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Everyday Ethics

“Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free”: The Particularity of Migrants’ Experiences

Cross-cultural comparisons are often used to generate empathy for those experiencing oppression. Focusing on the particular experience of Ireland’s 2004 Citizenship Referendum, this article argues for the problematic nature of such comparisons, suggesting the need for recognizing the particularity of minoritized populations’ experiences.

By: Stephanie Scott, Rock Ethics Institute Humanities Dissertation Fellow

A sign hung by the advocacy group Just Citizenship prior to Ireland’s 2004 Citizenship Referendum. Source: Sinead O’Carroll, “Yes, No, or Ask Again: Voting in Ireland’s referendums over the years,” The Journal, Sept. 22, 2012.During the 1990s and early 2000s, Ireland served as one of the most popular destinations for migrants, due in large part to the nation’s robust Celtic Tiger economy. Over time, however, concerns regarding multiculturalism caused anti-migrant sentiment to grow, leading the nation to hold a referendum regarding birthright citizenship. 

Image: A sign hung by the advocacy group Just Citizenship prior to Ireland’s 2004 Citizenship Referendum. Source: Sinead O’Carroll, “Yes, No, or Ask Again: Voting in Ireland’s referendums over the years,” The Journal, Sept. 22, 2012.

On the eve of the Citizenship Referendum in 2004, a monochromatic and unassuming campaign poster appeared in the streets of Dublin. Posted by Just Citizenship, an advocacy group spearheaded by Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe and Judge Colm Mac Eochaidh, the poster asked voters to “[r]emember this? No Irish. No Blacks. No Dogs”; it then invited them to “Vote No” in the impending referendum. Proposed by a Fianna Fáil government under the direction of Taoiseach Bernie Ahern and Minister of Justice Michael McDowell, the referendum called into question the practice of birthright citizenship as articulated in Article 9 of the Irish Constitution, putting to a popular vote whether an individual should be entitled to Irish citizenship if and only if “at the time of their birth, one of their parents was an Irish citizen or was entitled to be an Irish citizen.”[1] In doing so, the referendum jeopardized the fate of migrant families, the children of whom had long been entitled to Irish citizenship by virtue of having been born on Irish soil.[2]

In its proposed emendation to the Constitution, the referendum suggested a generalized anxiety regarding the rapidly climbing number of migrants entering Ireland each year, as well as the corresponding rise in multiculturalism that had led to the envisioning and establishment of ethnic enclaves such as a “little Bosnia” and “a genuine year-round Chinatown” in the Irish capital and more rural locales alike.[3] This anxiety over inward migration was rendered explicit in the words of Ahern himself, who spoke of “people from Nigeria [and] Moldovia [sic]” as “citizenship tourists” and “bogus asylum seekers” seeking to take advantage of Ireland’s social welfare system.[4] As if to underscore this point, Ahern, reporter James Helm notes, pointed out that “60% of all asylum seekers [are] pregnant when they make their applications.”[5]

Of course, such racial discrimination would not have been unfamiliar to Irish voters. Indeed, the poster’s imperative to “[r]emember this?” spoke to Ireland’s own history, asking voters to recall the period after the second World War when they themselves were subject to such discrimination. Together comprising a recognizable “labour diaspora,”[6] approximately 50,000 Irish per year[7] flocked to Britain in the 1950s only to be denied accommodations on account of their national origins. Adopting a three-part statement of negation, the sign that appeared on shutters and in windows at that time, “No Irish. No Blacks. No Dogs.,” looped this nationally motivated prejudice against the Irish in with racially driven fears, in doing so creating a sweeping xenophobic discourse that as its final strategic move, denied its subjects their human dignity, placing them on the same level as animals.[8] Subsequently repurposed as a campaign poster in the lead-up to the Citizenship Referendum, the sign served as an attempt to summon for the electorate the shared cultural memory of Irish emigrants’ oppression, relating the emigrants’ experiences of post-World War II housing discrimination at the hands of the British to the experiences of citizenship discrimination faced by migrants currently arriving on Irish shores. In doing so, the campaign poster attempted to render the migrants human and worthy of empathy.

