Ireland is embedded deep in the DNA of its diaspora

OPINION: By supporting the creation of a diaspora centre in Dún Laoghaire we will be paying tribute to our ancestors

OPINION:By supporting the creation of a diaspora centre in Dún Laoghaire we will be paying tribute to our ancestors

I first associated the word “diaspora” with the Bible. Subsequently it cropped up when I read stories of persecuted people in central Europe. I didn’t necessarily associate the term with Irish emigration. However, through the decades, my understanding has broadened.

I now believe the Irish diaspora has such a good story to tell. Too frequently we have tended to adopt a “victim” status. In my view this does not sit easily with the facts.

My generation knew all about being educated “for the emigrant ship”. It seemed to be a given that most of us would find work elsewhere, taking the benefits of an excellent education around the world and enriching other countries as a result.

We should be so proud of that, and I am.

We have always taken the benefits of excellent education to other countries. Our monks enriched people in Europe – educating, caring for the poor and sick, and preaching justice and peace.

More recently the young soldiers of our tiny island bravely undertook peace missions in the Middle East and Africa as members of United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Now, when there are broadcasts from disaster areas and the tones of Irish relief workers come over the airwaves, I find myself possessively proud.

Of course there have been troubled times. I recall the public sense of horror – and my sense of shame – when my country people bombed and killed in places such as London. However, despite this, the overriding impression of the Irish diaspora is incredibly positive. Even through these dark economic times, when people are being ground down by the impact of austerity, Ireland is being applauded. It’s digging its way out of crisis and this is being noticed worldwide.

Diaspora centre plans

In recent days I hosted a gathering of our diaspora in the House of Lords. I am a member of the leadership council of the Irish International Diaspora Trust, and the aim of the gathering was to provide a briefing on our plans to develop a diaspora centre in Dún Laoghaire in Co Dublin.

In attendance were women and men who dedicate themselves to supporting people in their local communities. There were also dynamic young people who are leaders in the professions: lawyers, medics, designers and innovators.

We are a diaspora who can hold our heads high. We contribute to the best of our ability wherever we go.

We must make every Irish person feel the same. It is appropriate and fundamentally important to celebrate the global imprint our diaspora has made and continues to make.

We live in an age of global mobility with 24-hour communication. We move around the world in a way that would be alien to our grandparents, many of whom would have been daunted by the prospect of a trip from Dublin to Cork.

After my 21st birthday my grandmother became ill. I went to see her and, at the end of the visit, I told her I could not return the following week as I was going to New York. To my horror she burst into tears (I had never seen her cry before – she was my indomitable seanmháthair). She said: “No one ever comes back from New York.” And, of course, she had seen those near and dear to her go to places such as New York and South Africa and never return. She was born in 1877.

Families were fractured but still showed resilience and created new families in so many lands.

The children of these waves of emigrants have made contributions of great importance and, although they are successful and settled in their new lands, the pull of Ireland and its culture and customs remains very strong.

As a member of the diaspora I can relate intimately to this. We have strong ties to the countries we have made home. Yet deep down a couple of lines of Yeats, a snatch of a John McCormack song (we listened on the lovely wind-up gramophone) or a news article about beautiful west Cork sets us thinking. And sometimes leaves us wishing and hoping we could be catapulted back.

There is something in our souls that is stirred. We know about the DNA of our bodies. But what about the DNA in our souls? It is strong and powerful.

We should take time to acknowledge it and draw comfort from belonging to a precious and internationally admired country. The recent approach to the Government by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to facilitate a strand of the third Global Diaspora Forum in Dún Laoghaire says a lot. It is recognition by her that Ireland’s diaspora has thrived, yet has remained very connected to its motherland.

Hosting the Global Diaspora Forum gives us an opportunity to consider how we can link better with our diaspora to exploit new markets, drive innovation and help in problem-solving, including in conflicts and disasters. However, it is also an opportunity to connect with and celebrate our diaspora.

Sense of belonging

Some years ago I visited Ellis Island, which is a symbol and celebration of American immigration. It was a hugely impactful experience. Learning more about the stories of those who came to make the United States their home illuminated my connection to Ireland. I felt a sense of belonging that the 70 million other members of the Irish diaspora – from throughout the ages – shared with me. That experience has resided with me ever since.

I am pleased that the programme for government seeks to support the creation of a diaspora centre.

We must pass on to this generation and to future generations the importance of the Irish DNA of the soul. The sense of belonging to a very precious country brightens our lives. This is what, in strong terms, the diaspora centre will do.

By supporting this, we shall be paying tribute to our ancestors who worked so hard. It will offer a place for people to feel that important sense of belonging. It will give our grandchildren, and generations far into the future, a place to come when they want to seek out their roots.

Baroness Detta O’Cathain is a member of the House of Lords and of the leadership council of the Irish International Diaspora Trust, which is working to create a diaspora centre at Dún Laoghaire Harbour.