From top: The outline of an average-sized Direct Provision room in Eyre Square, Galway on Culture Night last Friday; Ciaran Tierney
Last week, on Culture Night, passers-by in Eyre Square, Galway were invited to imagine living in the Direct Provision.
Ciaran Tierney writes:
It was a gorgeous evening in Galway.
The giddy excitement which usually greets the start of a weekend was magnified by the magnificent range of cultural events taking place for free all across the city centre and Salthill.
Down by the Claddagh, three musicians called Shiftwork were conjuring up beautiful songs from the deck of an historic boat.
A seal popped his head above the water to share in the general merriment. Later, traditional Galway hookers sailed around the perfectly still waters at the mouth of Galway Bay.
There were musicians, artists, and entertainers providing wonderful free entertainment throughout the city as Galway really got into the spirit of Culture Night.
Over in Eyre Square, however, passers-by were being reminded of an aspect of modern Irish “culture” which many of us would prefer to ignore.
The Direct Provision system is not something we celebrate, not something we would prefer to highlight in the European Capital of Culture 2020.
But the role of an artist should sometimes involve exposing uncomfortable truths, and there is no more uncomfortable truth in Ireland in 2016 than the way in which the country treats its refugees and asylum-seekers.
In Galway, we know that they are living in a former hotel facing the seafront in Salthill or a hostel just off Eyre Square in the heart of the city.
But how many of us have ever stopped to check out their living conditions or to ask how they are getting on in 21st century Ireland?
Do we really know about the months and years it takes to process their applications while entire families live in tiny hotel rooms?
To mark Culture Night, the Galway Anti-Racism Network (GARN) invited Galwegians to spend a little time in Direct Provision.
The exact dimensions of a “normal” direct provision room were marked out in the middle of the city and passers-by were asked to imagine what it was like to live in a tiny hotel room for months on end.
The space available for furniture, belongings, and beds was mapped out on the ground and the ‘live’ exhibition attracted hundreds of curious on-lookers.
Some children lay on the ground, imagining the reality of sharing a tiny room with siblings and parents for months or even years on end.
It was interesting to see so many people check out the dimensions of the tiny room, trying to envision what it’s like for a family to live in such a confined space.
A direct provision centre hardly features among the “normal” cultural heights of the city.
Residents were on hand to engage with curious on-lookers and to give us an insight into their normal lives in Galway and Salthill.
They cannot work, so they asked us to imagine what it was like to get by on €19.10 per week while sharing a hotel with dozens of others.
They told us that some of them had been living in this limbo, in the land of a thousand welcomes, for over ten years.
They asked whether we knew that 17 firms across the country were taking in about €50 million per year from the Irish Government to run 34 accommodation centres across the State.
Some of them have to survive the winter months in mobile homes.
They asked us to imagine what it was like for the children, who attend primary or secondary schools in Galway, when their curious friends asked them about their living conditions, the food they ate, or when they’d be able to invite them over for sleepovers.
They can’t cook or bring food to their rooms and they most certainly can’t invite their school friends over to stay the night in the centres. Keeping a pet is also out of the question.
It was news to me that they were given a rule book, containing 44 pages of rules, when they arrived.
Or that any complaints they may have had about the running of a centre could only be made to the manager of their own centres. Even if their complaints may have been related to the management of the centres.
During the week, residents of the centres had written testimonies about the reality of their lives. The testimonies were posted on a wall, next to the Browne Doorway, for revellers to read as they made their way around Eyre Square.
“At least as a prisoner you know when you are getting out – not when you are an asylum-seeker,” wrote one lady.
The asylum-seekers present were so welcoming, so happy to share their stories. They spoke of the depression they experienced, as they waited anxiously to discover if they would be allowed to stay in Ireland or deported back to their countries of origin.
Mental health problems in the direct provision system are estimated to be five times higher than in the wider Irish community.
It reminded me of a heart-breaking exhibition I attended in Galway last year, in which a South African asylum-seeker admitted that the system felt “familiar” – because it reminded her of the Apartheid system.
In terms of raising awareness, it was a hugely admirable three-hour event organised by the Galway Anti-Racism Network and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.
It was not the most “enjoyable” event in the packed programme for Culture Night in Galway, but it served a hugely important purpose in reminding hundreds of people of one of the great scandals of our own era.
We can ask why Irish people turned a blind eye to clerical sex abuse or the scandal of the Magdalene Launderies in the past.
With Direct Provision, we have no excuse. Thanks to initiatives like last Friday night’s, nobody can claim that they don’t know about this system which condemns children to grow up in unsuitable accommodation for months or even years on end.
Previously: Alternative Culture Night
Pic: Galway 2020