LAST week, Limerick Leader photographer Owen South turned on his radio to hear a racism row among the main stories.
Listening to the story involving former mayor of Naas Darren Scully, Owen recalled Limerick’s first high-profile racism incident – which he witnessed first hand – some 30 years ago.
Prior to this night in the 1980s, reports of racism were unheard of in the local media. The story was centred around an NIHE student, Nigerian Gabi Okeh Oparah.
On a night out with friends, Oparah was refused entry to the Limerick Savoy, and a the resulting row led to national media coverage.
“He claimed they were being racist, so we went down with him,” Owen recalled last week.
“We stood there with him and they were refusing him entry because he was a black man. I think the management said afterwards that he had caused trouble in the place in the past.”
The Leader reporter on the story was Fergal Keane, the award-winning BBC journalist who began his career at these very offices at 54 O’Connell Street. He chronicles the night in his autobiography, All of These People.
“Then the doorman spoke. ‘No blacks allowed.’ I heard the words and immediately pulled out my notebook and committed them to paper. The photographer whipped out his camera and captured the scene: a bemused doorman caught in the glare of the flashlight, the students milling around him. With the evidence secured we retreated,” he wrote.
Keane’s story made it to the national papers in what he describes as “a thrilling and scary few weeks”.
The Nigerian ambassador to Ireland then got involved in the aftermath, condemning the exclusion of black students, before the Savoy later apologised for the trouble caused.
Mr Oparah went on to become a popular figure, living and working in Limerick for over 20 years.
Fast forward to the present day and it remains to be seen whether racism is an increasing problem in Limerick. The reason, according to migrant protection group Doras Luimní, is a lack of conclusive evidence, with the majority of examples anecdotal.
It has been three years since the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) compiled a report on the issue and even this report had a narrow scope.
Advocacy and Campaigns officer for Doras, Siobhan O’Connor, feels there needs to be more done to highlight any incidents.
“The last reports of the NCCRI said there was 56 racist incidents reported and compiled in July to December 2008 and 42 percent of all incidents reported to the NCCRI occurred in the greater Dublin area.
“There was no mention of Limerick at all. Fifty-six people affected out of a population of 4,239,848 in all does not sound like a crisis. So even the NCCRI, whose job it was to attach importance to the situation, did not highlight Limerick.
“Does this mean there is no racism in Limerick? I’m afraid it doesn’t. That is why we are promoting our online reporting mechanism and encouraging people to use it,” she said.
Brazilian Cida Silva, who lives in Raheen and has been in Ireland for 11 years, says she is subject to racism “almost every day”.
“My children have been bullied in school over their skin colour. It does impact on their self-confidence. It makes me very upset and it’s very hurtful.
“One day, one of my girls came home and asked for bleach because she wanted to make her skin white.
“We have adapted to the culture yet we feel like outsiders. I don’t think Ireland was prepared for immigration,” she said
Dr Amanda Haynes, a lecturer in sociology at UL, shares a similar view to that held by Ms O’Connor: official statistics underestimate the number of racist incidents occurring.
Dr Haynes also stressed the role politicians have in highlighting the contribution of other cultures to Irish society.
“Political and community leaders can play an important role by vocally condemning racism when it occurs, as well as by providing the public with constructive ways of understanding cultural diversity.
“For example, recessionary periods are often linked to discourses which emphasise migrants as competition for resources.
“However, international research shows that cultural diversity is good for creativity, innovation and economic growth,” she said.
Thankfully, international students experiences in Limerick have been positive ones and the University of Limerick was recently awarded a five-star rating for Internationalisation by QS Stars, a ratings system for academic institutions.
A statement from UL outlined their full commitment to addressing any incidents, whether it be students or staff who are involved.
“Anyone identified as being involved in an incident of racism on campus will be reported to the authorities or to the University Disciplinary Committee. All students are actively encouraged to report such incidents immediately to the International office or to UL Security Services.
“The general opinion of international students at UL is that their experience is a very positive one.”
Recently, UL appointed a student support officer to specifically offer support to international students.
“The facilities at the University compare favourably to those available at other European and international institutions, with considerably more in terms of student support and general services, such as opening hours of the International office, social and sporting activities organised by the International office or by student clubs and societies,” the statement continued.
Similarly, Mary I has strong disciplinary measures in place with any reports of racism considered a breach of the code of conduct for students and referred to the college discipline committee.
The college is well equipped to cater for any victims, with a variety of support services available, ranging from counselling, a students union, a chaplaincy and an access and disability officer.
Most notably, testimonies from previous international students who studied at the college tell of positive experiences in Limerick, describing the people as “friendly”, “kind” and “helpful”.
American student Hannah, who studied here last year, spoke of the welcoming nature of the locals.
“I enjoyed my travels around Ireland but was always happy to return to Limerick. It felt comfortable, as if I were returning home.
“The Irish also understood my position as a foreigner and exercised patience when I was struggling with something,” she said.
Gabi Okeh Oparah’s infamous night in Limerick is a piece of history; a piece of history that should never be repeated.