Faith Matters

'St Patrick's legacy calls us to address modern day slavery'

People trafficking, war, famine and displacement of people are not unique to the 21st century - in the 5th century St Patrick was trafficked to Ireland where his life was one of hardship and migration, says Dr Piaras MacÉinrí

St Patrick is a giant figure - both historically and literally, as with the 30ft figure which featured in Downpatrick's St Patrick's Day festivities this year. Embracing his legacy today means, among other things, rethinking our attitudes to migration. Picture by Mal McCann

SAINT Patrick's life story is known through his own extraordinary autobiographical account, the Confessio.

"My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.

"I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.

"His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time... I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others...

"The Lord brought his strong anger upon us and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth."

The 21st century is seeing new waves of people displaced by war, famine and climate change.

Indeed, it would be fair to describe migration as one of the existential challenges of the age.

So far we are not handling it with great success in Ireland or the EU. Barriers are going up everywhere and people are even being denied their legal right to seek refuge.

Racism and xenophobia are stronger now than at any time since the 1930s. The Irish record in the diaspora is not always the best either.

Imagine if we were at the receiving end? We were, once, as on June 20 1631 a pirate raiding party kidnapped over 100 English and Irish people from the village of Baltimore in west Cork and took them to a life of slavery in north Africa.

Some spent their days as galley slaves, others became prisoners of the sultan. At most, three of them saw Ireland again.

The Pope's comments on trafficking in February are worthy of note.

He told his weekly general audience: "Having few possible legal channels, many migrants decide to risk other avenues, where often there awaits abuse of every kind, exploitation and slavery."

Criminal organisations specialising in trafficking people take advantage of migratory flows, he added, "to hide their victims among migrants and refugees".

In an appeal, the Pope invited everyone to "join forces to prevent trafficking and guarantee protection and assistance to victims" and prayed to give "those suffering because of this shameful scourge the hope to regain freedom".

These words should resonate in the Irish context. The more than one million Irish who fled famine and disease in the mid-19th century at least had places to go.

Even if they were sometimes received grudgingly, calls to 'build that wall', if there were any, went unheeded.

Their circumstances were miserable, but they were not denounced as murderers, thieves and rapists by the highest politicians of the day.

Ultimately, they were seen as downtrodden people who hauled themselves out of hardship and made something out of themselves wherever they went, without losing a sense of their own culture, history and identity.

That is something we can celebrate - but we should also recognise our present-day responsibilities in a wider world where we are no longer at the bottom of the ladder.

Even in Ireland itself, people are still being trafficked, whether into the sex industry or into forms of labour undertaken in appalling and oppressive conditions.

In all cases, someone, somewhere knows of these abuses and does not act.

Perhaps, as well as stressing the centrality of migration as a 'constant feature of the Irish experience' we should also attend rather more seriously to the ongoing and brutal reality of human trafficking and forced migration as a constant feature of human experience.

In so doing, we could more fully embrace Patrick's legacy and our own place and responsibilities in today's world.

  • Dr Piaras MacÉinrí is a migration expert in the Department of Geography and Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century at University College Cork

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