(Ireland – University of Konstanz)
“All you need is love” and the world is a much better place sang the Beatles many years ago. We could change the words and sing “All you need is respect and tolerance” and the world would also be a better place and a little town on the west coast of Ireland Ballyhaunis, population 2300 shows us how this can be done.
Ballyhaunis was the first town in Ireland to have its own specially designed mosque. In 1976 the first mosque and Islamic centre in Ireland was opened in a four-storey building in Dublin. This mosque however was in a building which was also used for other purposes. The mosque in Ballyhaunis was built in 1987. It is a small mosque, which accommodates about one hundred and fifty worshippers. It was built by a Muslim businessman called Sher Rafique who used to own a meat factory in that town in the North West of Ireland. So, the small town of Ballyhaunis is famous Ireland wide for two things, number one having the first built-to-purpose in Ireland and two being the most multi-cultural town in the country.
The last census done in 2013 recorded the non-Irish born population at 42% of the overpopulation but when, why and how did this little town become an attraction for Muslim immigrants?
In the 1970’s a Pakistani born businessman Mr Rafique brought the first Muslims to Ballyhaunis when he began the meat slaughtering operation which was to grow into the United Meat Packers (UMP) firm, the second-largest meat processing firm in the country. The so-called Muslim market in the middle east is an immensely important market for Irish beef-exports. The first Muslims to arrive came from Pakistan and Syria.
For the small isolated town Of Ballyhaunis the first Muslim people to arrive were ‘exotic’. Because Irish school children were used to being educated by nuns, they immediately assumed that any woman wearing a headscarve was actually a nun.
Manar Cherbatji, a Syrian Muslim from Aleppo, first came to Ballyhaunis in 1988, many people looked at her head-scarf and asked if was she was a nun.Her two brothers established a factory in Ballyhaunis in the early 1980’s called Iman Casings.
Today Manar is fully integrated. “I remember the priest, he came, and he welcomed me, and I was thinking that’s so nice. I remember there were a few priests here in Ballyhaunis, and they were so nice and welcoming. I’ll never forget that. I felt so welcome. Since then, I can’t stop going to Mass! That is God’s house. It is for everyone. I love going to holy places myself, the Mosque, and the church. We do not take Communion because we are Muslim. I just sit there at Mass”.
In the meantime, the people of Ballyhaunis have become very familiar with Muslin customs and habits be it wearing headscarves as their Irish grannies would have done anyway or celebrating Ramadan.
Over the past number of years Ballyhaunis has received immigrants from eastern Europe especially Poland and refugees from Syria, Africa. The three institutions of Church, School and Sports Cubs have helped to integrate the families and their children. All children regardless of their religion go to the Ballyhaunis Community School. Father Stephen Farragher the local parish priest says: „The real work with integration happens in the schools. From the moment the kids go into the school they are treated with respect. There is an impression out there of Catholic schools being all about Catholic indoctrination. The ethos of Catholic schools is of respect for all religions and none and Scoil Iosa (local national school) is a prime example of that”.
Only 92 out of 322 pupils (28.57%) in the local national school, Scoil Íosa, are of Irish background.
According to the 2016 Irish census, there were 63,443 Muslims living in the Republic of Ireland, representing a 29% increase over the figures for the 2011 census.
In County Mayo on the rugged Atlantic coast, Ballyhaunis, like a lighthouse, spreads its message of tolerance and respect for others.
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