Commemorating and celebrating our emigrants
Ireland continues to represent emigration as a tragedy and a loss, writes David Burns
As a former colony, Ireland perhaps does not feel it owes a debt to history in the same way as Great Britain or France. We were never an empire. Our ancestors might have fought in the service of one, but they fought as individuals. The blood dried on their own hands. There was no sovereign Irish state, and the fact that it was only recently established means we look on a lot of our history with pride. Where French and British history is a gallery of imperial delusions haunted by the blind arrogance of “great” men and the suffering of those people and cultures they oppressed, the Irish past is a framed underdog story of long struggle met with success.
This weekend we will commemorate An Górta Mór or the Great Famine with a minute of silence. In many ways that great tragedy stands across a divide from us. It is over there in that colonial epoch, divorced from us. We are freed from responsibility for it. The British are, of course, to be fingered with the blame. The skewed rural system in place was, of course, not of our own making nor was our dependence on the potato crop. The landlords were to their bones British. In popular perception, the famine is something that happened to us, something that was done to us— not something we are responsible for.
This famine is still central to our concept of “diaspora”, however. The 2.1 million people who left the country in the eleven year period 1845-55 still haunt that term. The fact that over 95 per cent of them travelled across the Atlantic— mostly to settle in the US or British North America— explains why today most Irish people still associate America with the diaspora even though, in fact, it is Britain that is home to the largest overseas Irish community. The amount of people strewn across the world who are able to claim Irish citizenship through such ancestry is the single most cited reason for refusing to politically represent Irish emigrants at home.
The poverty these people faced in urban environments that were alien to them— the alcoholism, unemployment and poorly paid labour that were the elements of their new life— and the fact that they were indeed the “lucky ones” are all concrete reasons for continuing commemorations. There is no disputing the value of respecting the dead. But we should question our relation to them. Is the term diaspora still relevant or is it just nostalgic? Why don’t we refer to our emigrants as expatriates? Why don’t we allow Irish citizens overseas to retain their voting rights for a limited period of time? Is there a political reason we don’t? Has Ireland’s tradition of emigration become a modern-day safety valve? Does this story of forced migration, the catastrophic failure of an economic philosophy and the wilful neglect of government repeat itself anywhere else in our past, even on a minor scale?
These questions might seem at once provocative and unimportant. Migration figures from the CSO for the period April 2013 to April 2014 to be released later this summer will— in all likelihood— show a drop in the amount of people leaving the country. As the economy gradually picks up and the conditions for future growth shift into place, the amount of time spent talking about Ireland’s relation with the Irish abroad by national media and by the opposition will probably decrease.
Certainly, that was the case in the 1990s. After high rates of economic emigration in the 1980s, there were a lot of people talking about what is now referred to as “diaspora engagement policy”. Labour even introduced a bill to Dáil Éireann which proposed allowing Irish citizens abroad to retain their voting rights in Irish elections for 15 years. In March 1991, Enda Kenny, Éamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin, Ruairí Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Alan Shatter all voted in the favour of this proposed bill because they felt it in their best political interest given the climate. Later, though, as things picked up “diaspora engagement policy” was no longer seen as an important issue.
The truth is, however, that Ireland’s relations with the Irish abroad are— and have always been— of historical importance. Irish-American money helped avert a second great famine in 1879-80 and a century on from An Górta Mór, in the first decades of the new Republic, during the Emergency years especially, Irish emigrant remittances were a vital source of income for many families. At the same time, the world has modernised. The number of migrants internationally has almost trebled since the 1960s. The consolidation of legislation enabling free movement of people and the relative convenience and low cost of contemporary means of travel continue to factor in the increase of this number. But Ireland continues to represent emigration as a tragedy and a loss, rather than implementing the change that would bring it up to speed with the rest of Europe— where expats are not a painful memory but participating citizens in the political future of their respective countries.
There is a hunger in this country for a better Ireland, for a break with history, and not all the commemorations of the coming decade will cover it up.
David Burns is a recent emigrant to Paris and a long-term supporter of VICA (Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad), which is currently running an email campaign seeking to promote emigrant voting rights with EU and local election candidates at home. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration here.