, Bray by Her Excellency Mrs Vijay Thakur Singh, the Ambassador of India, was a joint work with an Irish poet, Cathy Dillon. The book from this project, called The Single Nest, includes a commemoration of the Air India flight which crashed into the sea off Cork in 1985.

Shabnam has written of her mother's travels.

Shabnam has written five biographies, which have sold in the Chester Beatty Library and on Amazon. During 2020 she published a book and blog Digging Up The Raj about Irish people who served in India during the Raj but are buried in Ireland. She started in Deansgrange Cemetery, with funding from the local County Council, and will move on to other cemeteries; her research will shine a light on a little-known side of the Irish experience.

The contribution Andy will make in the future is likely to be just as positive and will link our country with Mexico in new ways. Ireland supports the arts and education, and photography has never been more in demand, with the rise of online marketing and content. Despite the difficulties of providing housing and work for so many would-be citizens, we are proving still to be Ireland of the Welcomes.

Clare O’Beara is a tree surgeon and expert witness, an environmental journalist, and a former national standard showjumper. Author of 18 books of crime, science fiction, YA fiction and non-fiction. Winner, Blog Of The Year, in the National Student Media Awards, 2021.

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Photos by Clare O'Beara