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‘Social cohesion’ of Ballyhaunis ‘under threat’


MELTING POT Patriyk (Lithuanian), Salar (Pakistani) and Conor (Irish) having fun in Scoil Íosa, Ballyhaunis, where the school population comprises 20 different nationalities. Pic: Ray Ryan

Ireland’s most diverse town under pressure

Edwin McGreal

Two leading community figures in Ireland’s most diverse town have called for other towns to step forward and take their ‘fair share’ of refugees coming into the country.
Ballyhaunis Parish Priest Fr Stephen Farragher and Secretary of the Community Council, Mary Donnelly, both made the call ahead of increased numbers of refugees coming into Ireland in the coming months due to the Mediterranean humanitarian crisis.
With many of the refugees being Syrian, there is speculation that Ballyhaunis would be an obvious magnet for them, given that there is an established Syrian community in the town, as well as a Mosque.
However, both Fr Farragher and Mary Donnelly argue that the town has taken more than its fair share of migrants. CSO figures from 2012 show that ‘white Irish’ people account for 40 percent of the town’s population, while the local national school, Scoil Íosa, has 28 percent ‘white Irish’ pupils among their roll of 322 children.
“There is a feeling that as a town Ballyhaunis has absorbed more than its share,” Fr Farragher told The Mayo News. “This came up recently at a Parish Council meeting, and that was the feeling. However, if it was relatives of people already here, I don’t think there’d be a problem,” he added.
Mary Donnelly is actively involved in community organisations as Secretary of the Community Council and Tidy Towns and Treasurer of the Abbey Partnership. Ms Donnelly, who is also Parish Secretary, feels the town cannot cater for more refugees. There are over 200 asylum seekers in the Direct Provision Centre in the old convent in the town, whilst Ballyhaunis also has large Asian and Eastern European communities.
“There is such a mix of people from different backgrounds, and I’m not sure Ballyhaunis is in a position to take many more refugees,” Mary Donnelly told The Mayo News.
“The indigenous population is coming close to being the minority and the social cohesion of the town is under threat,” added Ms Donnelly, who argued that migrants ‘don’t take as active a part in the social economy of the town’ as the traditional community.
However, Natalya Pestova of Mayo Intercultural Action, said that while good work was being done, a more co-ordinated approach is needed for integration of new arrivals into the community.
“I was at a recent meeting where you could see that every organisation was doing their little bit, but a co-ordinated approach is needed, and the people in the Direct Provision Centre need more help,” she said. She added that asylum seekers wanted to get involved, but needed more assistance in that regard.
There are also issues with language resources in the local schools, with principals of the national and secondary schools in the town expressing concern over the lack of sufficient State supports they receive for teaching many new arrivals who have little or no English when they start school in the town.
The local national school had two more teachers in 2009 with 64 less pupils than they have now. Both David McDonagh in Ballyhaunis Community School and Kenneth Dennedy in Scoil Íosa NS say that language integration in the schools works well over time, but presents difficulties in the early stages of a student’s arrival from a non-English-speaking environment.
“There is no provision as regards foreign nationals coming in with very little English, no regard for what we’d have in terms of the refugees coming in, and that creates its own difficulties. For instance, since September we’ve had eleven students who are receiving English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes out of our own resources,” said David McDonagh.

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Edwin McGreal