The Irish understand what it is to live without hope

Ciaran Tierney
9 min readOct 23, 2023


The Galway contingent at the huge demonstration for Palestine in Dublin on Saturday

By Ciaran Tierney

Imagine how incongruous it would have seemed if a journalist from the Irish national broadcaster had walked around the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town in the mid-1980s to ask white South Africans what they thought about Ireland.

Imagine the reaction if supporters of Apartheid told the brave reporter that his government, media, and people did not have a clue about the system of discrimination and supremacy which allowed the white minority rule over the black majority for decades.

The Irish would have been outraged.

After a group of brave Dunnes Stores workers staged an extraordinary strike, which went on for almost three years, in solidarity with impoverished black South African workers, it’s fair to say the average supporter of Apartheid in the 1980s had jaundiced views about Ireland and the Irish.

While British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described the African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation”, the bravery and commitment to justice of the Dunnes Stores workers in Dublin famously inspired Nelson Mandela in his prison cell and set a shining example for anti-apartheid movements all across the world.

Many white South Africans were enraged by the Dunnes Stores strikers and vocal campaigning of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, led in exile by Kader Asmal in Dublin.

At the height of the strike, when the Dunnes workers endured hardship for standing up for human rights in another part of the world, it would have been unthinkable that within a few years Nelson Mandela would be seeking out the brave working-class Dublin women as leader of his country and that Asmal would return to South Africa to become Minister for Water Affairs.

At the time, many white South Africans wanted our rugby teams to come and play against them, they wanted Irish people to holiday in their beautiful country, they wanted the situation to be “normalised”; instead, they were enraged that this island nation was generating global headlines because a group of working-class Dublin women knew the meaning of racism, discrimination, and solidarity.

The decision of the Irish rugby team to organise a tour of South Africa in 1989 was as controversial at the time as former soccer international Robbie Keane’s decision to take up a managerial position with a club in Tel Aviv this year.

In 2023, for many people, including recognised international human rights organisations, Israel has become the new South Africa. Long before the current horrific escalation in violence, it was clear to the world that Palestinians were living under Apartheid.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Israeli NGO B’Tselem have all produced comprehensive reports over the past two years which have found that Israel is imposing a system of Apartheid on the oppressed people of Palestine.

Palestinians living within Israel can vote in Israeli elections; Palestinians in East Jerusalem are watching their houses being demolished; Palestinians in the West Bank are living under a brutal system of checkpoints, daily humiliations, and attacks by illegal settlers; and the people cut off in Gaza have been living under an oppressive siege for 17 years.

Last night, as I returned home from a huge march in solidarity with Palestine in Dublin, I read a blog which made about as much sense as it would have to read the views of supporters of Apartheid in South Africa in the mid-1980s.

On Saturday it was heartening to see Arab protesters embrace the small group from Jews for Palestine — Ireland. Photo: Ciaran Tierney.

“You are not with us,” RTE reporter Paul Cunningham was told by a man at a protest in Tel Aviv, who said that Irish politicians and media did not know what they were talking about when it came to Israel and Palestine.

The man even contended that Ireland was “indirectly responsible” for the current bombardment of besieged Gaza because of the Irish people’s “blind support” for the Palestinian position. How dare we think that there are “two sides” to the current onslaught in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israels on October 7.

“There is Israel, he said, and then there is the butcherers,” wrote Paul in a blog on the RTE website which was praised for giving the Irish an honest perspective of what ordinary Israelis think of our former colony.

I couldn’t help thinking that I would love to read a similar blog in the Irish meanstream media featuring the voices of Palestinians.

Such as my friend, Ayed, trapped in Gaza City, whose every waking day must be dominated by the terrible prospect of a ground invasion, going hours without electricity or internet, and unsure if or when he could take a call from a journalist on his phone.

Ayed brought a group of young soccer players to Galway in 2016 and 2017, when Gaza Action Ireland managed to persuade the Israeli authorities to let them out for one week.

Brothers Mahmoud and Mohamed Abu Dan, both talented footballers in Gaza, were murdered in an air strike. Photo via Facebook.

Even then, it upset the boys that one member of their team, a little boy called Karam, was not allowed out to travel by the Israeli authorities.

Karam suffered horrific facial injuries when Israel attacked Gaza in 2009 and the trip organisers could only conclude that the Israeli authorities did not want Irish parents and soccer coaches to see his injuries.

So the little boys from Gaza sent Karam joyful video messages from their Irish tour in solidarity every day.

This week, Ayad’s Facebook page contains one tragedy after another. Children in terror, little girls seeing their own parents being annihilated in explosions, entire blocks of apartments being razed to the ground.

It is hard to imagine the anguish of living in such a tiny, crowded place with no prospect of escape.

Late last week, one of the most gifted players at his club, Atef Mohamed Dabour, had his life destroyed in an air strike. He was a star with the academy’s team and he dreamed of being a superstar.

