Ireland as a country appears outwardly very proud of her diaspora. This is enshrined in our constitution- Article 2 tells us that ‘the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’ In my view Ireland currently falls far short of this aspiration and tends to engage with the diaspora in a one-sided fashion. There is an ingrained insularity in how Ireland views her history and people that needs to be fundamentally addressed. (1)

Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 Ireland has sought to harness her diaspora to assist in the economic recovery of the country. This has led to initiatives such as the Global Irish Economic Forum, where business and cultural leaders of the Irish diaspora are invited to explore how the Irish at home and abroad can contribute to Ireland’s economic recovery. As part of this initiative the government has reaffirmed its commitment to the diaspora and stated that the ‘enhancement of our connections to the global Irish community remains central to Government policy.’ One of the outcomes of the Forum was The Gathering initiative, where Irish people were encouraged to invite members of the diaspora to Ireland in 2013. The Gathering highlights the extent of the global Irish community (estimated at some 70 million people who claim Irish descent) and asks that you ‘invite anyone with a connection to Ireland to come and visit – so they can tell their stories; so they reconnect with family, relatives and friends; so they can make new friends – and so they can rediscover their history and join in a modern celebration of Ireland.’ The Gathering has in the main been embraced and thus far appears to be a success. I have participated in a number of events as a guest speaker and the efforts that many local community groups and societies have made to mark the Gathering are impressive. Initiatives such as the Global Irish Economic Forum and The Gathering have at their heart an aim of deriving economic benefit for Ireland from her diaspora. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and indeed a failure on the part of the State to attempt to draw on the diaspora for support would have been rightly criticised. However, there is a need when undertaking such initiatives to balance the books between an inward and outward view of the diaspora- this is something Ireland has not, and is not, doing. (2)

Ireland as a State (and many Irish people) view the diaspora inwardly. In other words they see the diaspora as providing an inward flow of benefits to Ireland (largely economic), achieved through activities such as tourism and investment. Many who hold this inward view see the diaspora as a group attempting to reestablish cultural connections to Ireland and their ‘Irishness’ that were broken when their ancestors left the country. Fundamentally, this inward perspective regards the diaspora primarily as a resource. Conversely, an outward view incorporates the history and experiences of those who emigrated with those who remained in Ireland, forming an integrated cultural and historical picture of the Irish people. Rather than regarding emigration as creating a defining break with Ireland, it recognises that the millions of Irish people who lived (and live) in communities abroad have stories that should be told in Ireland and that their experiences have just as much validity as those who stayed on the island. This outward view can also derive economic benefit, as embracing this integrated cultural history provides the Irish State with an opportunity to increase it’s visibility in the countries of the diaspora, by participating in occasions which remember specific events that impacted upon the Irish living there. It is normal for a country to see its diaspora as a source of potential benefit and to have a primarily inward focus. However, when not balanced with a strong outward and more culturally inclusive view it sends a message that the heritage of the diaspora is not regarded as part of the central story of Ireland. Ireland is not good at outwardly embracing her diaspora and the opportunities that doing so creates. This failure runs the risk of distancing Ireland from those of global Irish heritage and ultimately can foster a belief among people in Ireland that the diaspora have a lesser claim to ‘Irishness’ and Irish heritage.

Irish Emigrants Leaving for America from Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, 1866 (New York Public Library Image ID 833634)

Irish Emigrants Leaving for America from Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, 1866 (New York Public Library Image ID 833634)

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I regard the vastly disparate treatment of World War One and the American Civil War in Ireland as an indication of how we are failing to appropriately engage with our diaspora’s history and heritage. They are the two largest conflicts in the Irish military experience by some distance, witnessing similar numbers of Irishmen in uniform, similar casualty rates and similar impacts on Irish communities at home. We are currently in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, while the 100th anniversary of World War One is less than a year away. I am fully supportive of the efforts to mark the centenary of World War One and believe that all the activities planned are right and proper. It is a topic on which I have worked extensively in the National Museum, have published on and on which I will be giving talks on as part of the 100th anniversary. However, I view the differential treatment that the two conflicts are receiving from the Irish Government, Irish media and Irish educational institutions as indicative of a wider failure to appropriately acknowledge the history of Irish emigrants and the diaspora generally.

There is little doubt that the 100th anniversary of World War One should be expected to be a bigger event in Ireland than the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. There are a number of reasons for this- it is 50 years closer in time to us, was a worldwide event, was more visible locally, descendants of combatants grew up in Ireland (as opposed to descendants of the American Civil War Irish, who grew up as part of the diaspora), it was one of the major events that formed a backdrop to the Irish independence struggle, and it has continued relevance for the Peace Process. So a disparity is to be expected in terms of how we remember them now. However, the American Civil War also has much relevance. Many of the 170,000 Irish who fought were Famine emigrants, tens of thousands more were the children of Famine emigrants. The 1.6 million Irish-born people who lived in the United States at the time had a profound impact on that country and their participation in the conflict was used by the Irish-American community to aid their own (and future) Irish integration into the United States. So although we might expect a disparity, it is also fair to expect that there would be a serious focus on this conflict at the time of the 150th anniversary. Instead, what has happened in Ireland is that the American Civil War has been largely ignored; in contrast to the dozens of events already planned to mark World War One.

