I don’t know if I’ll ever feel Irish – I will always be slightly ‘other’

Part three of a five-part series about people who arrived in Ireland 15-20 years ago

Emily Mark-FitzGerald,  who moved to Ireland from California in 2002 and works as a lecturer at the UCD school of art history and cultural policy, with her  sons

Emily Mark-FitzGerald, who moved to Ireland from California in 2002 and works as a lecturer at the UCD school of art history and cultural policy, with her sons


Leading a group of energetic Peruvians around south Dublin is hardly inconspicuous – particularly Peruvians who live in California and regard public transport as a mysterious European concept.

“Peruvians party pretty hard and they were all big into dancing all night,” says Emily Mark-FitzGerald as she recalls the arrival in Dublin of nearly two dozen relatives for her wedding. “It’s a cliché but in terms of my family, it’s certainly true. A few of them had never been to Europe before and taking a group of 20-odd Peruvians on the Dart to visit my soon-to-be mother-in-law in Sandycove was very entertaining. They kept marvelling loudly in Spanish at the wonders of transportation which no one in LA is used to.”

Mark-FitzGerald’s soft accent swings between Californian sing-song and Dublin slang as she explains how her Peruvian family ended up in the United States, where she was born and grew up.

The American academic, who moved to Ireland 14 years ago, has always been fascinated by migration. Her mother was born in Lima to her American grandmother, who was convinced by her Peruvian husband to relocate from Maryland to South America.

“You can imagine, 1940s Peru was not a very easy place to live in. She already had a daughter from a first marriage and had six more children with my grandfather. She also had two sets of twins.”

Mark-FitzGerald’s mother emigrated to California in the 1970s where she subsequently converted to Mormonism and met her husband. The rest of her mother’s siblings and parents also ended up leaving Peru and moving to the US.

“I was raised Mormon until my parents divorced when I was seven,” she says. “It’s an unusual faith to grow up in. For example, they raise funds through a tithing system where you’re meant to devote 10 per cent of your income to the church. I remember even as a kid when I got birthday money, some of it had to go into an envelope to give your tithe. Mormonism is definitely not my thing any more.

“My mum became a complete atheist when she renounced Mormonism and I ended up Unitarian, probably because I had such a complicated religious background.”

Her Peruvian roots played a fundamental role in her upbringing. “I grew up with everyone speaking Spanish and eating ceviche because all of my Peruvian family lives in the LA/San Diego area.”

It is hardly surprising, given her mixed Latino/Mormon background, that she pursued an academic career focused on migration, poverty and diaspora. In 2002, after meeting an Irish man while working at the Getty Museum in California, she applied for the Mitchell scholarship which would enable her to study at an Irish university for one year.

“I knew I wanted to do a PhD and I’d always wanted to live abroad. I just thought, ‘it’s a year fully funded in Ireland, I’ll get to study, hang out with my new boyfriend and see how things go’. I’d never been to Ireland so I thought, ‘I’ll see how I like the country and if it doesn’t work out, I can go home after the year’.”

It was during her first year at Trinity College in Dublin that Mark-FitzGerald began reading about the Irish Famine. “I’d always wanted to connect up my two interests, which were migration and art history. I was interested in public art and started looking into monuments to the Famine.

“I found it an amazing way of trying to understand the way Irish society had moved forward since the 1990s and how, in the midst of the Celtic Tiger, the value of Famine memory had changed.”

Mark-FitzGerald travelled the length and breadth of Ireland visiting Famine memorials, while also examining memorials in countries including Canada, Australia and the US.

“I wanted to look at what motivated people and what they were trying to achieve. For a lot of communities, it was about recognising the place of those people and their value and significance in society. There are so many shades of grey when it comes to the Famine, even though people like to cast it in terms of black and white and English oppression. But it’s so complicated.”

She is often cautious when she sees Ireland’s history of Famine and migration “being mobilised for yet another political reason. It was used extensively in the 1990s, for example, for African aid relief to mobilise people and contribute.

“When it comes to the contemporary migrant crisis, I think of course anything that gets people interested in the politics of migration is useful. But you need to understand and engage, not simplify it into an emotional, nostalgic relationship with an ‘other’ who is off in the distant past.

“That’s why I sometimes worry when I see it being transposed into our relationship with contemporary migrants – it allows us to feel empathetic towards refugees in the Mediterranean but not see what’s happening here with direct provision.”

Her decision to stay in Ireland came in 2008 when she was offered two jobs – one at New York University and the other at UCD. “It was that fork-in-the-road moment when you think ‘if I go left I’m gonna live in Manhattan or if I go right, I’ll be making my life in Ireland’. I very consciously chose Dublin, that’s where I wanted to be. When you’re forced to make that decision in such stark terms, it’s like you’re admitting to yourself, ‘this is my home now, this is where I want to live’.”

As a lecturer at the UCD school of art history and cultural policy, she has become deeply interested and involved in Ireland’s artistic scene. “I’ve always felt the arts scene here is incredibly vibrant and for me, as an outsider without any Irish connections, I found the ability to become integrated into the arts community here very rewarding and quick.” However, she says the Government’s awareness and support of the Irish artistic community is “a total nightmare”.

“The Government obviously doesn’t appreciate the arts to the extent that they should and doesn’t recognise the enormous contribution it makes, not only economically in terms of tourism but also just in terms of quality of life here. The diminishment of the arts by including it in this giant portfolio in the recent Cabinet reshuffle is depressing.”

“It’s dispiriting that I’ve seen how much the country has grown in terms of its cultural provision but that’s not recognised at political levels. But artists persevere – even during the recession you still saw people making work and forming collectives.”

Through her integration into the Irish arts scene, her studies of the nation’s Famine history, her marriage to an Irish man and now her two Irish sons, Mark-FitzGerald says she feels like a real Dubliner – but not truly Irish.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent the rest of my life in Ireland but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel Irish. It’s not that I have any kind of hard feelings about that because I will always be slightly ‘other’. Even in the States I’m always slightly ‘other’ because my family’s Latino.”

“There comes a point and all of a sudden Ireland does feel like home. When you have that sensation as the plane’s coming down into Dublin airport – it’s this exhalation and you think ‘yes, I’m home now’.”