In late November the power went. I was at the sink washing up when the radio cut out and the lights went off. I grabbed a torch and ventured out the front door, where the streetlights, houselights, everything was out, and neighbours were repeating the same observations up and down the terrace.
It was dark for two hours, and my home became unfamiliar, a little bit hostile even. I thought about life in places where you can never count on the mains, so either you invest in a petrol-run generator for your home or you live a life that doesn’t depend on wired electricity. I sighed and switched on my laptop, which had enough charge to last an hour.
The power cut, according to Electric Ireland’s tweets, had originated in Kilmainham. That’s where Ann1 lived in Direct Provision in 2008, when she first arrived in Ireland from Nigeria. She gave birth to her first daughter in the Coombe, right beside my old house, where years later I waddled round the corner to the same hospital to have my twins. She didn’t plan to live in Ireland forever, but wanted her child to consider electricity and water to be basic services, and to grow up without knowing the scent of the dark and the taste of fear. And though Ireland was scary and unfamiliar to Ann, there was a thrill of adventure about it too, being in another country, taking walks around Dublin with the buggy and the other women from the hostel.
I interviewed Ann about her early months in Ireland and she told me about the now-decommissioned Direct Provision centre in Kilmainham where she had lived at first, one of those hastily-built apartment complexes from the 1990s, with no ventilation or outdoor space, and flickering lights on the landings. It was a place ideally suited to storing inconvenient humans. She tells me about those early days at a remove of nine years, now an Irish citizen distant from the terror and thrill of arrival. The first time we meet, in the carpark of Dunnes Stores in Kilkenny, she stands out a mile. She is physically small but psychically enormous, charismatic like an evangelical preacher. I don’t think I can do her justice: her doll-like features, her sweetness, and the way everything is arranged—shoes, nails, earrings, like she is about to appear on television. She describes to me the women who lived with her in the hostel, two or more to a room to maximise profits. She didn’t like them, hardly any of them, women from Uganda and Angola and Libya muttering among themselves in Lingala or Arabic, who had crossed the Mediterranean alone or with their children. She knew things were easier for her, with her excellent Nigerian English and her bright eyes, and the winning smile that seemed to dissolve the suspicions of security guards and bureaucrats. Nonetheless, she needed the help of the desperate women in the hostel. In the grimy cafeteria, two women coached her on the hustle: how to get money out of the system, how to get by. She felt uncomfortable and grateful at the same time, because she needed somebody to steer her out of the centre, up the steps and down onto Thomas Street and into town, to the shopping streets where people were relaxed and unhurried, where she liked to push the buggy as far as St Stephen’s Green. She was alone, but she was up for the adventure.
It was incredible to me that she had moved to Dublin 8 at roughly the same time as me, when I started teaching English voluntarily in the church building on Meath Street, a place she must have walked past on her way into town. Years later, I attended a breastfeeding group around the corner, close to the Direct Provision centre but also in a different world to it. I mentioned how different her experience with a new-born baby was to mine, how badly I had needed friends and family around, how I had constantly wished for more familiar faces, more support, more help. I wondered how she could have managed, having her first child so far away from home.
‘But what do you do,’ she replied, ‘when your home is hell?’
What did Ann mean when she said her home was hell? Did she flee from armed militias, was her home town burned, her husband assassinated? Was she a political activist, nervously checking under her car for bombs? Like most people who take an interest in migration, I have learned an imaginative shorthand for refugees that offers images of explosions, people running—fleeing is a word we like to use. We picture mayhem and catastrophe to illustrate the official term: forced migration. Most migrations, though, begin slowly, with life becoming difficult, until somehow a situation becomes untenable. As Ann told me about her life in Nigeria, I thought I would probably have left too. Being poor was fine, though it was hard being poor and a girl. Her father was hospitalised when she was small and he never returned to the family home. Her mother used to visit him in the mental institution where he was housed until he died. The youngest of four, Ann was her mother’s assistant: she cooked and cleaned and early in the morning before school she went to the crossroads and sold tomatoes to men in high-lorry cabins and women on buses. When there wasn’t enough money to buy salt, she went to the neighbours to borrow some. At sixteen, her mother arranged for her to be married to a successful man twelve years her senior.
