On Saturday September 13 1986, according to an Irish Times piece of the period, about forty people met at a Dublin hotel to recount their experiences of racism, and to campaign for a Race Relations Act. Mixed race and African people living in Ireland told stories of their children being told not to play in public areas, about neighbours spraying perfume in through the letterbox while cooking curry because they ‘didn’t like the smell’, and about being name-called on the streets of Dublin.

Jude Hughes, in his mid-70s, of Irish and Trinidadian heritage, is a long-time civil rights campaigner and a Dublin tailor. Here, he discusses the founding of the civil rights group Harmony, of which he became Cultural Officer, in the mid-80s, and the problems faced by ethnic minorities then.

When [journalist] Tony French came in to me for a chat, he asked me “Jude, do you have any problems with people passing remarks?”

I said “I do, but I just ignore them.”

Tony said: “When you have children, and they come home from school after remarks are made, and some of them say ‘I don’t want to go to school’, you’ll feel you have to do something but it’ll be too late then.”

So I said “What are we going to do? I’m with you one hundred percent.”

Tony French, Marian Tannam and I called a meeting in Wynn’s Hotel. By God, it opened my eyes.

A lot of TDs – in their innocence – thought “There’s no racism in this country. No trouble like America. This is Ireland.” But we said: “You’ll have trouble down the road.” I had fitted into the Irish system, with basketball, tennis, and on football teams. While I was aware it’s very hard to break through as a black person, I now saw how people were literally cracking up, kids didn’t want to go to school, people didn’t even want to be black. They were having profound psychological problems, and actually committing suicide, all because of stupid ignorance. And there were no anti-racism laws. Britain had them, France, but the Irish government said “We won’t have those problems.”

Co-founder of Harmony, Tony French, whose wife Zorina was from Trinidad, explained in 1986 that racism was so profound in Ireland that couples who had adopted babies and children of mixed or African origin frequently felt compelled to give the children up again due to the disapproval from friends or family members.

We presented the report to the Minister for Justice Ray Burke. They copped on and realised that these problems could arise, and they got the details of some of the stories, and they couldn’t ignore it. And we said: “Get this done now or you’ll have the same problems as they have in Britain and America. You can stop this now before it starts.” The Europeans had been dealing with it. And Ireland starting doing the same. The Gay community and the Traveller community came in too. I attended a few events with Senator David Norris as a speaker, and Traveller community representatives.

The new legislation was just the basics, incitement to hatred and printing up inflammatory literature. They have improved since, but that was the start of the change. So at least we feel we had made an effort. It helped a little bit.

Among other causes, today Jude Hughes is an African History Month Ireland committee member. Out of his tailoring shop north of Dublin’s River Liffey, he acts as a collection point for manual and electric sewing machines which are then sent to countries in Africa, where clothes-making and mending cooperative movements have been and continue to be established.
Last year, he won an award from the multicultural Irish newspaper Metro Eireann.

We all owe him, and his fellow Harmony founders, a huge debt. Are times still difficult for minorities today? Let us know your views.