Hustling to Find Classrooms For All in a Diverse Ireland

School lets out at Bracken Educate Together, opened last month in Balbriggan, near Dublin, to serve scores of local children, most of them Irish-born children of immigrants.
School lets out at Bracken Educate Together, opened last month in Balbriggan, near Dublin, to serve scores of local children, most of them Irish-born children of immigrants. (By Martin Nolan -- Irish Independent)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BALBRIGGAN, Ireland -- Happy little learners filed out of school at midday, smiling in their furry jackets and clutching a parent's hand. It could have been anywhere in Ireland, except that almost every child had immigrant parents -- the vast majority of them black -- from places as distant as Angola, Congo and Zimbabwe.

Bracken Educate Together National School was opened last month as an emergency measure when education officials realized they had no school places for scores of local children, almost all of them Irish-born children of immigrants.

The opening of Ireland's first predominantly black school, in this suburban town just north of Dublin, illustrates the pressures facing once-sleepy Ireland as its population and economy boom. Once almost entirely white and Catholic, the country is struggling to integrate hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and to provide them with education, health, welfare and transportation services as fast as they arrive.

"This is the front line in all this," said Gerry McKevitt, an administrator at the Balbriggan school, looking around its temporary home in a summer retreat house for inner-city children. "This is where the problems are emerging. This is where integration is going to happen or not."

After 150 years of population decline as native Irish fled dire economic conditions, Ireland is now one of Europe's fastest-growing and most prosperous nations. The white-hot "Celtic Tiger" economy of recent years has leveled off, but Ireland continues to be a magnet for immigrants.

The nation's population is now just over 4.1 million, its highest level since before the famine years of the mid-19th century. Much of the growth has been fueled by immigration: According to the 2006 census, more than 600,000 Irish residents, about one in seven, were born abroad -- including returning children of Irish emigrants.

Government officials say they believe the true figure could be much higher, citing the difficulty of counting newcomers living in crowded group houses. The Polish immigrant population is officially about 62,000, but Conor Lenihan, the Irish integration minister, said in an interview that the actual number of Poles here could be closer to 200,000.

"Ireland has been subject to something that no other country in history has ever been subject to: sudden-onset migration," said Lenihan, whose post was created this year. "We have seen our non-Irish population go from zero to about 15 percent in 10 years."

At the same time, in less than a decade, Ireland has added nearly 600,000 new houses or apartments, according to government figures. Suburbs such as Lucan, west of Dublin, and Balbriggan, to the north, are now filled with almost identical pastel-colored townhouses on fields where cows and sheep used to graze.

Critics say that construction of schools, hospitals and train lines and provision of other public and social services have not kept pace with the growth. The problems in education and housing "show all the signs of a failure to plan," the Irish Times said in an editorial this week.

Public education in Ireland is paid for by the government but administered almost exclusively by the Catholic Church, which operates 92 percent of primary schools. The other 8 percent are run by Protestant churches or groups such as Educate Together, a private organization that operates 44 "multi-denominational" schools across the country.

On the main train line between Dublin and Belfast, near Dublin airport and nestled next to the sea, Balbriggan is a magnet for young Irish families looking for reasonably priced housing. It is also attracting a swelling wave of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and the mostly Eastern European nations that joined the European Union in 2004.

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