‘A girl is like a flower,’ her mum used to tell her. ‘They fade away after a while.’
I imagine Ann’s newlywed nest in Kano in North West Nigeria, a dark apartment owned by this man whose whereabouts are always a mystery to her. I picture her, a teenager, in his apartment with dusty tiles and heavy curtains to keep out the bright sun. Many of her friends got jobs or went to university, while she sat in the heat, shopped in the market, kept house, read books, and he waited for a baby. I picture her alone in the daytime, pregnant and bored. Here in this apartment block there is running water and a security guard at the entrance, a large television just for them, and for the first time in her whole life she is comfortable yet thoroughly miserable. And there is nobody she can tell, because she has everything she is supposed to want. So it’s a relief, sometimes, when he hits her. At least then she can feel angry instead of afraid. She would take a beating any day over his meanness, withholding money to make her comply, counting out the money she can have, refusing to give her enough for paracetamol or hair relaxant. Making her plead. Of all the indignities that life has thrown at her, cowering in the shadow of the man she depends on was the last thing she expected.
‘And when I think back,’ she reflects, ‘I gave him my whole life.’
She licks her lips, she blinks. Her lips are sticky with gloss, her eyelashes heavy with mascara. It takes effort to look this elegant, and tears will ruin it. She considers the trap she was in. The man was bad, but marriage was her ticket out of poverty, the only way she could progress, since nobody took an unmarried woman seriously and a divorced woman was a pariah. So now she had this life, she had this unborn baby, she had this hard dark miserable apartment with a security guard and constant electricity and hundreds of people all around who didn’t care at all when they heard him shout or her plead. She thought about leaving him and striking out on her own, but it was too hard for her to imagine what that would mean.
‘But you still go home to this person,’ she says. ‘That’s where we come from. And, at the end of the day, in myself personally, I was like—oh my god, what is my mum going to say? What is the society going to say? Have I failed as a woman to keep my own home?’
When the bombs started in the state they were nervous. She had very little in common with him apart from being a Christian in a Muslim place. He suggested she should leave, to keep herself and the baby safe from tearing fanatical violence. So Ann escaped two things at once: Boko Haram and her husband.
Did Ann flee terrorism in a desperate bid for survival or was she a member of a globally mobile set, choosing the best opportunity available to her and her child? The story can go both ways. Her husband talked to his contacts, made contacts with people in Ireland, booked her a flight and promised to join her in six months. She seized her chance, left everything she knew and left him, requested international protection at the customs desk. He followed— but by the time he got to Ireland she was already beginning to leave him. It took years to escape his control, but she did it. Now she is a nurse, her baby a sassy Irish teen. She succeeded in escaping him after many years, she knows many women do not. Ann’s mother sends crocheted doilies in the post to protect the surfaces of the furniture in her impeccably clean council house in Kilkenny. The ubiquitous doilies and the photos of African people on the walls are the only thing that suggest that hers is in any way different to other Irish homes.
The word home appears at three points in the Irish constitution: twice in Article 41, referring to the family, marriage, and the duties of women; and once in Article 42, enabling parents (read mothers) to provide their children with education at home. Elsewhere in Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 40 guarantees the right of citizens to a dwelling that is ‘inviolable’. The term ‘dwelling’ is instructive. ‘Homes’ are for families: they are constitutionally protected and overseen by mothers whose domestic obligations outweigh their needs or desires anywhere else. Citizens, meanwhile, live in dwellings. Outside of Bunreacht na hÉireann, colloquially, we use the word ‘homes’ to refer to institutions, the thin sort of residence afforded to those unable for whatever reason to live in a family. Industrial schools, asylums, prisons, laundries: all were referred to euphemistically as ‘homes’ at one time or another, and even now, by the people who steer clear of them knowing that they are anything but. The term is a veil cast over the reality of institutionalisation and all it can hide: stigma and abuse, wilful maltreatment. She’s in a home, we can say, meaning that ‘she’ has a different set of needs to normal people—and different rights.
