When Ireland voted against black babies

OONA FRAWLEY was provoked to write her debut novel, Flight, by the atmosphere surrounding the Citizenship Referendum in 2004, which removed from Irish-born children of asylum seekers the automatic right to citizenship.

The 79.17 per cent vote in favour confirmed the Irish double standard when it comes to ‘the black babies’. They’re grand in Africa, and when they stay there we’re happy to send them the occasional donation or priest of the smiley faced variety.

The story’s central character, Sandrine, has come to Ireland from Zimbabwe where her husband and son remain. She is secretly pregnant and hopes, in time, to build a life for the whole family here. She works as a carer for Tom and Clare who are an extremely well-travelled couple returning to Ireland, after a long stay in Vietnam, to face the twilight.

Both are suffering from dementia. There are parallels between Tom and Clare’s story and the life Sandrine imagines for herself and her family. Tom and Clare were once ambitious immigrants, having left “the quiet depression of 1960s Ireland” for Manhattan, where the “pavements [were] so wide that it seemed impossible to run into someone else”.

Tom builds a successful business importing chilli and pepper. For a time, they live a variant of the dream against which the likes of Governor Rick Perry now wants to close the border. Tom’s ambition takes them eventually to Vietnam, a prime location for his business. They have a daughter, Elizabeth, who is there with them at the end.

One criticism I would have is that Frawley occasionally puts in signpost sentences, for emphasis. Page eight ends with one such: “The cracks one begins to see in families.” In the previous paragraph the new ways in which the declining Tom is annoying his wife are perfectly illustrated. Frawley’s readers are smarter than she sometimes imagines and do not need the story hammered home in this way. As close couples often do, Tom and Clare die within a couple of months of each other. Their decline is so believably told that, at times, you often feel you were there in that nursing home room yourself.

I was wary of this novel at first. Often, when a fiction writer tries to be ‘relevant’, it comes across as opportunism. Applied to an issue as important as immigration, such literary chancerism would amount almost to a crime. But Flight (published by Tramp Press ) really does force the reader to think.

Elizabeth, despite her impeccably Irish genes, grows to despise the crass Ireland to which her parents have returned to die. Sandrine listens to the talk about ‘non-nationals’ in the lead-up to the referendum and it reminds her of the way Mugabe used to go on about ‘true Zimbabweans’.

In the end, the Yes voters get their way and Sandrine returns to Zimbabwe to have her baby. Elizabeth observes people as she pushes past them on the street - men and woman in shiny suits and the like - and wonders which of them voted to keep people like Sandrine out.

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