‘I was the only Filipino in Lucan’
2017-06-15 15:50:12 -
Vising Benavidez-Kennedy talks to Leah Murray about the changes she’s experienced over her 40 years in Ireland

In her book From the Philippines to Ireland: A Voyage of Discovery, Vising Benavidez-Kennedy uses her personal experience and journalist research to analyse the many similarities and differences between the two places she now calls home.

Born in the Philippines in 1940, Vising was raised as a Catholic and studied journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. After several years as a correspondent, she felt a higher calling and decided to join the convent of the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres in 1967. However, she continued writing, and during her time as a nun she worked on the convent’s newsletter The Echo.

During her time in the convent, she met James Kennedy, an Irish priest from Limerick who was working for a Columban missionary in Manila, and almost at the end of a seven-year mission. Like Vising, he was no longer feeling the call to a life in the clergy and believed was meant to do something different.

“He is a most charming and kind man,” says Vising of what attracted her to James. “Cultural differences didn’t make a difference. Our religious background was a factor that binds us closer together. 

“Also, the fact that he spent seven years in the Philippines made him understood Filipino culture, which played a great part in our relationship as man and wife, especially as I had yet to learn about the Irish culture.”

Leaving the religious life
After 20 years in the priesthood and 10 years in the convent for James and Vising respectively, they left the religious life and got married in the Philippines in 1977 before moving to Ireland. The couple settled in Lucan, where they still live 40 years on.

“It was with much thought that I left the religious life, ” says Vising. “I was aware I was answering a call from God when I entered, but after 10 years I became aware also that I was being called to another way of life, to be a wife and mother - and I responded to it with much love and gratefulness.”

James himself recounted the experience of falling in love with Vising and leaving the priesthood in his own book, Fat God, Thin God, in 2002. Yet despite leaving that vocation behind, Catholicism remains a very important part of their lives.

“When I first got here I asked ‘Where is the church?’” says Vising. “It’s engraved in both of our cultures.”
Despite the distance from her homeland, Vising says her new family in Ireland and neighbours in Lucan were all welcoming and kind. 

“Far from being bitter about losing her priest son to marriage, [my mother in law] welcomed me with great love and generosity,” she writes in her book.

Both the Philippines and Ireland are predominantly Catholic, though Vising soon learned that the two cultures interpret the religion in very different ways. In Ireland, Mass and religious holidays are celebrated reverently, whereas in the Philippines these days are marked much more jubilantly. Then there was the change in cuisine, swapping rice for potatoes, putting up with a lack of tropical fruit in the early days, and learning to love tea. 
Vising also faced a language barrier of sorts. Even though English is widely spoken in the Philippines, she still had a Filipino accent. That’s on top of raising her two children, Patrick (now 38) and Noriana (36), in a culture still foreign to her while teaching them about their Filipino heritage. Religion was her comfort in a culture-shocked life. 

“I was the only Filipino in Lucan,” she says. Indeed, aside from a few friends, she adds that there were no other Filipinos in the whole of Dublin for many years after she arrived. However, during the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, over 13,000 Filipinos immigrated to Ireland, mostly to work in the health sector. 

“Thanks to the ‘Harney’ visa (named after then Employment Minister Mary Harney), Filipino nurses and several health assistants were allowed work here immediately, boosting our population to an estimated 16,000 Filipinos,” recalls Vising. “This ushered the arrival of Filipino businesses in Ireland with the opening of Filipino restaurants, food shops, barber and hair salons, money remittance outlets and several other small businesses to cater to Filipino needs.”

No longer a stranger
By that time, in the early to mid 2000s, Vising was no longer a stranger to Ireland, and she wanted to use her experience to help more recent immigrants from the Philippines.

“Describing one’s own culture is difficult; it’s a bit like asking a fish in water what it’s like to swim,” as Vising once wrote for The Filipino Forum, a special Filipino-Irish cultural newspaper.

Nevertheless, she strove to become a resource to Filipino immigrants by contributing to the non-profit that published a bimonthly newspaper focused on issues Filipino immigrants faced, including culture shock and immigration laws.

The Filipino Forum has been out of print since the economic crash of 2008, but Vising is still dedicated to helping her fellow immigrants and their children make the best of life in Ireland.

Being raised in a bicultural family, Vising’s own children grew up with a strong sense of cultural integration.
“They are happy and grateful with being raised in two cultural traditions,” she says. “They were born and grew up here but they are aware of the Philippine connection.”

That’s the basis of her advice for others: “You will feel Irish and will live like the Irish, but deep down you will remain Filipino.”

The book is available to order at Amazon.com and at the Makati Avenue Restaurant and Pinoy Sarisari Store both at Capel Street, Dublin 1.
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