Of Squirrels, Chinese and Nigerians

stephen hendron
Photo Courtesy of Stephen Hendron.

One of the more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon is walking around the little wood along the river Dodder near my home.

Whether in the summer when the broad lead trees provide a green roof over the path, or in the winter, when the sky peeks through the bare branches, or the autumn when everything turns to a shade or orange and red.

Until about the year 2000, it was very rare to see a mammal or any kind there, apart from a pet dog. But around that time, a new inhabitant appeared, the grey squirrel. Around the trees they would run when you approached, circling up and up into the branches, bickering with each other over food. Where there had been none in a few years there were dozens.

The media noticed this across the country. For some reason in this period the American grey (or ‘gray’ I suppose in its native dialect) squirrel exploded in numbers across the country, displacing, or so it was said, the native red squirrel. The only defence apparently, of the native was the line of the Shannon, where once Irish Catholics had been banished by Cromwell, so now the native squirrel stood cowering from the foreign invader.

As this piece is purely anecdotal, I should note that I never in my life saw a red squirrel and that grey squirrels were the first of that species I ever saw in my corner of Dublin.

But then, at some time in the late 2000s, suddenly the grey squirrel too disappeared abruptly from the park along the Dodder. You can still catch a glimpse of one or two occasionally in the trees, but they are much shyer than before and the days where they seemed to colonise the woodland are long gone.

Apparently, this was noted all over Ireland. The grey squirrel’s numbers crashed at some time after 2007. The red is, reportedly making a comeback. A researcher named Emma Sheehy has apparently linked this to the resurgence of the pine martin, a native predator that developed a taste for the new, larger breed of squirrel, which being less nimble was easier to hunt, and presumably, a more satisfying lunch, than the more elusive smaller red.

I cannot comment except that as far as I know, in the little wood near me, the pine martin has not been spotted. Not by me at any rate. Perhaps the local foxes, who have indeed increased in number in the years in question, took to preying on the squirrels. In any case, I can say that the grey squirrel, though still occasionally visible, is now a rarity. I cannot say that the red squirrel has made a comeback, because, as far as I know they were not there in the first place, but elsewhere, apparently this has indeed happened.

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All of which got me thinking about the eerie parallels between the migration of animals, in this age of unprecedented mobility, and humans. It is of course entirely illogical to think that the fortunes of squirrels are linked to that of humans, but because we have an unavoidable instinct to reduce all matters to those of our own species, we inevitably do so. So here goes.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, Dublin was a grey city, full of white, Irish people. The joke was that if you saw a black man either it was Paul McGrath (the Irish international footballer) or an African medical student. And while this was somewhat flippant, because Paul McGrath lived in England at the time (he’s back now), it wasn’t too far from the truth.

At around the same time as the Grey Squirrel began appearing in Dublin’s parks, so suddenly, in around the year 2000, the city and the country saw the arrival of thousands of new people from around the world; the result of Ireland’s then booming economy.


Some came on student visas, as did thousands of Chinese young people, who attended language schools but who in reality mostly wanted to work. I cannot put a figure on it, but in the period from about 2000 to 2005 almost every Spar or other convenience store or petrol station was manned by young Chinese staff. The number was certainly in the tens of thousands. Apparently, most came from a province north of Bejing.

In about 2001, coming down a hill on my bike, a young Chinese man, on another bike, crashed into me from behind (I don’t think his brakes were working). No one was hurt, he didn’t speak English, nor I Chinese, so I just patted him consolingly on the elbow and went on my way.

Others came as refugees or asylum seekers, as did many from Nigeria. Like the Chinese, as far as I can gather, this was a localised phenomenon, most of the incomers being from the Yoruba-speaking, Christian, south of Nigeria.Nigeria is a chaotic and often violent country, but, in the absence of a formal war, many of the Nigerians in Ireland’s asylum requests were refused by the Irish judiciary, who judged most of them to be economic migrants.

Up to 2004, many received residency permits as as result of having children born in Ireland, who automatically became Irish citizens. In 2004, this was cut off after a referendum in which the constitution was changed, so that children of residents without legal residence were no longer automatically citizens.

Still more people came from eastern Europe. In the days before the eastern countries became EU members, some were recruited by Irish Irish companies to fill labour shortages. I remember in the summer of 2000 working with young people from Latvia and Lithuania in a petrol station, who had been brought to Ireland by a recruitment agency. One women I recall said to me one first meeting, ‘hello, I am from Latvia. There are too many Russians in Latvia’.

Later, when the east of Europe joined the EU, in 2004, there was another wave of migrants, mostly from Poland, who had full rights as EU citizens to live and work in Ireland.

Just north of the woods were the grey squirrel has his brief reign, up a steep slope, are a series of playing pitches. On Sundays I used to go down there to play in informal games of football, where teams were selected on the day from whoever turned up. And here, all of the groups mentioned above, native and newcomers, used to come across each other.

Generally speaking there were more Chinese than anyone else, so usually they selected one team and organised their own substitutes so that everyone got a game. I sometimes played with the Chinese team, but more often for the ‘everybody else’ team. This comprised of a group of Irish lads, Nigerians with an informal leader named ‘Larry’ ( I think), a a group of Albanian builders who at the time were busy building the port tunnel under Dublin Bay and the odd Russian, Pole and Spaniard.

It was certainly interesting. The Chinese were quick and skillful, but light weight. The Nigerians were physical and powerful players. The Albanians were more stolid, calmer, usually like me, defenders. The Irish? Well, we worked hard.

I’d like to say that all of these groups got along harmoniously, but they didn’t. The Chinese, for instance expected the game to start on time. Anyone who showed up late could not play unless they could persuade someone else to come off as a substitute. The Nigerians, on the other hand, figured that if one of their friends came down late allowances should be made. So let’s say there were often arguments. Heated arguments, with the Chinese and an Irish guy named Neil on one side and the Nigerians on the other.As far as I can gather, derogatory comments were made on both sides in mutually unintelligible languages.

Generally I used to sit out these arguments on the grass until they sorted themselves out. But not always. One time I remember getting annoyed and putting in a few too many hard tackles. One of the other Irish guys told me to ‘stop kicking Chinese’. I told him to fuck off. ‘You fuck off’, he said. Another thing that used to frustrate me was that the Nigerians would never voluntarily accept (as you need to do in games without a formal referee) that a decision did not go their way. When a ball went out of play, they would always shout ‘our ball’, even when it clearly wasn’t. I recall getting heated with them on one occasion about this.

But anyway, to round out my story, today most of these groups have vanished, to where I do not know. Like the grey squirrel, you will no longer find them around the park in any great numbers.

It is rare enough today to find Nigerians in Dublin. Some have moved elsewhere in Ireland to avoid Dublin’s high house prices and rents. Others have presumably, had their asylum requests turned down. The loophole opened by the children citizenship clause in the constitution was closed in 2004.

Similarly, in around 2006, the Irish government stopped granting so many student visas to Chinese students. Some of the wave of people from the north of China who came here in around 200 are still here, now in their 30s or 40s, others went home. But there is nowhere near the number, in Dublin anyway, that there were 10 or 15 years ago.

Similarly, many Poles went home during the economic slump of 2008 to 2013.

Dublin is more multicultural than ever though. But now the latest incoming population is a bewildering mixture of Brazilians, Poles, Pakistanis, Arabs, Europeans of every stripe and more besides. Like the grey squirrel, some will probably leave, a small number will remain for good.

So what’s my point? None really, more of an observation that we will live in a world of huge and rapid changes, that beyond the control of the individual person.