Whatever word you use for the domestic sphere and wherever you situate it, the last few decades have brought a process of national reckoning with the fact that, for many women in Ireland, for at least a century gone, home has indeed been hell.
Until recently, I didn’t realise that for most of the 19th century and much of the 20th, women emigrated from Ireland in far greater numbers than men. Irish women emigrants were young, mostly under 25, and came from rural backgrounds. For the most part they travelled alone, without partners or families. Their departure was significant enough to draw attention in the national media and political sphere, and prompt concerns about the loss of good Irish Catholic breeding stock. The gender ratio reached a low point in 1936, when national statistics showed that thanks to migration from rural areas, there were just 875 women to every 1,000 men.
Womanhood is invariably used to create and construct national identities, especially in the context of post-revolutionary nation-forming. ‘All of us know,’ said Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, ‘that Irish women are the most virtuous in the world.’ By ‘virtuous’, he appears to have meant chaste until married, then endlessly, uncomplainingly pregnant. It was a pretty tough line to live up to, and those who failed were hauled over the coals for it. Some were hidden away in ‘homes’ when their virtue faltered through excesses of sexuality; others were condemned to remain in miserable homes, in miserable, dysfunctional and potentially abusive marriages.
It’s unsurprising that women left, or were forced to leave, and it would be too simplistic to suggest that they were all fleeing the prospect of the laundries or forced birth and forced adoption (although without a doubt that’s what happened to many). Some left because there were opportunities in Britain; some had dear people to go to; some were desperately poor; some sought adventure and novelty. Who knows how many were forced to flee because they could find no acceptable way of being a woman in Ireland? We know at least that the term PFI—Pregnant From Ireland—became common parlance among British social workers in the 1960s. As Jennifer Redmond notes in her book, Moving Histories:
It was a woman’s responsibility to deal with the crisis of illegitimacy by vanishing from the community to protect her own and her family’s reputation.
When Ann told me her story, it did not feel quite surprising. As an Irish woman, I was familiar with many of the themes—her upbringing as the daughter of a single mother, the public concern that she would infect her whole family with more contagious shame if she drew attention to her husband’s abuse—but I was jarringly unfamiliar with others: the seething fear that encroached upon her city of gunmen in the east. Much of her story is vivid to me because it reminds me of ones I have known all my life. Your marriage is your crown, they told Ann in Nigeria, but her crown threatened to be her coffin. It was absurd expectations like these that made Ireland such a hostile place for many women, the ones who had pregnancies they didn’t want or the ones who had forbidden lovers.
‘So that’s why I came to Ireland,’ Ann’s friend Amina explained when I interviewed her, reflecting on the unplanned pregnancy in Nigeria that sent her fleeing. ‘Find a safe place to stay. Where you’re not being judged, you know?’
I am slightly obsessed with the story of women being judged. I read and write constantly about shame in Irish society, about the construction of a national identity that demanded messy female sexualities be denied, policed, silenced, incarcerated and violated again and again and again. As I carried out interviews with migrant women for my PhD, the country, it seemed, was gnawing away at Irish women’s history, opening its eyes for the first time to the unnamed and the unsaid. Women and men who had never taken part in politics put on their coats and showed up at graveyards and town halls and squares in commemoration of what we had put our women through, the cruelties that our society had sanctioned.
Last summer, as I was transcribing some of these interviews, I was canvassing for repeal. I learned how terribly cold Ann Lovett must have been, the January day she died. The Gardaí reopened the Kerry Baby case, and when the results of the Belfast rape trial poured out over social media, we remembered Joanne Hayes and sent yellow flowers to the victim. It was a strange time to be researching gender, when the very air was sticky with the cruelty of Ireland’s gender history. It was saturated and unpleasant, and I was constantly thinking about how Irish women were punished for their transgressions, and about the women who were obliged or able to leave that atmosphere of opprobrium behind to go elsewhere. And through all of this I was encountering women who escaped seething public judgement in other places and somehow, by random coincidence, found themselves—of all places—here. In Ireland of the Sorrows, Ireland of the Welcomes. As Ann told me: ‘Ireland is a really really safe haven for a lot of us women. You know, is a place I can turn off my phone, block anybody that is annoying me… And just stay sane. But if I were in Nigeria, it would be hell.’
