Irish Roots


December 16th 2013

Standing Room Only

John Grenham

The whole of Ireland now has a population about size of Rio de Janeiro. The number of people with Irish ancestors outside Ireland is more than of all the people in New York, London, Beijing, Mexico city, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Lagos, Cairo and Los Angeles combined.

There are six and a half million of us in here. There are more than 80 million of them out there.

The relationship between Ireland and the descendants of those who emigrated is utterly exceptional. Yes, there are 50 million German-Americans and "only" 40 million Irish-Americans. But 90 million people live in today's Germany.

Germans outnumber German-Americans almost two to one. Irish-Americans outnumber us almost six to one. Compare us with any other country on the planet that has experienced mass migration - Israel, China, Italy, Spain - and that situation of disproportion is unique.

The reasons are nor far to seek. Like a vast exploding seed-pod, the great burst of Famine emigration scattered links all over the globe that, when they rooted, continued to draw rivers of cousins and in-laws and neighbours out of Ireland for almost a century and a half.

The uniqueness of our diaspora has to mean that the 80 million deserve much more from us than they got in the past: in particular they deserve the right to be able to identify their ancestors as easily as possible. But our feelings have never been unmixed. There is simple survivor guilt, still echoing down the generations. Our ancestors could stay because theirs were forced to go.

There is also common-or-garden guilt. Those few extra acres they left behind came in very handy and we don't want them coming looking for them back, now do we?

And of course if they all came back at once, there'd be nowhere to sit down.

irishroots@irishtimes.com irishtimes.com/ancestor


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

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