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Europe in Brussels part 13: The Irish diaspora
Ireland joined the European Union in 1973 and the Irish embassy estimates that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Irish people living in Belgium.
"Being an island it was a really good way for Ireland to connect with the rest of Europe, so our European Union membership is very important to us and Brussels is the place where that is taken forward," says Eamonn Mac Aodh, the Irish Ambassador to Belgium.
In 2007, the Irish language, Gaelic, became an official EU language. "There is something quite special about the Irish language," says Mac Aodh. "First of all it’s a very ancient language, it’s also kind of unique, there are no other languages that connect directly to it … and it’s very particular to Ireland and while the number of speakers has fallen over the years the fact that there’s official recognition for the language at a European level gives it an extra dimension and it’s one that we fought for hard here and we were very pleased to get."
Saint Patrick’s Day, on 17 March, is of course Ireland’s national holiday and celebrated around the world. It was made popular by the proud Irish diaspora who left the country during times of conflict and famine while Ireland was still under British rule.
“It started as a way of marking Ireland’s Christian heritage but in these times it’s much more a symbol of Ireland generally," says Mac Aodh. "As a national day there is no doubt that it is much more broadly recognised by not just Ireland and the Irish but also by the Irish diaspora, for them it’s very important too, people who may have family links going back to Ireland but who may not necessarily be first-generation Irish themselves."
To mark Saint Patrick’s Day in Belgium the Irish Embassy in Brussels will be involved in a number of events. The Manneken Pis in Brussels will be dressed up in traditional Irish clothes, the embassy will host its annual reception and the Grand Place and other Belgian national monuments will be illuminated in green as part of Tourism Ireland’s Global Greening initiative.
“We’re doing that again in Belgium this year on a really big scale," says Mac Aodh. "We’ll have the Grand Place in Brussels going green and some new ones this year, Dinant, the Cloth Hall in Ypres and the townhalls in Bruges and Antwerp and we’re really looking forward to that and it should give a very big profile to Ireland over the course of Saint Patrick’s week."
Margaret Slattery, an Irish citizen living in Belgium for the past 40 years, enjoys Brussels “because there are lots of places to visit and lots of things to do and the people are nice”. It is also very central, Paris and Amsterdam are only a train trip away. “When it comes to cultural events in art and architecture, there’s a big variety in Belgium," Slattery says.
Saint Anthony’s Parish in Kraainem was established in the 1970s to meet the spiritual needs of the Irish and UK Catholics coming to Brussels at that time. “We have a big Irish community here," says Slattery, who is on the organising committee for the Saint Patrick’s festival which is held in Kraainem every year. Over the weekend, the local community centre, De Lijsterbes, becomes a centre for Irish music, dance and food with two world champion Irish dancers also hosting a workshop.
While both Belgium and Ireland have distinctive national dishes, there isn’t a huge difference in food preferences between the two countries. “It’s no problem to cook Irish food in Belgium because everything is available in the supermarkets, in fact you can get wonderful Irish steak in my local supermarket”, says Slattery.
Another aspect of life that’s important for Irish people is their native games of Gaelic football and hurling. All Irish children begin to play these games at school so it’s important for the Irish community to continue these games when they move abroad. That is why you will find a branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Brussels providing training and matches for people of all ages.
“There’s a whole organisation where children can join up and play Irish football and hurling and I believe around Saint Patrick’s Day they also have games," says Slattery.
It’s not very difficult to make contact with other Irish people if you live in Brussels as both the Embassy and the large Irish community in Brussels ensure that there are places and events where Irish people can meet each other.
Ambassador Mac Aodh says: “The Irish Embassy, over the last two or three years has hosted TradFest, a music festival which allows Irish people to access Irish music and which is also, of course, an offer to the international community here. And of course the Irish pub is ubiquitous and Brussels is no exception, there are many Irish pubs here doing a good job and also promoting Ireland because every time people see an Irish pub it puts Ireland in mind and that has spin-off effects in terms of tourism."