Sociologist Bryan Fanning reminds us that, poor and oppressed and all as they historically were, most 19th and 20th century Irish migrants left for English- speaking countries where they had the same legal rights as citizens. Not so for modern-day arrivals into Dublin Airport. The 21st century has seen the creation of borders that follow some people everywhere they go, demand that they are always identifiable and traceable. It was relatively easy for an Irish emigrant to dissolve into the background in 20th century London or New York; it’s harder when you’re from Burundi, dark-skinned and accented, with a stamp in your passport that sets you apart from everybody else.
I worried for a long time over that insight from Ann, that Ireland was a safe haven for her and other women. I turned it over in my mind to make sense of it. I felt good about it and also confused. She had, in the end, received a céad míle fáilte; she was welcome. Then one day I saw the obvious: she wasn’t talking about Ireland at all. Sometimes, what you are leaving is more important than where you are going. She could have gone anywhere, her direction was simply away. Home was hell. Ireland for her was a place where she could recreate herself, in safety, though perilously alone. A new world. Plenty of Irish women have done it down the years, in England and Australia, New York and Madrid. Sometimes anywhere is better than home.
In 2016, when Beke arrived in Ireland with her two sons to escape her abusive husband and the state police, she was greeted by a kind immigration official with warm hands, who welcomed her and her boys to Ireland, and wrote down an address on a piece of paper. Beke changed the fifteen dollars in her purse for Euros at the Bureau De Change in the arrivals area, then looked for a taxi driver who knew the way to Balseskin reception centre in Finglas. Balseskin is the institution where people today get processed when they make a claim for international protection, generally to be moved on quickly to Direct Provision centres elsewhere in the country. I’m sure most of the people arriving there would prefer to do what Irish women did historically: make their way to the sofa of a second cousin or an aunty and begin looking for work straight away. But that’s not how it works, not any more. Most migrants arrive to Dublin in neat lines through passport control, their visas prepared well in advance, or their country of birth automatically conferring on them the right to be in Ireland and stay. It is a tiny proportion of immigrants who fetch up on Ireland’s distant shores with nothing but the hope that they will be accepted, an earnest request for international protection. Ironically, it is a legal agreement called the Dublin Regulation that keeps many away, a neat piece of European legislation which states that migrants should remain in the location where they first claim asylum in Europe: a millstone for border countries like Greece and Italy, a sprinkling of North European privilege for remote Ireland. It is hard to get to Ireland, it takes a long time to travel over land (especially if you’re doing so by clandestine means, hidden in the freezer compartments of trucks or clinging to the underside of rail carriages). Those people who can make it this far often pay a high price for flights with the aid of a network of fixers or smugglers or, if they are unlucky, traffickers. Making it to Ireland as an asylum seeker is already a miracle of sorts, but you arrive needing another one: to be accepted.
At first, many applicants sink into a black hole of bottomless bureaucracy known as Direct Provision. This is the arrangement established in 2000, envisaged as a short-term reception and integration system intended by the then Minister for Justice to last a maximum of six months, although there are those who have lived in the system for up to twelve years. The social rights of asylum seekers—the right to work, the right to welfare—were not legislated for until July 2018.
Mosney is perhaps the iconic Direct Provision facility. A Butlin’s holiday camp purpose-built for working Dubliners in 1947, it has housed asylum- seeking families since 2000. Beke and her boys, awaiting the decision of the International Protection Tribunal, are making a home of a sort in Mosney, their temporary residence until their claim is adjudicated. I enter through the security gate, a bottleneck designed to minimise the permeability of the centre to the settled community around it, and give the address that I’m visiting. Everyone assumes that I’m a social worker (with my scruffy hair and shoulder bag full of files, I may look like one). Although the huge campus of chalets is laid out on a neat grid of roads, there are no cars in Mosney anymore. I park in the carpark before the security gate and schlep to the very back, towards the tall wire fence that separates the centre from the beach, and to the central grocery shop where I’ve arranged to meet Beke.
