Ireland's first black mayor today hailed his election as a symbol of how European countries can adapt successfully to rapid rates of immigration.
Rotimi Adebari, who arrived seven years ago as an asylum seeker and became a councillor in 2004, has been chosen as the first citizen of Portlaoise.
A Christian from Nigeria, he was forced to flee his hometown of Okeodan in the south-western state of Ogun because of religious persecution. When he settled in Portlaoise with his wife and family, his two children were the only foreign pupils in the local school; there are now more than 30 nationalities in its classes.
Irish society has undergone an extraordinarily swift transformation, partially fuelled by its Celtic Tiger economic boom. Having experienced centuries of emigration, the tide has turned.
Ten years ago around 1.5% of Ireland's population was born abroad. That figure, boosted by a massive influx of workers from eastern Europe, now stands at 10%.
Mr Adebari, 43, who could not find a job when he first arrived because of laws that banned asylum seekers from seeking paid work, set up an unemployment support group in County Laois. Speaking to the Guardian today, he said: "I feel great. I feel thrilled. I give thanks to all the people of Portlaoise.
"Involving people from many ethnic backgrounds is the only way to go. This confirms that Ireland really is a country of a hundred, thousand welcomes and a land of equal opportunities.
"I am the ambassador for the town and we can show that Ireland has done something that is unique. Other countries may have had multiculturalism for a long time, but Ireland has done this in a very short period. The United States has only just elected its second black governor in Massachusetts and that's after 300 years. We here can be a model for all around Europe and the world."
Mr Adebari, who recently gained a masters degree in intercultural studies at Dublin City University, now works for the county council on an integration project for new immigrants.
He was elected as an independent and won the mayoralty with backing from other independents, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin councillors.
Immigration did not feature as a mainstream issue at the last election. Mr Adebari acknowledged that he had had "his share of problems" living in Ireland but added: "That doesn't means the people are racist, you always get individuals who are prejudiced."
Ireland has absorbed more than 30,000 asylum seekers, many from Nigeria.
"One people get to know you, their perception changes," Mr Adebari said. "The immigrant community has to come out of its shell and the local community has to accept them. They need to meet in the middle. Immigration is never going to go away. Ireland is now my home. The people here have been wonderful
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