Rotimi Adebari snaps his fingers. "The change happened just like that," he says, and--as he leans forward in his chair to speak, warm but convincing at the same time--it's easy to see why Adebari, 43, was elected mayor of Portlaoise, making him the first black mayor in Ireland. But the Nigerian émigré is not just representative of the wave of immigration that has changed Ireland so deeply over the past decade. He is also a sign, he says, of how willing the Irish are to give people like him the opportunity to succeed. "There is no doubt Ireland is a land of a thousand welcomes," says Adebari.
The town of Portlaoise, home to about 15,000 people, is a pleasant if ordinary place, a convenient base for commuters an hour outside of Dublin, halfway to Limerick. The signs of immigration here are inescapable. Town streets boast Indian restaurants, Polish delis and construction galore.
It wasn't always like this. When Adebari arrived in the town in 2000, his oldest son was the only black student at his school, and one of the few foreign born. "Today there are over 30 nationalities in that school alone," the mayor says. Portlaoise is hardly unique. In the past five years, hundreds of thousands of foreigners have come to Ireland, creating the country's fastest population increase on record. Immigrants have been drawn mostly by Ireland's Celtic Tiger boom through the '90s, strong employment and E.U. expansion that eased migration from Eastern Europe.
The newcomers have largely been welcomed. St. Peter and Paul's Church in Portlaoise is increasing the frequency of its Polish Masses. Last winter, the church hosted an African Mass with Nigerian music and traditional dress. And the parish welcoming committee, founded three years ago to provide social support to newcomers, this summer helped organize traditional Irish-dance lessons for immigrants, as well as a popular Indian festival, Onam, to make them feel at home.
Some see the openness as a by-product of Irish history, which has seen plenty of mass migration. There still are fewer people in Ireland today than there were before the potato famine. "The Irish have a caring nature," says Philip Coonan, who works with his wife Mary on the parish welcoming committee. "It was our inheritance in a way. I think it left a mark on our souls, the opportunities we got in the New World."
Yet some clearly feel Ireland may be changing a little too quickly. In 2004, nearly 80% of voters approved a constitutional change that allowed for new laws to prevent foreigners' Irish-born children from getting automatic citizenship; a controversial exit poll after the vote showed that more than a third of supporters felt Ireland was being "exploited by immigrants."
Things were simpler in 2000, back when Adebari arrived. A convert to Christianity, he fled Nigeria seeking asylum from religious persecution. He picked Ireland, he says, because of an inspirational Irish missionary he knew in Nigeria. Adebari, his wife and their two sons settled at the time in Portlaoise to get away from Dublin's hustle and bustle. Although Ireland eventually rejected their bid for asylum, by then Adebari had a third son, born in Ireland; at the time it was enough for the family to claim residency rights, which would no longer be the case today.
Adebari, for his part, sees integration as a two-way street. Today his kids speak with Irish accents. They learn the Irish language in school and play Gaelic football. The mayoral duties are "mostly ceremonial," Adebari says. He has time enough left to run a cross-cultural consultancy firm, work on two separate integration projects and host a weekly local radio show, Respecting Difference. In the new Ireland, he can go far. For now, though, Adebari seems every bit the politician. "I'm delighted to be a vanguard," he says, "but all the kudos go to the people of Portlaoise."