She is a large woman, very pretty and always very well put-together. She shimmies down the path to meet me, wearing a fitted jacket and a T-shirt that flatters her enormous bosom, elegant lipstick, and her adorable braided hairdo. Everything she does is slow and gentle and sweet, and everything she does is also deliberate and determined.
On a fine day, you might take Mosney for some multi-cultural paradise, as friendly foreigners sail past on bicycles, carrying laundry, waving to each other. All the kids have bikes, and many of the adults, because the place is big and impossible to get around without wheels. Nobody is moving fast because nobody is in a hurry, and also I think that there are probably penalties for hazardous cycling, as there are penalties for all sorts of behaviours here in this carceral institution. Living out your life as an asylum-seeking immigrant in a holiday camp set apart from the rest of society is a markedly dystopian kind of paradise.
‘We don’t share in Mosney,’ Beke says. ‘We all lie to each other.’
We wait together to pay for Beke’s groceries as she speaks in a low conspiratorial voice. There is a profound paucity of trust here, as evidenced in the procedure for buying basic provisions. Here, residents queue up and point to the items they want to buy from the local ladies behind the counter. Beke thinks it’s best that there is no open plan area where she can pick items freely, hold them in her hand and read the ingredients before she makes a decision. People would only steal the stuff. Instead she waits in line and indicates the type of rice she prefers, shouts the name and points three times before the lady in the hairnet comprehends her accent. This is the life of an asylum seeker in Ireland. A lot of waiting and a wariness of everybody one encounters. It is captured exquisitely by Melatu Uche Okorie, a Nigerian who lived here in Mosney for a time, who depicts queues and waiting with terse humour in This Hostel Life. At the end of the book, Liam Thornton, a UCD scholar of law, informs us in a quietly enraged contextual essay that:
The system of direct provision is a system of enforced poverty, the core purpose of which is to make Ireland a deeply unattractive location for asylum seekers to have their protection claim determined.
While immigrant stories are often characterised as hidden, we know a remarkable amount about the experiences of asylum seekers, because they are compelled to narrate for their lives. Undocumented, Beke’s story is her only hope, and so she tells her story in her second language, again and again, to immigration officials, to her solicitor, to NGO staff and counsellors, to kind- faced researchers like me who have nothing at all to offer her. She needs her story to be believed, even when it’s not believable (because we don’t get to choose whether what happens to us is believable). Her life and the lives of her children depend on this story and how effectively it is told.
Beke unlocks her front door and lifts the groceries over an assortment of crap: the boys’ bikes and hurleys, a football, and a pile of winter coats clogging up the tiny shared entrance hall. Hers is the upstairs flat in a duplex building: two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchenette off a landing area with a sofa and a huge TV. The TV was given to her by the parents of her son’s classmate from the national school, kind people who will never visit her family in this accommodation centre for a birthday party or a barbeque. Beke is so grateful for this generosity and for this flat where she boils vegetables and fries potatoes and scrubs everything clean. At home in Kenya, before the political violence began, when it was just her husband she had to fear, she had built an extension on her bungalow, a roomy kitchen with presses and space for all the necessities. And although I have a feeling of mounting claustrophobia at the piles of bags stuffed with belongings in every corner of the temporary residence, Beke is overwhelmed with gratitude for the little holiday chalet where she will live for the next month, or maybe ten years, if she’s not deported.
I don’t know what story Beke told her solicitor, or the official from the Department of Justice who took her account. I’m sure it’s different in subtle ways to the one she tells me when I interview her in my own home, sipping Earl Gray tea with a slice of lemon. It is hard. She stops often and weeps throughout, but she is determined to recount it. Not knowing what to expect, I listen, and hear a familiar tale of abuse that echoes Ann’s. A husband who promised much but turned out to be a brute. A community who insisted that violence and control were the same as love, normal in marriage.
