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.
"We have always been a very welcoming town, but things have happened too quickly, too fast," said May McKeon, a local government official in Balbriggan. "We have a lot of catching up to do with the social infrastructure. We're just victims of our times, really."
In August, education officials realized that Balbriggan's six schools, including one Educate Together school, were oversubscribed. Scores of children, many of them 4- and 5-year-olds just starting school, had nowhere to go.
Officials appealed to Educate Together to quickly set up an emergency school to handle the overflow. Within a month, the company had established a new school in a dormitory-style building near the seashore.
"We didn't know what we were going to do," said Florence Denti, who moved to Balbriggan last winter looking for relief from skyrocketing Dublin rents.
Denti, who migrated to Ireland from South Africa with her husband six years ago, said she dreaded the possibility of having to commute with her daughter, Shazia, 5, to the Dublin school she attended last year.
Now Shazia attends the Balbriggan school, where bright rooms are decorated with posters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and nursery rhymes.
"This is a godsend," said Michelle McKay-Nkadimeng, a South African immigrant whose daughter, Tatiana, 4, also attends the school.
Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, said the school now has 86 students from at least a dozen countries. He said 90 percent have immigrant parents and 80 percent are black.
The school's opening led to headlines across Ireland calling the country's first mostly black school an example of racism or even "apartheid." Critics said the Catholic Church was excluding children who were "not ours."
In recent interviews at the Balbriggan school, neither administrators nor parents interviewed said they believed the problem stemmed from racism. Most parents said they felt welcome in Ireland. But several said that they believed school enrollment policies favored Catholics and that the government was generally slow to provide services in areas with heavy concentrations of immigrants.
"It's not a racist issue, it's an issue of bad planning," said McKevitt, the school administrator. "But it's the immigrants who end up the most disenfranchised."
Anne McDonagh, director of education for the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, said school enrollment policies did not create the problems in Balbriggan.
The church's policy is to give first preference to Catholics and to siblings of current students, she said. But she added that Catholic schools in Dublin alone have students from 104 countries and about 30 religious faiths.
A 2004 survey of 92 schools around Dublin found that children of immigrants accounted for at least 20 percent of the student body in 11 schools. In one Balbriggan school, McDonagh said, one-third of the students are children of immigrants.
But Jean-Pierre Eyanga of Integrating Ireland, an immigrant support group, said church policies resulted in unfair treatment of the children of non-Catholic immigrants, particularly Africans and Muslims.
"They don't have a brother or sister in school, and they don't have a baptismal certificate," he said. "So they are the ones left out."
Eyanga said that what happened in Balbriggan -- and in two other overcrowded Dublin suburbs where emergency schools were opened this fall -- shows that Ireland needs both more schools and more multi-denominational schools.
"They need a broader, more coherent approach to planning," he said. "What happened in Balbriggan can happen tomorrow in other parts of Ireland."