Repeat after me: “Ireland is not a racist country. Ireland is not a racist country. Ireland is not a racist country.” Say it enough times and who knows, you might actually begin to believe it.
aybe there seemed to be a time when Ireland was less racist than it is now. It was just an illusion. The racism was there all along. It was there in the 1970s, when my next door neighbour and best mate was the only black kid in our flats, or in any of the flat complexes in our area.
It’s just that the racists had fewer opportunities to demonstrate their racism in public, fewer Black people to physically assault or shout at in the street. That’s all it was.
The situation had changed by 2010, the year 15-year-old Toyosi Shittabey was stabbed to death by a 38-year-old man. Ireland’s racially motivated murder was recalled in the first of a new run of true-crime series Marú inár Measc (TG4, Wednesday).
Tyosi was born in Nigeria and moved to Ireland with his parents and siblings — one born either side of him — when he was four.
The Shittabey family would expand by three more children. He lived in Tyrrelstown in Dublin 15. There was no attempt here to present the community as some kind of utopia of tolerance and integration. There was plenty of racist abuse and certain areas were a no-go for Black people.
More often than not, said Toyosi’s friend Isreal Ibeanu, the abuse came from older people. Applying the old safety in numbers rule, the Black kids tended to hang out in groups. But seeing a gang of Black youths often provoked even more hostility. Irish people, he said, have begun looking at Black people the way racist Americans do.
None of this appears to have dimmed Toyosi’s natural ebullience. One of his teachers, Eoin Murphy, said he was a larger-than-life character who loved to dance.
“He was a real rogue in school, an old-fashioned messer,” he recalled with a smile. “Teachers loved him.”
Toyosi played football in a team of African kids set up by support group Insaka Ireland. He was an exceptionally talented player, said Ken McCue, a cultural planner and Toyosi’s mentor. He ended up playing for Shelbourne’s under-16 side and would almost certainly have been good enough to be a pro in the League of Ireland and perhaps beyond.
All that promise was stolen away on April 2 — Good Friday — in 2010. Toyosi had been with a large group gathered at the National Aquatic Centre. He didn’t have enough money to pay in, however, so he and a few friends drifted away, walking through an area they’d usually have avoided.
They came across two men, Paul Barry (38) and his brother Michael. They’d been drinking. One of the girls in the group asked to borrow a lighter. She and her friends were met with a torrent of racist abuse. There was a fracas and they moved on, but the Barry brothers, who’d got hold of a knife, followed them.Paul Barry stabbed Toyosi once through the heart. An ambulance was called, but Toyosi was dead before it reached the hospital.
Initially, Paul Barry — who, along with three others, had previously attacked a Nigerian father and son — was charged with manslaughter and his brother with possession of a hockey stick. They were released on bail, to the despair of the gardaí.
The charges were later upgraded to murder. On November 6, the day before the trial was to begin, Paul Barry killed himself. A year later, Michael Barry was tried for murder. The judge claimed there wasn’t enough evidence to convict and ordered the jury to acquit him.
“It fuelled our feelings toward Ireland at that time,” said Toyosi’s friend and teammate Innocent Mattew.
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A thousand people turned up at the Garden of Remembrance to honour Toyosi, yet, said Innocent: “It felt like we were alone.”
Toyosi’s murder had a profound effect on the community. Quite a few Black families moved to other areas. Some left the country. Racist abuse increased.
The killing of George Nkencko, a friend of Innocent’s and also a member of the Insada football team, by a garda in 2020 reopened old wounds in Dublin 15.
If things are changing at all, said Innocent, it’s only because of extreme circumstances: “A person has to die for people to start seeking education. It seems like a very big price to pay.”