Noted Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole recently produced an excellent series of articles- later turned into a highly attractive book- titled A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. It has rightly received much attention, and was made available for free electronically in the month of March to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, The Gathering and Ireland’s Presidency of the EU. The objects chart the history of Ireland from prehistory right through to the modern-day, telling a story about the country with each artefact. With the story of Ireland now told through objects such as these, it is time for us to start telling the story of the Irish.
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects promises to be a major book for many years to come, and does a fine job of providing an overview of the island’s history. However, one thing the book does not do (and doesn’t claim to do) is tell the story of the Irish people. Few of the 100 objects relate to the history of the Irish diaspora, and those which do tend not to follow them beyond Ireland’s shores. A ‘History of the Irish’ would include the stories of not only the Irish on this island, but also those millions who made new lives in countries around the globe. Ireland is a country where the term ‘diaspora’ is often used, a consequence of our long history of emigration. These emigrants need to be fully incorporated into the history of Ireland and the Irish.
The economic collapse recently suffered by the Irish State has heralded a new interest in Ireland’s diaspora. This has principally been driven by economic necessity; the millions world-wide who can claim Irish heritage are a huge potential financial resource who could provide assistance in the country’s hour of need. In an effort to tap into this resource initiatives have been launched such as the Global Irish Economic Forum and The Gathering. These moves are largely positive, but it does seem at times that Ireland views the obligations of the diaspora as inward only. We forget that we have outward obligations to our diaspora, particularly in regard to remembering and acknowledging their histories, and preserving their memory. All too often major events that profoundly affected them (such as the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War) pass virtually unnoticed on Irish shores.
I have previously discussed on this site how we have a tendency in Ireland to ‘leave our emigrants at the port’. One example of this is how we deal with the Famine. Although we commemorate and remember those who died and those who were forced to leave during that great tragedy, the lives of those emigrants once they departed the island tends to illicit only sporadic interest. We have successfully divorced the experiences of those who endured the Great Famine from the very same people who lived out the remainder of their lives in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This separation of memory blinds us to the true consequences the Famine had for many; for example for thousands the failure of the potato in Ireland in the 1840s set them on a path that would end in their (or one of their children’s) deaths on an American battlefield in the 1860s. The result of this insular view is that the histories of generations of the Irish diaspora in different countries around the globe have become hidden in Ireland, and virtually unknown to many of her citizens.
Our failure to learn or seek to understand the history and experiences of our diaspora is not just a failing on the part of the Government and state agencies. Our citizens are taught little about the diaspora in the country’s school history curriculum, which concentrates largely on the story of the Irish in Ireland. Given the fact that history appears to be on the verge of being made optional for the Junior Certificate future generations are doomed to learn even less. The problem can also be seen among historians. Dr. Enda Delaney of the University of Edinburgh argues that it is time for Irish historians to move from what he terms ‘island-centric history’ towards a global history. He also observed that many studies ‘chart the causes and extent of emigration in synthetic surveys, but the coverage invariably ends with the tearful farewells at Irish ports.’ (1)
Why does any of this matter? It matters because Ireland is a country that has experienced large-scale emigration for generations; to fully tell the story of our people we have to start to include those who lived their lives outside of Ireland. The numbers alone demand it. Dr. Delaney presents some revealing figures in this regard. In 1851 the population of Ireland stood at 6,552,000, but a further 1,986,000 Irish-born people lived in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Britain that year. The figures for 1871 are even more startling. While 5,412,000 people called Ireland home, a staggering 3,068,000 Irish-born people lived abroad in the aforementioned countries- over 35% of the entire Irish-born population of the world at that time. These huge numbers of Irish people have lost their voices in Irish history. We need to let them speak, and by so doing finally understand what the Irish diaspora really represents for Ireland and her people. (2)
(1) Delaney 2011: 84-85; Delaney 2011: 85;
I am grateful to Dr. Irial Glynn of the UCC Emigre Project for bringing Dr. Delaney’s article and the Diaspora Strategies report to my attention.
References & Further Reading
Delaney, Enda 2011. ‘Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’ in Irish Historical Studies 37, 148, pp. 83-105.
Delphine A., Boyle M. & Kitchin R. 2009. Exploring Diaspora Strategies: An International Comparison. Workshop Report, NUI Maynooth.