The repurposing of this sign points to the means and methods by which memories come to embed themselves in the collective consciousness, producing an appearance of veracity that may reinforce or challenge the accuracy of historical records. Indeed, in this case, the cultural memory on which the attempted generation of empathy pivoted appears tenuous at best. Although the prejudice experienced by Irish emigrants to Britain is well-documented, the anti-Irish sign used in the campaign poster remains a contested artifact, its origins and very existence debated by scholars and lay citizens alike. Yet the sign also, and more insidiously, speaks to the impulse among members of a dominant culture to produce “leveling comparisons” in considering minoritized others’ oppression. First theorized by Dominick LaCapra, a “leveling comparison” refers to the comparison of two historical oppressions in order to “evenhandedly show the distribution of horror in history.”[9] Of course, such comparisons falsely elide the differences among the groups that have suffered the oppressions, ultimately rendering the oppressions equal in kind and degree.[10] In the case of the Citizenship Referendum, the strategy of creating a “leveling comparison” of normalized migrant oppression was also less successful than anticipated: nearly 80% of the Irish electorate ultimately voted in favor of eliminating birthright citizenship, suggesting a pronounced lack of empathy for migrant families.

As the international community works to address a pronounced humanitarian crisis that sees thousands of migrants arriving on European shores, only to be vilified, denied asylum, and in some cases, brutally attacked, the Irish campaign poster reminds us of the importance of recognizing shared humanity, while simultaneously refusing to deny the particularity of others’ experiences. As calls for settling refugees in the United States grow louder, how might we avoid putting to work such “leveling comparisons,” while concurrently encouraging one another to welcome, as Emma Lazarus reminds us, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Stephanie Scott is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of English. Her research interests center on modernist and contemporary Anglophone Irish writing, as well as the interplay of memory, ethics, and feminist epistemologies. An active member of the university community, Stephanie is a three-time fellow of the Public Writing Initiative, as well as the president of the Modernist Studies Workshop. She is delighted to be affiliated with the Rock Ethics Institute this year.

[1] “Background information on the citizenship referendum,” Referendum Commission, accessed 14 February 2016,

[2] Ireland’s reconsideration of birthright citizenship was not unprecedented; in fact, both the United Kingdom (1981) and South Africa (1995) had recently revoked birthright citizenship. See Aoileann Ní Mhurchú, “Rethinking citizenship: revisiting the 2004 Irish Citizenship Referendum a decade later,” Open Democracy, Aug. 7, 2014.

[3] Nuala Haughey, “A Bosnian family happy to stay in Ireland,” Irish Times, Sept. 2, 1995, p. 10; Haughey, “Today Smithfield, tomorrow Chinatown,” Irish Times, Feb. 1, 2003, p. B4.

[4] J. M. Mancini and Graham Finlay, “Citizenship Matters’: Lessons From the Irish Citizenship Referendum,” American Quarterly 60 no. 3 (2008): 584; Ahern, as quoted in Mancini and Finlay, 584.

[5] James Helm, “Ireland struggles with immigration issue,” BBC News, Apr. 4, 2004.

[6] Ciara Kenny, “Britain still attracts the largest number of Irish emigrants,” Irish Times, Aug. 9, 2014. The Irish retained their prominent position in Britain for the remainder of the twentieth century, holding the mantle of “the largest foreign-born group in Britain” until 2001.

[7] Suzanne Shanahan, “Scripted Debates: Twentieth-Century Immigration and Citizenship Policy in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States,” in Extending Citizenship, Reconfiguring States, (ed.) Michael P. Hanagan and Charles Tilly (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999): 76. For a brief snapshot of Irish emigration in the twentieth century, see Enda Delaney, “Traditions of emigration: The Irish habit of going away,” Irish Times, Nov. 2, 2011.

[8] Interestingly, the xenophobic links between nationality and race persist even today: “white Irish”—rather than simply “white” or “Irish”—remains a classification that one is able to mark when completing the British census (Kenny).

[9] LaCapra, as quoted in Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001): 111. Oliver, 111.

[10] Oliver, 111.