Brideshead Revisited was one of the most wonderful pieces of television ever made. There are so many memorable moments, but one sticks particularly in my mind. A conversation between Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the big house family who are atypical aristocrats in being Roman Catholic, and Charles Ryder, the quintessentially bourgeois Englishman
“Cordelia Flyte: If you weren’t an agnostic I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter.
Charles Ryder: Nothing would surprise me about your religion.
Cordelia Flyte: It’s a new thing that a priest started last term. You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you. I have got six black Cordelias. Isn’t that lovely?”
I’ve wondered often about those lines; they reflect a whole complex of emotions and attitudes that were probably operative during the inter-war years: an innate racism that suggested that Europeans were somehow superior and entitled to exercise a paternalistic role in Africa, but also, perhaps, a growing guilt at how the history of Africa had unfolded and a misguided sense that sending five shillings to support the nuns would help atone for the centuries of wrongdoing.
I wonder how much that paternalism and guilt are still at work. The biggest migrant communities in Ireland are the English, for whom there are no statistics, and the Poles (around 100,000 of whom have been issued social insurance numbers since May 2004). The English blend into the local population and the Poles have a tradition of coping well, wherever they have found themselves.
The biggest non-European community is the Chinese, for whom it is difficult to find figures partly because many are working illegally.
Yet when migration into Ireland is discussed, the first thought is always the asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Immigrant Council for Ireland, the number of those seeking asylum fell below 2,000 last year, yet, even when they are granted residency, they remain at the forefront of our thinking and a particular focus of the Church’s ministry.
I wonder if we are persisting in our paternalism and that the best response is not to treat people as though they were in need of special treatment or charity, but to regard them as we would our Filipino or our Chinese or our Polish neighbours.
Does Cordelia live on in our conscience?