Between 1996 and 2016, the population of Kinnegad more than quadrupled. It went from 517 people to 2,745 people. The reason was not an explosion of fertility amongst the locals, but immigration. Not of the trans-national kind, but of the intra-national kind: Thousands of Dubliners, and aspiring Dubliners, sold the tiger-era dream that Kinnegad, like Moate and Mullingar and a hundred other places, was “the gateway to Dublin”. They migrated there, bringing their hopes and dreams and votes with them.
Kinnegad is commuterland now: An ocean of housing estates surrounds the same, small, and largely unchanged town centre with the church and the shop and the chipper and the barbers and the school that is slightly too small to meet all the demand. Another one of the hundred, or two hundred, commuter belt towns that dot Louth, and Meath, and Wicklow, and even as far afield as Cavan.
Like many commuter towns, the infrastructure for commuting is poor: There is no rail link. Kinnegad’s Dublin-based employees trek out, every morning, onto the M4, hoping to beat the traffic. They troop home, in the evening, trying to do the same. Demand for childcare is high, GP appointments are like gold dust, but the new arrivals did at least bring with them enough demand to justify good broadband delivery in the town.
Still, give people a home, and they will build a life: Kinnegad’s sports clubs are thriving. With ten matches played this year, Coralstown-Kinnegad sit proudly at the summit of Westmeath’s Senior football league, tied on points. The junior teams are full, as is the soccer club, founded in 2005. The explosion in new arrivals in the early 2000s was followed, as is the natural course of things, by an explosion in children.
It is into this environment that the Government saw fit, in recent weeks, to insert 150 refugees.
Much has been written and said and claimed about the behaviour and “suitability” of those refugees, and there is not much need to repeat it here. In truth, they are not relevant. Whatever the faults or virtues of the refugees themselves, they did not choose Kinnegad. It was chosen for them.
And here’s the thing: It was not chosen for them on the basis of some kind of detailed matchmaking exercise by Government, looking at the refugees, and the locals, and arriving at the considered conclusion that the new arrivals would enhance and improve the character of the community. It was chosen, purely, because the Government had nowhere else to put them, and there was room in a dilapidated Kinnegad hotel.
The refugees themselves do not wish to be there. Newstalk reported this last week:
A group of refugees living in a hotel in Kinnegad, Westmeath have begged the Government to “treat them like human beings” after enduring what they describe as cramped conditions and cold food…
… However, a number of the refugees have got in touch with Newstalk and said the hotel is cold, the food is poor, there is no laundry and that far too many people are being housed in per room:
“We’re staying in a small room for the three of us,” one described.
“It’s so crowded. The place is small.”
“We’re really not asking for much, we just need our basic needs to be met so we’re just asking to be taken seriously and be treated like human beings,” another added.
“Because right now, I don’t think anyone could live in this condition.”
The locals, in turn, have complained about groups of men “loitering” on the street. Well, the loiterers can hardly be blamed: The alternative is to go back to the damp room they share with three other men. Presumably the hotel owner is being well paid for his trouble.
Into all of this, of course, words like bigotry and racism and all the rest of it have been thrown. The usual suspects are on their way: On one side the usual opportunist anti-migrant groups, with their placards and their leaflets, apparently having just discovered the existence of Kinnegad. That side often seems content enough for a town with a migrant controversy to revert to the way it was before the refugees arrived, and content too with the dilapidated, cold hotel so long as it remains happily empty, and Kinnegad remains Irish for the Irish, with all the problems it had before last week unsolved.
And on the other side, the lefty NGOs are on their way, too with their state funding and their little notebooks and their endless databases of far-right undesirables: To attend and monitor any and all public meetings to police the locals and let them know that should a word out of line be spoken, they’ll be accused of being “radicalized” by the “far right”, and to read every word of coverage, including this piece, for any sign at all that the blackshirts are on the march. If the refugee problem goes, the lefty NGOs will go too, following their enemies in Ireland’s carnival circus of direct provision on to the next town, and leaving every other problem in Kinnegad to someone else.
Caught in the middle of it all are the locals themselves, whose little town has become ground zero for fanatics on one side, and state funded fanatics on the other.
This is how it is now: In the 2000s, Kinnegad became a dumping ground for the excess Irish: A wild west for developers and builders to turn fields into endless rows of three bed semis. In the 2020s, it has become a dumping ground for the excess new Irish: a wild west for hotel owners and the local canny businessman who hears “direct provision” and sees dollar signs. Nobody in Kinnegad is particularly happy, but then, they don’t make the decisions, and the most important thing for those who do is to keep this sort of thing away from Ranelagh and Clontarf.
And of course, we fall for it. You see it on social media: Nationalists and progressives screaming at each other that the other is to blame, or the refugees are to blame, or that immigration is to blame, or racism is to blame. Actually, Government is to blame.
A government that has no vision at all for what it wants towns like Kinnegad to be. When they say they want a multicultural Ireland, they mean, and have always meant, that they want a multicultural Dublin. A place where there are shops in the city centre where mildly exotic foreigners sell authentic African and Caribbean and Indian cuisine, and where the theatres give us new interpretations of Juno and the Paycock where the title character is re-cast as the patriarch of a family of immigrants, and where politicians show their open-minded goodness by taking their shoes off when entering the mosque to receive the greeting of the local Imam. A modern thriving multicultural capital, for a modern, thriving, multicultural world.
But Kinnegad has no part in that story. It’s not where the great and the good live. It’s not earmarked as a centre of culture, or innovation. It is just another place, out there in commuterland, whose children will grow up, go to UCD, and then, perhaps, if our luck holds, to Australia, where building a future for them will blessedly be a problem for the politicos of New South Wales.
They don’t care about Kinnegad. They never have. And by the way, they don’t care about the refugees either. They never have. Those refugees are not people: They are numbers on a spreadsheet, which prove, when cited as a statistic on RTE, how compassionate and kind Ireland is. Look how many we have taken! Look at the efforts we are making!
And so, the refugees stand on their street corners with nothing to do and no place to go, and the locals cross the road with their eyes averted, and everybody lives in mortal terror of being called a racist.
Ireland, 2022. A grand aul’ place.