On Foreigners and Rubbish - Thomas Bibby

Picking up rubbish today on the canal bank
Picking up rubbish today on the canal bank

Today was a glorious February day with searing sunshine, and I spent it picking up rubbish with friends.

And it was brilliant.

We joined the indefatigable Limerick Riverpath Volunteers who organised a Spring Clean of the canal banks between the city and the University of Limerick.  It’s a lovely spot, made even more beautiful by the blinding February sunshine.  It was surprisingly fun spending three hours picking up rubbish, there was great camaraderie and there is something satisfying about doing something physical with tangible results

The canal joins the City with the University 4km away and the path is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists.  You can read an account of today’s cleanup on the Limerick Riverpath Volunteers website (including a description of some of the random things we found!), and Brian Leddin has an interesting post from one of last year’s cleanups on what a beautiful and useful amenity the Park Canal is. But what struck me today wasn’t the rubbish, but the people.

Some of the rubbish we collected
Some of the rubbish we collected

There were over 30 people at today’s cleanup.  On the face of it we were perfectly reflective of Irish society: some pensioners, families with kids, students, and all ages in between.  But there was one difference: according to the 2011 census in Limerick City, less than 14% of the population have a nationality other than Irish.  Yet by my reckoning, around half of the volunteers today were from outside Ireland.

The symbolism is stark – ‘foreigners’ turning out to collect our soiled nappies, cider cans and all the other detritus that Irish people like to throw away on our nature sites.

It’s a powerful slap in the face to the those who complain about people from outside Ireland who choose to come and live here.  My friend Carla got chatting to a lovely Romanian student, here on an Erasmus programme studying at the University of Limerick.  It later turned out she had only been here a few days.  When asked had she done this sort of thing before, she said:

The canal after we had finished!

Not here but I have joined cleanups back home.  They weren’t as bad as this though.

I am humbled that people who aren’t Irish would volunteer their Sunday to clean up our mess.  It’s a reminder of how much our country has been enriched by ‘foreigners’ who have come to settle here.  It’s maybe not surprising that they’re making a disproportionately positive impact on our society, but it is easily forgotten.  I hope we never forget how lucky we are to have them here.

6 thoughts on “On Foreigners and Rubbish

  1. Thank you very much for the nice words, Thomas! Your team has definitely made a huge difference, tackling the worst areas!
    I sometimes find it difficult to explain the attitude of some people we meet out on the tow path. On our first clean-up, Miriam and Brian Leddin were approached by a nice lady who asked them: “Are you German?” As if there was an incompatibility between being Irish and doing something about our environment!

    1. Hi Gabriela, thanks for the comment! The disrespect for the environment in our culture is a bit depressing. But I think what you and Miriam are doing with Limerick Riverpath Volunteers is making a huge difference. We’ll definitely be back for the next event!

  2. Myself and my 13 year old were there yesterday, and must agree with you over the percentage of Irish people as opposed to other nationalities out cleaning up. We were teamed up with another mother and child who were from another part of the world (it never crossed my mind to ask where).

  3. Thomas, you are suffering from reverse nationalism, in that you are favouring People who you perceive as non Irish over people who are Irish. Something I suffer from myself. However, in reality (as I perceive it) we all are living in the same place no matter where we originated from and we all have a responsibility to care for the environment wherever it is. The advantage of people who have experience a variety of cultural backgrounds it they probably have insights into the importance of the environment over Nationalism. Best wishes.

    PS The main reason I like meeting people who originated from outside Ireland is its unlikely I will every have the opportunity to travel again and instead of having to travel to their counties of origin, I can get a flavour of their counties of origin via talking to them.

    1. Hi Ted, you’re right of course. It didn’t matter yesterday where anyone was from, the important thing was that we were a bunch of people picking up rubbish and making a canal beautiful again.
      I guess the point of this article was viewing the mix of nationalities at the clean up as a perfect riposte to those people in Ireland who have negative attitudes towards ‘foreigners’.
      But you’re right, there’s a danger of countering a negative stereotype with another negative stereotype, which is a bit of a zero-sum game.
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

      1. It is a bit embarrassing though, to show our spoiled Irish environment to newcomers, when you know we could do so much better.

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