Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Exiles, emigrants, the diaspora… what word best describes the Irish abroad?

Words can shape how we think about ourselves and how we belong in a new home, writes Denis Sampson

Wed, May 21, 2014, 15:50


Denis Sampson

Exiles. Emigrants. The diaspora. The first two words were the most common when I was growing up; in fact, I think they were the only ones in circulation. Then along came “diaspora”, courtesy of Mary Robinson most of all, who had the best of intentions in using a new word to draw attention to the Irish who live elsewhere, who had been in many ways invisible in Ireland.

The new word has had quite a success among Irish politicians and bureaucrats and journalists, but its original reference to “the dispersal of the Jews” has had a history for thousands of years. For me, that specific history of expulsions and exterminations still clings to the word. The “Irish diaspora” has a kind of abstract ring to it, a borrowed word useful for policy discussions, as it focuses on a sense of unity and survival as a recognizable community above all else.

But if the word “diaspora” leaves me cold, the warmer word “emigrant” or the hotter word “exile” also lump all of us together in convenient ways. They are apparently definitive, now with the necessary feelings of loss and mourning and finality, yet they too conceal from view many aspects of the experiences of real people. Without wishing to diminish the intensity of those feelings, or their reality, the words have for me something of a cliché about them now.

“Exile” has a long tradition in song and story since the nineteenth century especially, although there were earlier waves of dispersal in the Flight of the Earls and the Wild Geese. But it was the Famine and rural destitution that drove ordinary people in huge numbers into exile, in particular to North America. In so many ways, the word has an aura of fate and lack of choice, the departure resembling a wake, and what came after a form of death-in-life.

Such gloomy associations were rooted in the dire conditions of that time, of transportation and communication, and economic circumstances too. Return was virtually impossible, and letters home embalmed the bonds between the departed and the family of origin. Settling was always more loss than gain. It is not only that Skype and texting, smartphones and Facebook provide up to the minute images and voices now; there may be more in the word “exile” that does not correspond very much with the experience of emigrants of recent decades.

And so the word emigrant? Four decades ago, I left Ireland as an emigrant, but some hours later, the direct flight to Montreal delivered me to Canadian Immigration and I became a “landed immigrant”. From then on, I heard much about Canada as a country largely made of immigrants; there was little talk about emigrants. After some time, I began to think of myself as an immigrant too, although that didn’t cancel out my identity as an emigrant. In fact, I have lived my life in the space between two prefixes to the word migrant. When I am in Ireland, people see me as an emigrant; in Canada I am an immigrant, like almost everybody I know.

There are other words too, for instance, expatriate, or “expat”, more common among economic migrants within the British Empire or commonwealth, and it carries the suggestion of a temporary displacement. But, here in Canada at least, where in earlier generations, there were many such, there was a kind of colonial status attached to it, often a convenient mask for what was in fact an economic migration like any other – motivated by the search for a job or a better job. Like the words exile and emigrant, it definitively situated the person in relation to the home of origin, whereas other words, like refugee or illegal, are in a separate category since they are overshadowed by the complex legal issues involving even admission to the new country.

In Montreal, one of the first people I met was Bharati Mukherjee, a woman of Bengali origin who went on to write many novels and stories dealing with these matters. Her focus became the way the different words can shape how we think about ourselves and how we belong in a new home that we are always in the process of making, simply through the passage of time and growing familiarity.

Inevitably, wherever we are, we settle to a degree, and the longer we stay the more obvious our bonds to the people in the new place become; our relationships bind us, although as first generation migrants, a major part of who we are has been shaped in the place of origin and we have to find ways of bridging the two places, the two identities, the two states of becoming. Each one of us holds on to much of what was vital in the culture in our own way, we are who we are because of it, and so it has not been left behind, it is part of us still and always. A part, but not the whole of us.

Thinking about how to describe ourselves or define ourselves, it is surely true that each one of us lies at different points along the emigrant-immigrant spectrum, never only one or the other, always in varying degrees both. I mentioned Bharati Mukherjee on purpose, for Irish migrants have much in common with people from all those other nationalities that have contributed to the great movement of peoples around the globe or inside continents that is surely – along with digital technologies – the most important historical change of the past half-century.

It may be that we can see more clearly the transformations and identities we undergo by observing how individuals of other ethnic backgrounds undergo the changes and struggle to resolve the many and inevitable conflicts of contemporary migration. Up close in Ireland now, there are many emigrants becoming immigrants, and there is much to observe in how they make themselves at home of the transformations our Irish emigrants undergo elsewhere.

In the end, it’s not the words that matter; it’s how each one of us negotiates the options, accepts change as a set of opportunities rather than a terminal loss, discovers resources and strengths we didn’t even know we had (and might never have discovered if we had not traveled and settled in a new place).

Denis Sampson lives in Montreal and Kilkenny. He has written previously for Generation Emigration on about how his experiences as an emigrant were denied or ignored by people he knew in Ireland.  ‘A Migrant Heart’, his memoir of leaving, settling and returning, will be published in Montreal in September 2014.