Instead, he spent his entire life trapped in Gaza, where 2.3 million people (including a million children) live in a place which is half the size of Co. Louth and virtually nobody has been able to leave, because of a siege imposed by both Israel and Egypt, since 2007.

Today, a heartbroken Ayed reported that two more rising stars of the Gaza soccer academy, brothers Mahmoud and Mohamed Abu Dan, were also murdered in an air strike. How could anyone cope with such heartbreak?

According to some of the people who spoke to Paul Cunningham for his blog, Irish people have seemingly fallen into a “Hamas trap” if we view these children as human beings or mourn the desperately sad loss of their young lives.

At the three Palestinian demonstrations I have attended over the past two weeks in Ireland, including the huge march through Dublin city centre on Saturday, I have not heard one person express public support for the actions of Hamas in attacking Israeli civilians on October 7. That was horrific and must be condemned.

But I have heard rage, despair, and anger that the people of Palestine have been abandoned by the outside world for so long that “respectable” people in Dublin or London or Brussels have allowed our relationship with an Apartheid state to become “normalised”.

And that our European leaders have told the Israeli Government that it has the right to undertake whatever actions it deems necessary, apparently even if it means breaches of international law.

A young woman from Gaza, who now lives in Galway, addresses the huge crowd in Dublin. She read out Facebook messages from friends who have seen entire families being wiped out this week. Photo: Ciaran Tierney.

And I wondered why we don’t hear Palestinian voices in our media a lot more.

Such as the young woman from Gaza who travelled from Galway to Dublin on Saturday to break the hearts of everyone in the huge crowd by just reading out Facebook posts from her friends and family back in Gaza.

She told a gathering in Galway that she “only began to feel human” when she managed to escape that tiny strip of land.

When she spoke in public in Galway, I could not even introduce her by her name, because she had such fear of repercussions from the Israeli authorities for speaking out. For the “crime” of telling Irish people about the reality of the horrendous life she endured under an illegal blockade.

How was she managing to work, to function, to speak to a huge crowd in Ireland, knowing that every moment her elderly parents were in danger back home?

I could not help but be in awe of her humanity, her spirit, and her desire not to hate those who had caused her so much pain.

And then, during the march on Saturday, I was told that the first cousins of another young friend of mine from Gaza had their family home destroyed in an explosion that morning.

Next minute, there she was, a face in the middle of the crowd, hugging the contingent from Galway and thanking the Irish people for showing such solidarity in such huge numbers.

I hadn’t seen her for a while and I wondered how she was after the shocking news broke overnight. It was ok, she said, as her cousins had moved out of their home in Gaza City. Only because he wasn’t at home, her uncle and his family had survived.

The despair of Gaza, summed up in a tweet by insightful Gazan journalist Omar Ghraieb in the early hours of this morning. Omar has been a relialbe voice on the ground amid the despair of Gaza.

Instead of being consumed by rage, instead of giving way to despair, she looked around and marvelled that so many Irish people had given up their Saturday and travelled across the country to show solidarity with Palestine.

According to the Israelis who spoke to Paul Cunningham over the past couple of weeks, Irish people haven’t got a clue.

But after spending some time talking to heart-broken, traumatised young women from Gaza this past week, I can say that Irish people understand exactly what is going on in Palestine right now.

For too long, when our own ancestors were being oppressed, starved, or run out of their homes, the world turned its back on the people of Ireland and they really felt that nobody cared.

When I shared photos of the demonstration in Dublin with a friend in Gaza this weekend, he thanked me so much from the bottom of his heart.

As he watches children and entire families die around him, and buildings being razed to the ground, it somehow gave him a tiny bit of consolation that thousands of Irish people took to the streets to say that their lives matter.

I didn’t hear anyone voice support for Hamas or expressions of hate, either up on the stage or around me in the crowd.

Instead, I saw a succession of people from the Arab world make their way over to greet the small delegation from Jews for Palestine — Ireland at the end of the protest march at Merrion Square. They wanted to hug them, to take “selfies” with them, to thank them for their bravery and support.

During centuries of trauma, evictions, and oppression, of being dehumanised in the London press, Irish people felt the world had turned its back on their suffering at a time when there were no mobile phones, social media companies, or brave television reporters on the ground.

In the 1930s, Europeans also shamefully turned their backs on Jewish people in humanity’s darkest hour.

But nowadays the world has no excuse.

Our ancestors knew what it was to feel abandoned, displaced, and to live without hope, and that’s why the Irish people won’t abandon Gaza now.

Not because we hate their oppressors, but because we also once understood what it is to live without a modicum of hope.

Ciaran Tierney is a digital journalist, language planning officer, and an award-winning current affairs blogger. Find him at and on Twitter @ciarantierney. Please follow Ciaran on Medium.

Walking with the huge crowd in Dublin on Saturday.



Ciaran Tierney

A former newspaper journalist, with an interest in human rights, travel, and current affairs, Ciaran won the 2018 Irish Current Affairs Blog of The Year award.