With immigration, there is a sort of hierarchy of belonging

This issue of belonging will not get easier in our lifetimes. We will need a level-headed response that is also humane

Who belongs? Who doesn’t belong? The recent fascinating Irish Times coverage of the “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” era in England brought home to me the force of belonging, as a core psychological need and as a dynamic in our own history.

Tensions over migration are currently bringing the issue of belonging to the fore but it’s always been with us.

In history as taught in my schooldays, the Celts seem to have been the ones who “belonged” in Ireland. Then the Vikings came along, but they didn’t belong and Brian Ború kicked them all out (though not really). Then the Normans came along, but they didn’t belong either and “we” kicked them out, sort of, after 800 years.

In the modern era the “belonging” dynamic remained as important as ever. Read John Banville’s Strafford books about a Garda detective whose peculiarity is that he is a Protestant and you will get a sense of how it was. Strafford is an object of curiosity to all who encounter him. It’s as though they are asking: “You don’t belong, so what are you doing in the Guards?”


Unwed mothers didn’t belong either and paid a high price.

Neither did gay people, who were almost invisible.

Belonging ranks very high in the lists of human psychological needs. As researchers from the University of Helsinki put it in the journal Sociology, “human beings need belonging to survive. Exile and isolation have historically been among the most severe forms of punishment.”

Denial of belonging through bullying can cause immense suffering, including death.

With immigration, there is a sort of hierarchy of belonging/not belonging. Were we more welcoming of Ukrainians as European and, like most of us, white? In the 1950s we took almost 500 Hungarian refugees fleeing Russian invasion. They had similar “advantages” to the Ukrainians but when some went on hunger strike over their conditions in Ireland, public sympathy began to fall away and they were seen by some as living off the “fat of the land”.

The thermostat on the warmth of belonging can be turned up or down. That, in turn, impacts on the emotional health of individuals – we are very sensitive to changes in the “weather” of belonging.

Pat Farrell, a PhD student at the University of Galway noted in an article on the RTÉ website last year that about a third of Ukrainians here are working “and are thus contributing to the country’s tax reserves”. She adds that, “in general, the Ukrainians are better integrated than the Hungarians were able to be, but there is a major housing crisis here and there have been the beginnings of a shift in public opinion”.

It isn’t realistic to blame Ukrainian refugees for the housing crisis (nor is that what Farrell is doing). As part of The Journal’s Good Information Project (the project gets a grant from the European Parliament) journalist Cónal Thomas wrote: " ... more than a decade since the financial crash many people still can’t afford to buy a house or apartment in Ireland ... Others are being priced out of their hometowns and cities, or have had to emigrate.”

That was written in 2021, the year before the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Could the woes of would-be homeowners owe less to the people in blue tents and refugee accommodation than to the people in Leinster House?

This issue of belonging will not get easier in our lifetimes. The devastation that climate change will bring to some African countries will create a continuing pressure on people to move or face starvation or destitution.

For decades into the future, we will need a level-headed response that is also humane.

Meanwhile, let’s hear it for the GAA, which has set out to integrate immigrants and refugees into its activities. It has welcomed children from many different backgrounds into its clubs. The benefit to their mental health must be huge. Even people who have never kicked a competitive football can feel proud of an organisation that is at the very heart of Irish belonging.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).