In only a matter of days, the first of 86 weary, desperate, human beings will arrive in Mayo as refugees from war ravaged Syria. That figure is made up of 20 families, of which sadly, more than 40 are young children forced to live a life that no child should ever know. They are escaping a complex war being fought by President Bashar al-Assad's government, Syrian rebel groups, ISIL, and foreign allies on both sides. That Mayo is one of only eight counties taking part in this resettlement programme should come as no surprise. Our county's history of reaching out to and accommodating suffering populations is a trait of which we can be proud.
One month after WWI began in July 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. Western Belgium in particular became the scene of some of the most violent battles of the war. The result was an exodus of Belgians, fleeing for their lives. By October, Castlebar Urban District Council was debating housing Belgian refugees in the town's military barracks. The council moved quickly and the first Belgian refugees arrived in November 1914.
When war in Europe appeared inevitable in 1939, English cities began to evacuate their residents. Hundreds of war refugees from England were accepted in Mayo. A large portion were the children of English parents who were grateful to see their children moved to the safety of the west of Ireland. Over five consecutive days in September 1939 alone, almost 2,500 people arrived into Castlebar on board special trains. The following year more English refugees were accepted in Westport. As WWII progressed more people became displaced and again Mayo stepped forward to assist children from France and Germany in 1945 and 1947. The spread of communism and the subsequent Cold War era drove people from their Eastern Bloc homes to avoid persecution and to find a better life elsewhere. Plans to relieve the plight of Catholics in distressed West Germany were set out in Castlebar in 1954. When Hungarians engaged Soviet troops on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the Soviet leadership sent 150,000 additional troops and 2,500 tanks into Hungary to quell dissent. Some 250,000 Hungarians fled the Soviet Army's advance. Two sanatoria had recently closed down in Ballina and Ballinrobe and they were discussed as venues for Hungarian refugees. Residents of Claremorris applied to the local Red Cross to house the exiles.
The August 1969 riots in Northern Ireland and the collaboration between State and loyalist forces drew sympathy in Mayo for the families that were forced from their homes. The Mayo GAA County Board compiled a list of its members who were willing to provide victims with housing and supplies. Claremorris GAA held an urgent meeting to seek information regarding a housing plan. A committee was established in Westport to provide aid for the refugees. Castlebar UDC held a special meeting to organise accommodation for families scattered in refugee centres. A house to house collection was made in Foxford while political parties in Swinford united to take up a collection outside Sunday Masses. More recently, Mayo welcomed the Karen people from Burma in 2007. This ethnic group had fled the conflict with the Burmese military which occupied Karen land in the 1990s.
The descendants of those sometimes feared and more often misunderstood refugees repatriated since WWI are today our neighbours, colleagues, and family members. I am sure that when our new Syrian refugees arrive in Castlebar, Westport, and Claremorris, our traditional hospitality will be the first to greet them