John O’Callaghan and The Rise of Xenophobia

John O'Callaghan's "Story of Hope" (Photo by Aoife Kearns and Sophie Clarke)

John O’Callaghan’s “Story of Hope” (Photo by Aoife Kearns and Sophie Clarke)

Outside the door of a shop in the Liberty Market on a bleak, bitterly cold February evening, a man sits on the ground with a box of multicoloured chalks and an empty coffee cup. The cold, grey pavement on which he sits on is brightened up with the words he has written with the chalk. He draws a self-written poem called “Story of Hope”:


“I may be homeless but I’m human too

I once had a family and a home like you

People judge me and look down

Please help me get a bed tonight

Where I’ll be safe and sound

Thank you for helping me

God Bless

Every now and then

We all need  a helping


One love everyone”


When asked could his artwork be photographed, he agrees. Minutes later, a group of three young men come up behind the man, shout at him “ISIS!” and call him a terrorist. They then walk over the words that he has written, laughing among themselves. The man is visibly upset at what happened. He is an artist, a poet, a singer and he is homeless. His name is John O’Callaghan. He moved from Cork to Dublin three years ago in hope for better homeless facilities and has lived on the streets for the majority of the time since. He says, unfortunately, incidents like this happen regularly to him and he expresses how unfair it is.


“I am a poet, an artist and a singer song-writer. I write poetry about being homeless on the street. About things like how most people just pass you by, or either throw you a dirty look or say something derogatory.

I composed the poem (Story of Hope) about how people look down on me, how I have to do this thing every day in order to get enough money to survive and get a bed.” decided that the word of the year 2016, based on the recurring themes of the previous twelve months, was xenophobia. The word is derived from two Greek words that mean “stranger” and “fear”. Xenophobia is therefore defined as the fear or hatred of foreigners and people from different cultures. It is not a medical phobia but a political term. In the case of the incident that we witnessed, the man who was a victim of xenophobia was not even a foreigner. He was Irish, just as the men who verbally attacked him were. If the men actually spoke to John, they would have heard from his accent immediately that he was from Cork and not a different country. Their actions were as a result of prejudice, simply because John has dark hair and eyes and a sallow complexion that is not commonly found among Irish people. But even if he was from a foreign country, why does this hatred and anger exist? And why did there appear to such a rise in this hatred in 2016?


One of the main promises that the Brexit leave campaign made was to cut immigration which was becoming a problem because of the amount of refugees entering the country to escape their war-torn homes, such as Syria. After the UK voted in favour of leaving the EU, police reported a 41% increase in xenophobic attacks or hate crimes. During his campaign, US President Donald J.Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall on the Mexico-US border to stop illegal Mexican immigrants from entering the States. After less than a month in office, he temporarily banned citizens of certain countries, who have a population that is majority Muslim, from entering America. The Brexit leave campaign and Trump’s presidential campaign were fueled by their knowledge that their people were afraid. That people were fearful knowing that immigrants could enter their countries so easily. That these people could be dangerous. That these people were, in Trump’s words, “bringing drugs, crime and rapists”. That these people were terrorists.


It is understandable that people across Europe and US are afraid. It has been sixteen years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks but time will not heal the wounds of those affected. The terrorist attacks created xenophobia not only among Americans but people all around the world who saw the worst parts of humanity that, in this case, was presented in the form of foreign people. In more recent times, the Paris terrorists attacks reinstated this fear of letting outsiders into their countries. But the issue is that this fear and hatred against terrorists, who are of course to be feared and hated, is being pushed onto all immigrants and refugees.

John O' Callaghan Photo: Aoife Kearns and Sophie Clark

John O’ Callaghan Photo: Aoife Kearns and Sophie Clark

People seem to have forgotten the photograph of a young Syrian boy who was washed up on a beach after drowning while he and his family tried to escape war in hopes of a better life. People appear to have forgotten the photograph of the other young Syrian boy sitting in shock, covered in blood and dust, after surviving an airstrike in his town of Aleppo. 470,000 people have died in the Syrian War. 55,000 were children. By not allowing immigrants and refugees enter our countries, we are preventing families and children from escaping the violence of their country, allowing them to suffer as they have been and giving them no hope of a better life.


There are, always have been and always will be, bad people in the world. We cannot stop these bad things from happening. We can try our best to prevent them by being more cautious and tightening security. But alienating groups of people such as Mexicans, Muslims, and any other foreign or outside group is not the way. By acting in a hateful way, we are fuelling hatred in return.


On March 19th, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese will be protesting the rise of xenophobia by ringing church bells in Waterford to send “love, hope and inclusion” to immigrants and refugees. The event will take place two days after St. Patrick’s Day to remind the Irish people that our celebrated patron saint was in fact an immigrant. The “Joy of Bells” ceremony will take place in Christ Church Cathedral.


John’s “Story of Hope” did in fact have a silver lining when after spending a night in the Apollo House over Christmas, John was then given 6 months accommodation by the Peter McVerry Trust.
To hear John’s music, you can visit his YouTube channel Johnny O’Callaghan:

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