1950s >> Olga Murphy >> Hungary

Olga Murphy. Photo © UNHCR/Kim Haughton

Olga Murphy arrived in Ireland in 1956 as a young girl of 17, one of 350 refugees who came to Ireland fleeing the Soviet tanks after the Hungarian Revolution. Arriving in the midst of an Irish Winter the refugees were housed in Knockalisheen, a former army summer camp in Limerick. Olga was one of the few Hungarians who remained in Ireland after leaving the refugee camp and she continues to live in Limerick. The following is from the story of Dorrit O’Shaugnessy, a Hungarian friend of Olga’s, also living in Limerick, who among many experiences and achievements in her life, acted as an interpreter in the Knockalisheen camp following the arrival of the refugees.

"1956. A date, surely, that must be indelibly etched in the consciousness of almost every Hungarian of the modern era."

Dorrit’s story gives an insight into this historical act of refuge by the Irish State, an act which created many practical and logistical challenges for the State, the Irish Red Cross and not least the refugees themselves, but which ultimately provided at least temporary safe haven to hundreds.

The story brings to light the act of responsibility sharing adopted by UNHCR including Ireland, in the wake of the flight of thousands of Hungarians into an overwhelmed Austria. As such it resonates with the recent call by UNHCR for European States to assist in responsibility sharing activities in relation to the North African crisis, a call to which the Irish State has responded positively by offering to accept 24 refugees into Ireland.

The story of the Hungarian refugees also illustrates, despite having taken place 60 years ago, many of the same elements that appear in refugees’ stories throughout the decades: the need for safety and refuge from persecution; the challenges of isolation and integration; the desire to be
active, independent and self sufficient and ultimately, refugees’ desires to rebuild their lives.

Extracts from Dorrits’ story are used by kind permission of the author Stephen OBrien, from his forthcoming book provisionally entitled Some Came In As Strangers.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a spontaneous revolt against the Stalinist government of the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies. The conflict lasted a mere two and a half weeks, from 23rd October until 10th November 1956, but by that time an estimated two thousand five hundred Hungarians and in excess of seven hundred Soviet troops had been killed and a further thirteen thousand Hungarians and one thousand two hundred and fifty Soviet troops wounded.

In the space of those fateful nineteen days, that very short time between the students in Budapest making their stand against the Stalinist government and the revolution’s being emphatically crushed by the Soviets, some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled the country as refugees.

Those thousands who fled sought refuge elsewhere on the continent and overseas. Forced to abandon their homes, their livelihoods, sometimes even their loved ones, with a few essential personal belongings strapped to their backs and their terrified young in tow, the distressed fugitives marched disconsolately en bloc through the early winter landscape of sodden fields and frozen marshes to what they prayed would be a safe crossing of the border into neighbouring Austria.

The massive influx of refugees from Hungary into Austria was so overwhelming that shelters and camps set up to accommodate them there were quite unable to cope with the numbers seeking asylum. The International Red Cross broadcast a worldwide plea for urgent assistance and commitment from Western Europe, the USA, Canada and, even, Australia. All sympathetic nations were asked, in the name of humanity and compassion, to take in and accommodate as many refugees as they could find it in their hearts to do. Ireland, at very short notice, volunteered to take in three hundred and fifty refugees.

The only site deemed suitable that could be made available at such short notice was the Irish Army’s summer camp in Knockalisheen in the small village of Meelick in County Clare, a few kilometres north of Limerick City. There, in the West of Ireland, the refugees could be housed, at least provisionally, in the skeletal wooden huts that pre-existed on the site for an entirely different and far less demanding usage.

The Irish winter, characterised by its pervasive damp, its hostile gales and all- too-fleeting daylight hours, did nothing whatsoever to boost morale or alleviate the misery of the incumbents as the simple acts of staying warm and dry became, and remained, major issues. That said, the present occupants of the camp were not left wanting for anything that the authorities were in any reasonable position to give them. Every possible effort was made to minimise their plight and make them comfortable.

Boredom and inertia among the camp- bound refugees were a further matter of unrest. With endless time on their hands the spirited Hungarians nevertheless found ways of making their own entertainment and, more importantly, of gainfully occupying themselves. To satisfy the fundamental dynamic of wanting to create some semblance of an independent self-sufficient home life, many sought out the means of making a living for themselves, no matter how modest.

The refugees spent three challenging years in the camp, during which time they found local employment including with Youghal Carpets and the Irish Symphony Orchestra, grew their own food and made enduring friendships. The refugees also however suffered from the cold and the inappropriate accommodation, an inflicted curfew, boredom, inertia and a desire to be somewhere where they could put down roots and start rebuilding their lives.

In the summer of 1958, most of the refugees were at last allowed to relocate to Germany and the United States, others to Canada and the Antipodes, while a few chose to remain in Ireland.

"They all in one way or another acknowledged their deeply felt debt of gratitude to Ireland"

Hopefully everyone did eventually get to his or her final destination of choice none the worse for wear and without, within reason, serious regret. Many, indeed, I like to think, may well have benefited from their prolonged stopover in Ireland. Some, but not many, chose to stay behind and make a life for themselves and their families in Ireland and, for the most part, assimilated and prospered accordingly.

Retrospectively, however, they all in one way or another acknowledged their deeply felt debt of gratitude to Ireland and her always compassionate and proactive people for the selfless and unconditional support and hospitality they had received as the welcome, albeit circumstantially challenged, visitors to this country they had unquestionably been.

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