Education: Muslim students in 1950s Dublin

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

The Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, St Stephen’s Green, made a conscious decision in 1952 to oppose apartheid restrictions by admitting a regular quorum of South Africa’s ‘Indian’ students each year.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, St Stephen’s Green, made a conscious decision in 1952 to oppose apartheid restrictions by admitting a regular quorum of South Africa’s ‘Indian’ students each year.

Over the past ten years, as a result of increased immigration from various parts of the world, Ireland has become a more visibly multicultural society. These migration patterns are not random. The establishment of the Irish Muslim community, for example, is partly rooted in Ireland’s shared colonial history with India and South Africa under the British. Casual conversations on Ireland’s colonial past often revolve around the familiar events leading up to independence, such as the Easter Rising of 1916, the formation of the first Dáil Éireann in 1919 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which ended the Irish War of Independence in 1921. In a broader context, however, similar struggles for independence from British colonial rule were taking place around the world during the same period, including in India and South Africa.

Partition South African-style

In 1947 India gained its independence from Britain and was partitioned, creating Pakistan. As in Ireland, the international borders were largely determined by the religious affiliations of the population. Although South Africa had achieved its independence from Britain before both India and Ireland, South African society underwent its own type of partition in 1948, when apartheid was established. The apartheid legislation institutionalised racial segregation by creating distinct social designations based on a person’s ethnic background. This made life difficult for South Africa’s non-white population, which included a considerable number of ‘Indians’ who had been settling in the country since the mid-eighteenth century.

In 1952 the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland made a conscious decision to oppose the apartheid restrictions by admitting a regular quorum of South Africa’s ‘Indian’ students each year. A personal agreement was reached between the College’s registrar, Professor Ray, and Sorabjee Rustomjee, a South African-Indian doctor and businessman from a notable family, who was understandably concerned about his daughter’s educational prospects under apartheid. Rustomjee’s father, a devout Parsi, had established himself as a leading merchant in Durban in the late nineteenth century and had worked alongside Mahatma Ghandi in the early years of South Africa’s civil rights movement. Sorabjee Rustomjee and his father had both supported the establishment of Ghandi’s Phoenix settlement, north of Durban, in 1904, which functioned as a cooperative farming community where workers shared in the cultivation of the land as well as in the dividends arising from their collective efforts. Rustomjee’s prominence as a community leader appears to have developed into a diplomatic role by the late 1940s, when he took an active interest in raising international awareness of the racial inequalities in South Africa. Rustomjee allegedly made contact with Éamon de Valera at the United Nations on one of his multiple missions in response to the apartheid regime.

Organised Irish Muslim community

Although Rustomjee’s arrangement with the College’s registrar was not an official accord between the two countries, it initiated a steady trend in migration that enabled ethnically Indian students, many of whom were Muslim, to enter Ireland regularly and to establish a place for themselves in Irish society. By the mid-1950s a substantial number of Muslim medical students had settled in Dublin city centre near the College’s campus at St Stephen’s Green. This represented a shift in Irish Muslim history away from individual migrants who happened to be Muslim towards an organised Irish Muslim community.

The incoming classes of South Africans in the 1950s consisted entirely of students from privileged backgrounds. Although the College had made a commitment to admitting a fixed number of ‘Indian’ students each year, it had made no special arrangements regarding their expenses or fees: they needed to be financially self-sufficient. Furthermore, the students still needed to meet the admissions criteria for the Royal College of Surgeons, which had always been set at a high standard. This was ensured through the successful completion of an entry examination upon arrival, which enabled candidates to qualify for the programme and to enrol as full-time students.

Finding halal meat

A halal shop on Clanbrassil Street, near Leonards’ Corner, once the heart of ‘Little Jerusalem’, Dublin’s Jewish quarter. Sourcing halal meat in Dublin is no longer the problem it was in the ’50s.

A halal shop on Clanbrassil Street, near Leonards’ Corner, once the heart of ‘Little Jerusalem’, Dublin’s Jewish quarter. Sourcing halal meat in Dublin is no longer the problem it was in the ’50s.

When the Dublin Islamic Society was founded in 1959 its primary function was to coordinate the weekly Friday prayers and the biannual Eid prayers, as well as to support local Muslims in their endeavours. Basic concerns, like finding halal meat, were a collective problem for Irish Muslims in the 1950s. In most cases, Muslims would simply use whatever meat was available or resort to Jewish butchers, who were centred around Clanbrassil Street. Interestingly, this area is now home to one of the largest concentrations of South Asian Muslims in Ireland. Ismail Coovadia mentioned that he occasionally accompanied his aunt to the basement of Sawyer’s butchers in Chatham Street, off Grafton Street, where they had arranged to slaughter their own chickens in accordance with Islamic rites.

Both Yusuf Vaizie and Ismail Coovadia claim to have had few problems integrating into Irish society since the 1950s. Both are happily married to Irish wives and are upright members of the community. They maintain that racism against Muslims was not prevalent in the early years, since most people knew that they had come to Ireland as working professionals and because medical doctors did not pose a threat to the workforce. As such, they were able to form strong relationships with locals and were welcomed by their neighbours.

The support from the Dublin Islamic Society helped incoming Muslim students to adjust to the Irish setting. This work is now carried out by numerous religious and cultural organisations in Ireland and abroad. In 1990 the Dublin Islamic Society changed its name to the Islamic Foundation of Ireland. Its headquarters on South Circular Road and the Dublin Mosque, which was formerly Donore Presbyterian Church, are still a typical first stop for immigrant Muslims upon their arrival in Dublin.  HI

Adil Hussain Khan is a postdoctoral researcher in Islamic Studies at University College Cork.
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