World War One’s place in the decade of commemorations has undoubtedly played a part in the attention it is receiving. The Department of the Taoiseach has placed information on Irish participation in the war on its page, and the majority of the Irish universities are already planning World War One conferences and events. Around the country associations and communities are embracing their World War One heritage through the construction of new monuments and memorials. Over the next five or so years there will be dozens of commemorative occasions, new books will be published, the television, radio and print media will focus in detail on Irish participation, and the State will undoubtedly be represented at national and international remembrances. All this should be welcomed. We are now three years into the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, a conflict for which we have few memorials (there is no national memorial, and only one that remembers a regiment, the 69th New York). There has been no dedicated issue of any Irish historical journal or periodical dealing with the Irish in the United States and there has been relatively paltry media coverage. There have been no conferences or events organised by any third level Institution (or indeed by anyone else). The State has released no information on Irish involvement and the only official Irish participation in the 150th commemorations consisted of an Irish Army Colour-Guard who took part in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. No speeches have been given by any member of the Government, the President or senior diplomatic staff that explicitly deals with the American Civil War or what Irish participation meant (and means) to Ireland and her diaspora. There have been no public pronouncements as to why we should (or should not) remember the Irish of this conflict. To reiterate, this is the largest (along with World War One) conflict in the Irish military experience. Why is this the case? (3)

I have written before about how I feel Ireland tends to lose interest in the stories of her emigrants once they leave the island. The Famine is a good example of this. In its broadest terms, the Famine was experienced by three groups of people- those who died, those who emigrated and those who stayed. Historically we tend to concentrate on those who died and on what life was like for those who stayed. The emigrants become a statistic, their stories and future lives no longer regarded as directly relevant to Irish history. Therefore we can separate the experience of the Famine with the many Famine emigrants who were impacted by the American Civil War. These two episodes, which should be seen as intrinsically linked in Irish history, are therefore disassociated- the American Civil War is rarely discussed in the context of the Famine in Ireland. From a wider perspective it is somewhat shocking that we do not spend more time examining and remembering the histories of all our diaspora. This is particularly true when one considers that over 35% of people born in Ireland lived outside the island in 1870. Of course, this is not to say that there are no diaspora studies in Ireland, and that there is no interest shown in remembering these people. There is some very good work being done, but the point being made here is that there should be far more of it. People in Ireland need to be provided with the tools and opportunities to learn more about the diaspora, and this should be driven from within the education system. The relative levels of recognition (and lack of recognition) that World War One and the American Civil War are receiving is evidence of the necessity of this. With regard to the education system’s view of the diaspora, historian Dr. Enda Delaney has already identified a problem with how we view it in historical terms. In his excellent paper ‘Directions in historiography: our island story? Towards a transnational history of late modern Ireland’ he notes that ‘historians of late modern Ireland have unconsciously constructed an ‘island story’, with its central focus on domestic events.’ He continues that ‘the existence of the Irish diaspora is acknowledged, if then just as swiftly ignored,’ while ‘coverage invariably ends with the tearful farewells at Irish ports.’ The transnational history of Ireland in this period which he advocates is something we must do more to try and achieve. (4)

I spend much of my time looking at the social impact of the American Civil War on Irish emigrants, mainly through documents such as Widow’s Pensions Files. While attempting to be dispassionate from a historical perspective, it is impossible to read hundreds of these often heartbreaking stories without being strongly affected emotionally by them. They may be largely forgotten here, but these were Irish people and their history is Irish history, just as much as it is American. Their story should form a major part of what we understand to be Irish culture and heritage and should be embraced accordingly. For us to fail so badly in remembering them appropriately is an indictment of how we view our emigrant communities. This is true of our emigrants in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere just as much as the United States. Cherishing a diaspora is a two-way street. if, as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has said, ‘enhancement of our connections to the global Irish community remains central to Government policy’, then Ireland needs to do a lot more to prevent Article 2 of our constitution from ringing hollow.

(1) Constitution of Ireland: 4; (2) Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on Global Irish Economic Forum Website, The Gathering: Global Community; (3) The Department of the Taoiseach; (4) Delaney 2011: 83-84;


Constitution of Ireland

Department of the Taoiseach Historical Information

Global Irish Economic Forum

The Gathering Ireland

Delaney, Enda 2011. ‘Directions in Historiography: Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’ in Irish Historical Studies 148, November 2011.

New York Public Library Digital Library Digital ID 833634