How do we define the Irish Diaspora?

As many as 70 million people around the world claim a connection to Irish identity, more than 10 times the current population of the island of Ireland. So how do we define what it is to be Irish? In this extract from part one of our special magazine published with the Irish Independent, Professor Liam Kennedy and Dr Marc Scully attempt to explain where the Irish Diaspora fit within this definition.

‘How do we square our view on Irish illegals in the US with illegal immigrants here?’

THE term diaspora originates from the Greek “diaspeirein”, meaning to scatter or sow. For many centuries it was used almost exclusively to refer to the dispersion of two ancient diasporas — the Greek and the Jewish — and was not a commonly used term. That began to change in the late 20th century with increasing global migration and a rise of ethno-nationalism and ethnic revivalism. Since then it has been more widely used as many states have taken it to describe their extended peoples in an age of globalisation.

Diaspora is a complicated and contested concept, partly reflecting its history and etymology, but also the mercurial nature of what it is intended to describe. Most scholars view diaspora not only as a dispersed community but also and crucially as a community that retains a sense of association or identification with the place of origin.

It is this sense of identification that is both the most powerful feature of diaspora as a bonding agent and the most beguiling due to its arbitrariness and instability. It is an imagined community that often eludes measurement.

Diaspora is a term we have become familiar with in Ireland, indicating our historical experience with emigration, and its currency has been reinforced in recent years with state-led initiatives in ‘diaspora engagement’.

The turn to diaspora makes good policy sense, but it can also skew our understanding of emigration and migration as its meaning shifts to be part of the discourse of globalisation — it is now often used as a positive substitute for the negative “migration.” Such a semantic shift is also ideological, reshaping categories of nationality and otherness. Contradictions and paradoxes abound: Are you Irish by descent or consent, by blood or affinity? How do we square our views on Irish illegals in the US with illegal immigrants here?

Acknowledging such questions does not disavow the powerful pull of diaspora identifications — these persist as a sense of belonging in conscious and unconscious ways. Rather, it can be helpful to think of diaspora not as an essence but as a positioning, not an identity but an identification.

The US anthropologist James Clifford theorises that diaspora “maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference”. Or, as the Irish-American writer Peter Finley Dunne more pointedly observed via his fictional Irish bartender Mr Dooley in the late 1890s: “th’ rare boney fide Irishman is no more than a foreigner born away from home.”

Liam Kennedy is Professor of American Studies at UCD and the Director of the Clinton Institute. He is currently researching a monograph on globalisation and American culture.

‘Our views of the diaspora are often prone to misunderstanding and cliché’

IN academic terms, ‘diaspora’ has two broad definitions. The first refers to a multi-generational population that has arisen through migration, who retain some link to the original homeland. The second sees diaspora as an idea; one that disrupts the taken-for granted link between nation and identity, allowing for the possibility of hybrid identities and multiple homelands.

President Mary Robinson’s 1995 address to the Oireachtas is widely credited as introducing the concept of ‘diaspora’ into Irish public life. She drew on both understandings of the term, speaking of diaspora as a way of understanding that Irishness is not simply territorial, and that engaging with the Irish abroad can productively challenge our own identities.

Twenty-two years on, ‘diaspora’ is now part of everyday language in Ireland. However, the challenging aspects of the concept have been lost, as its usage has slipped into cliché. One regularly reads some variation of the sentence “a unique resource of 70 million Irish people worldwide that can be harnessed for the economic benefit of Ireland”. Such a characterisation is misleading: Ireland is not unique in having a large diaspora, ‘harnessing’ is a dubious way to talk about people, and there are not 70 million Irish people worldwide.

This figure was originally a very rough extrapolation from US Census data. While memorable, its use is problematic as it suggests a vast, undifferentiated mass of Irish people abroad.

At its worst, it contributes to the unrealistic fear of ‘swamping’ that hampers progress on the voting rights of citizens abroad. This characterisation also assumes that all those with Irish ancestry have ‘Irishness’ as their main identity. As the geographer Catherine Nash argues, our assumption of the primacy of Irish ancestry in the diaspora ignores the fact that the vast majority of those of Irish descent also have ancestry from other parts of the world.

This intermingling with other diasporas creates new cultural meanings of Irishness, both at home and abroad. This is illustrated amusingly at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum through a collection of Tin Pan Alley music celebrating Irish-Jewish romances in
early 20th Century New York.

While diasporic forms of Irishness are sometimes viewed in Ireland as inauthentic, our views of the diaspora are often also prone to misunderstanding and cliché. Showcasing the diaspora in Dublin has the potential to restore the more challenging meaning of the term, and to remind us (paraphrasing Oscar Wilde) that Irishness is rarely pure and never simple. Dr

Marc Scully is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at Loughborough University. He has written extensively on identity and the Irish diaspora.