‘So,’ she reflects, ‘I was even thinking that, for real the guy is showing me how much he loves me. Of which I was totally, totally wrong. I stayed in a dark room for so many years.’
Her abusive husband was a police officer and, when the police came looking for her business to endorse a local political candidate, he expected that she would concur and accept their payment in return for her loyalty. She refused. They came to beat her, and broke the windows of her car. Her husband was callous. Why didn’t you take the money, he asked? He beat her then too, but that was nothing new. She holds up her phone, wordless with grief, to show me photos of her broken television, the scars on her hips, the bruises on her face. It’s unclear to me who was the perpetrator of the harms and violence that she photographed and saved, her husband or his police chums. I am listening, like an immigration official, for a story that fits a geopolitical narrative of safe countries and threatening countries. She is telling a tale of hurt. She doesn’t have the language of state violence and patriarchy. She doesn’t even know that she needs it.
While she waits for the deliberation of the International Protection Tribunal, Beke attends college and hands in assignments and never complains about the lengthy bus journeys or the complications of organising childcare. One day I am on the train when I get a text message. She has received a letter rejecting her application. I am crestfallen. But she, it seems, is not. Like all her neighbours, now she will appeal. She just gets on with things, survives.
This is what it’s like to live in an institution, set apart from society, bound by arcane and invisible rules that set asylum seekers apart even while they walk among us. And this is what it is to be Irish. We go on and on and on about our emigration history and then we hole immigrants up in institutions. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s institutionalising people. Direct Provision is a long-term holding pattern where people who came to change their lives find themselves suspended in waiting for the bureaucratic roulette wheel to stop spinning. It can spin for years. Their children grow, attend school, learn to speak with midlands accents; all the while their time in Ireland is not judged ‘reckonable’ when the system comes to assess whether they should be granted a place in university or a place on the housing list. They learn English, volunteer, make friends where they can, though it’s difficult when the only direct bus to the nearest city is a private service that charges €15 return. And they wait in buildings where meals and social activities are dictated by the rules of management and local people need to sign a book to be permitted entry (and get refused if they’re identifiably activists).
I begin to see it. Women who come to Ireland fleeing impossible situations, maybe they are not like those women who fled Ireland in the past. Rather they are like the ones who didn’t, or couldn’t. Locked up for not complying. Spirited out of sight, in plain view, as different, uncomfortable, ultimately unwelcome. The echoes of the laundries in Direct Provision trouble me relentlessly, although once again they are different. The stigma that attaches to an asylum seeker is different to that of the proverbial fallen woman. Nowadays, we tell ourselves that things have changed: we have repealed the 8th, legalised gay marriage, elected a minority Taoiseach. This is a country that people flee to, no longer the place that for so many years people escaped. But it is a lot easier to offer somebody a halfway house and ambivalent status than to grant them the right to a home.
Today, Ann is an Irish citizen with a home of her own. She remembers the trap she was edged into as a young woman, the effort it took to escape it and to overcome the obstacles Ireland threw in her way. Beke continues to wait for the judgement of the International Protection Tribunal to determine whether she can stay here at all. I can only trace the promise of a story for her, for ambitious as she is, every decision she makes is provisional, contingent. Her son, aged 8, speaks Irish better than my children of the same age (although that’s not saying much). He may nonetheless yet be deported.
When the power returned to my home back in late November, I felt secure again, like I belonged. But I still felt a nervous shimmer of connection to a life without power: the women who have shifted from place to place seeking acceptance and belonging, their backs against the adjacent walls of material need and restless patriarchy. What do you do when your home is hell? It’s a question that we’ve been forced to confront in Ireland, more than we ever wanted to. And yet we still can’t quite see the way through to becoming a place of sanctuary.
1 Ann is not her real name. All direct testimonies are drawn from my PhD research project on migrant women’s experiences of violence. Names and identifying details have been changed or made composite to protect anonymity.
The image at the top of this piece was taken by Jamie Goldrick.