The Experiences of People: Personal Ties to Suitable Strangers

Book cover of Suitable Strangers, published by Indiana University Press

by Vera Sheridan, author of Suitable Strangers: The Hungarian Revolution, a Hunger Strike, and Ireland’s First Refugee Camp

The 1956 Hungarian revolution altered the trajectory of my life, which at the time was that of a young child growing up in a multigenerational household in a Hungarian village. The number of people in our family diminished following the decisions of individual family members to flee to the West. That same decision was made for me as one day I was handed to a stranger who was to smuggle me across the border into Austria to reunite with my mother. Looking back at this plan and the fact that it succeeded, I wonder now at all the things that could have gone wrong. However, we did meet up and spend time in two refugee camps in Austria before embarking on a journey by train and then ship to Britain, where we arrived at the beginning of February 1957.

As a former child refugee, my interest does not lie in the politics surrounding the events of 1956. Consequently, this book focuses on the experiences of people: how they managed to negotiate the process of resettlement, encounter a new culture and a new language, overcome obstacles, and strive to find a place in the new society. The story of the 548 Hungarians who arrived in Ireland has unique characteristics. This group of refugees stayed for almost two years in Ireland, mostly in a refugee camp in a former army barracks in Knockalisheen in County Clare. Feeling ignored and unheard, they went on a hunger strike. Over time, many took matters in their own hands and made their way to England, while those remaining in the camp eventually relocated to Canada, Britain, the US, Australia, Switzerland, Argentina, and Israel. Only a few families decided to remain in Ireland. These interactions occurred in the deeply conservative society of 1950s Ireland where the Roman Catholic Church wielded significant power and influence and was not always kind to women and children. There was major unemployment and high levels of emigration. At the same time, Ireland had become a member of the United Nations in 1956, signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, and offered to host refugees from Hungary. Historians in Ireland have tended to evaluate this episode in Irish history negatively. However, an in-depth study would suggest a more nuanced interpretation of events, as, for instance, there has been no study of the lives of children at the camp despite the fact that at one point almost half the population at the camp was composed of children. There has also been no attempt to capture everyday life in the refugee camp at Knockalisheen, from its frictions and misunderstandings to refugee entrepreneurship and the longer term impact of the sojourn in Ireland for some of the Hungarian refugees. Consequently, Suitable Strangers uses a history-from-below approach to examine the everyday interactions between the Hungarians, the administrations of the camp, and their interactions with Irish society, and it points to the relevance of this study to contemporary practices with refugees in Ireland.