Sean the Sheep outside the author's home in Oughterard, Ireland (supplied)

#Oughterard: how alt-right racists claimed victory over a tiny Irish town

New Zealander Kristin Hall spent a year living in a rural Irish town that last month became the centre of an internet-stoked frenzy over refugees. Oughterard may be half a world away, she writes, but it could easily happen here.

I was scrolling through Twitter the other day when I saw a tweet from renowned English dingbat Katie Hopkins about Oughterard, the gorgeous Irish town in which I spent most of last year.

My first thought was, I really need to unfollow Katie Hopkins. My second was, why is she tweeting about Oughterard?

Oughterard, about 30 kilometres from Galway city, is the epitome of rural Irish loveliness. It has thatch roof cottages, a four-in-one organic grocer/coffee shop/craft and secondhand bookstore, and a Bank of Ireland branch which keeps such relaxed hours I started referring to it as ‘Bank Holiday’. It has a population of 1,300 and seven pubs, a watering hole for every 185 people. Its claims to fame include being ‘The Wild Trout Capital of Europe’, ‘The Gateway to Connemara’, and now thanks to a group of refugees of unknown size who may or may not settle there, #Oughterard has its very own hashtag.

Although it’s just about as far away from New Zealand as it’s possible to be, Oughterard has risen to online notoriety in much the same way as could easily happen in one of our own little pastoral enclaves – Reefton or Matamata or Raetihi. That is, some foreign people might be living there for an unknown period of time, and the locals are very upset about it.

A typical Oughterard cottage (supplied)

About two kilometres outside of Oughterard’s town centre is the Connemara Gateway Hotel. The large and long-abandoned premises is the proposed site of a ‘direct provision centre’, or a refugee resettlement centre. Ireland’s government hasn’t confirmed that the Connemara Gateway Hotel will absolutely be used as a direct provision centre, or exactly how many asylum seekers might be temporarily housed there, but that hasn’t stopped the town from becoming a homing beacon for bigoted turds all over the world.

Placards were wielded, silent marches held, and local protesters maintained a 24 hour vigil at the proposed site, flanked by road-blocking rubble, just in case any desperate people from war torn countries tried to sneak in early. Now, three weeks since a town hall meeting was first held on the issue, the hotel developer has bowed to pressure and withdrawn the tender – no more direct provision centre for Oughterard.

But what exactly led to this outcome? Who was lurking behind the scenes and manically fanning the wheelie bin fire of fear? You just need to jump online to find out.

Right from the very beginning, the Oughterard conversation has been dominated by well-organised ‘activists’ with large online followings and blatant anti-immigrant agendas. The media tends to refer to these people as ‘alt-right’, but for the sake of clarity, we’ll just call them plain old wine biscuit variety racists.

Gearóid Murphy, a Cork man and self-styled ‘Irish patriot’ has gone as far as to involve himself personally in the protests, travelling to Oughterard to livestream the protests, attracting the attention of dangerous idiots Katie Hopkins and Lauren Southern.

Men like Rowan Croft (a guy who racists so hard he was recently milkshaked a la Nigel Farage during a filmed diatribe), are disseminating the same asylum seeker ‘fact sheets’ on their disturbingly popular Youtube channels as were distributed amongst Oughterard residents at the very first town meeting. It’s worth noting that Croft was glorifying the act of setting fire to proposed provision centres when he was ‘shaked’. Top guy.

Locals say they’re outraged the movement has been hijacked by outside voices, and that the protest is about the living conditions in direct provision centres, rather than being anti-refugee. Whether that claim is completely genuine or not is dubious; what is absolutely certain is that the protest would never have reached this scale had the issue not attracted the attention of internet racists.

Tweets using the #Oughterard hashtag are quickly picked up by Croft and his ilk, making claims about refugees which are too vile to reprint here. The result is a paranoid frenzy in a town which has now, whether it likes it or not, become a byword for racist nimbyism.

Oughterard is a rural community, and the internet signal is bad. I could only FaceTime with my mates by doing laps around our little rented flat, or by going to the pub and hoping the Wi-Fi was working. Even if there was absolutely zero anti-immigrant sentiment in Oughterard, a 1,300 strong town made up largely of families and retirees simply cannot compete with the amount of organised hate that can be drummed up by people with tens of thousands of followers from all over the world.

We should all care about what’s happening in Oughterard, because it can happen in any other town where the population is small enough to be overwhelmed by people with a webcam and an agenda.

If Masterton District Councillor Gary Cafell’s suggestion to protest the arrival of refugee families had been picked up by a fascist with a DIY film studio at his nan’s place, instead of being shut down by locals, what might have happened?

If Whanganui man Phillip Rewiti had been joined by a league of internet neckbeards in protesting refugees from “Osama Bin Laden countries”, there might have been a very different outcome to what actually happened, which was essentially two guys with different views sharing a hongi, having a bit of a chat, and agreeing to disagree.

Kristin Hall and her boyfriend outside their Oughterard home (supplied)

I don’t believe Oughterard locals are bad people, and my boyfriend and I felt at home during our year there. We read books from the four-in-one grocer by our tiny fire, drank a lot of Guinness, did manus off the pier into Lough Corrib, adopted a pet lamb and became known alternately as ‘the foreign lads with the sheep’ or ‘those Australians who always wear shorts’.

But Oughterard, and other rural communities don’t need people like me; working holiday visa holders who come to live the rural dream for a year and then promptly bugger off. They need people who will contribute to the community, people who work, volunteer and raise kids in a place where they’ve been given a second chance at life. The community has missed their chance to welcome those people, all thanks to people who never have, and never will call Oughterard home.

Not many people have won in the Oughterard scenario – not locals, who have either had their emotions manipulated or their pre-existing beliefs massaged with the essential oils of misinformation and hate speech, and certainly not the unknown number of asylum seekers who have had every aspect of their existence attacked online, and may face the same problems in other small Irish towns. The only people who have won are the overlords of hateful bollocks and their loyal following of Twitter eggs – people who cared about Oughterard while it was the most popular hashtag with which to spread their misery, and will soon move on, leaving the town’s reputation in tatters.

The last protest march in Oughterard attracted 3,000 people, more than double the number of people who actually live there. Is it because 3,000 rural Irish people have discovered a hidden passion for righting systemic wrongs in the direct provision system, or is there something more sinister at play? It’s up to all of us to pay attention. Long may #Oughterard remain the exception to small-town hospitality, and not become the new norm.

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