Memory and Migration: Dangerous Discourses

Memory and Migration: Dangerous Discourses


Over the next few weeks The Future State will explore the nexus between migration and memory through discussion of the complex interweaving of contemporary and historic experiences of migrant communities in Ireland, and the Irish diaspora before turning to explore how the alterity of the artistic position can aid the opening up of spaces to embrace alternative narratives that foreground the creative potential of difference.

In a 2009 TEDtalk the novelist Chimamanda Adichie warned of the danger of a single story:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person… The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. [1]

The recent call by Limerick County Councillor Kevin Sheahan for an ‘Irish first’ housing policy demonstrates how this principle of nkali operates within migration discourse in Ireland. The absence of an apology by Micheál Martin and the widespread failure by other party leaders to censure others who make similarly racist or xenophobic statements, enable such exclusionary narratives to flourish in Irish politics. [2]

These dangerous discourses stem from a cultural atmosphere that foregrounds competitive migration memory and negates minority experience. Instead it reinforces classical narratives of westward migration as progress, as articulated by Henry David Thoreau:

Eastward I go by force; but westward I go free… I must walk towards Oregon and not towards Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west… We go eastward to realise history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westwards as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure. [3]

 Thoreau’s pronouncement of westward travel as progress, and eastward migration as (racial) regression, may be a century and a half old but it illustrates a narrative that remains problematic in the contemporary understanding of migration. Homi K. Bhabha calls this the ‘potent mythologies of ‘progress’’, which in Ireland’s case are inextricable from historic emigration to Western centres. [4] To borrow from Stuart Hall, these mythologies fail to make room for a transformation or ‘becoming’ of identity and memory that is not defined by an essentialised past. [5] Failing to recognise the constant renegotiation of that past in relation to the present, i.e. the active nature of memory, denies the stories of those who migrate to and from Ireland beyond the heavily mediated memories of the white majority. [6]

Irial Glynn notes that in addition to a well-documented emigration history there is an equally rich, yet rarely referenced, history of migration to Ireland. This lack of fanfare may be due to the difficulty of romanticising the experience of immigrants; Glynn describes the ‘unsympathetic treatment of outsiders seeking to enter the country’, and notes that those who were accepted were ‘treated nonsensically by an ill-informed and ill-equipped state’. He notes that there has been only one marked period of support by politicians towards asylum, during the 1995 famine commemorations, when the emphasis laid on interpretations of Irish immigrants as refugees produced a conflation of this period of commemoration with national asylum debates. [7]

The conflation of contemporary migration and the mediated memory of historic emigration is problematic, as it leads to a binary understanding of migration as loss/gain. Furthermore the constant reiteration of the link between emigration and economic hardship leads to an assumption of the motivations of other migrant groups. This creates an atmosphere of competition within the host community, as exemplified by Sheahan, which extends beyond physical resources to the psychocultural space available for recognition. Homi K. Bhabha asserts that, ‘the universalism that paradoxically permits diversity masks ethnocentric norms, values and interests.’ [10] By glossing over cultural difference in favour of a homogenised melting pot of assimilated culture, conflict is fostered, explaining the continued presence of racism in multicultural societies, and atmosphere that breeds and permits comments like Sheahan’s.

In the book Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture, Holly Maples provides a fascinating account of how this was performed within the microcosm of the 2007 St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin. She describes the conflict that arose between official policies of assimilation and the desires of migrant communities to highlight their distinct identities within a larger celebration of Irishness, writing:

The tension between universal signs of post-national society favoured by the artists and the need for iconic displays of national identity by the community groups provided an arena for the creation and loss of identity inherent in the performance of multiculturalism. That this occurred during a parade in honour of St Patrick’s Day, a holiday traditionally intended for a specific national community, illustrates widespread anxiety in Ireland around issues of cultural identity, nationalism, immigration, globalization, and the performance of Irishness on the Irish social stage. Cultural signifiers, no matter how subtle, indicating unique cultures were consistently sought by the Polish, Lithuanian, Igbo Associations, and others to celebrate not a fusion of cultures but particular contributions to the Festival.[11]

By enforcing cultural diversity both in the management of community participants and within the storyboard of the parade, the organisers performed the containment of migrant populations, negating difference in favour of a homogenised multicultural Irishness. As an alternative to cultural diversity Bhabha posits cultural difference which foregrounds, ‘the unequal, uneven, multiple and potentially antagonistic, political identities’, and creates a ‘position of liminality… that productive space of the construction of culture as difference, in the spirit of alterity or otherness’. [12]

A renegotiation of how multicultural Ireland deals with migrant communities is important and requires the renewal of national debates to include migrant experience. A tragic example is found in the death of Savita Halappanavar, the subsequent reigniting of national debates on abortion and refocused attention on the lack of clarity in Irish abortion law. The response of midwife Anna Marie Burke to the request for an abortion by Halappanavar and her husband was that it was not possible, “because this is a Catholic country”, demonstrating the precarious position of the migrant body within the inflexible systems of the host nation. The crisis brought about by this case has led to the redrawing of arguments, in a debate that has traditionally been framed in term of Ireland’s national Catholicism, to make room for citizens who do not share that cultural or religious heritage.

Moments of crisis are an occasion for the troubling of accepted understandings of cultural identity, opening up the potential for Ireland to understand itself beyond its past and to embrace cultural memory as an active process that makes room for interactions and antagonisms with other cultures. [13] Using post-Troubles Northern Ireland as her field of interest, E.M. Quinn explains that the liminal state of a country in crisis holds immense potential for the construction of an intact collective ‘self’ and the formation of new paradigms. She notes that, ‘opportunities emerge for the reshaping of narratives so that aspects of identity heretofore overlooked, unheeded, or unrecognised can be emphasised’. [14]

Utilising this moment of crisis to focus on issues which are central to understanding contemporary Irish identity, is vital in order to bring a critical focus to the problem of Irishness, nationally and where the diaspora bring it into question. By understanding the link between migration and memory and by acknowledging the damage that it caused by singular hegemonic narratives, a space is opened up to understand Irish identity as a complex entanglement, and a site of immense potential.

Written by Ruth Annett



1. Adichie, C (2009) The danger of a single story [online video] Accessed: 19/4/2013 Available at <;

2. Canon, M (2013) Column: Micheál Martin’s response to anti-immigrant rhetoric was lily-livered The <; Fianna Fáil’s response to Cllr Sheahan’s ‘Irish first’ comment is ‘unacceptable’ 2013 <;

3. Thoreau, H.D. (1993), Walking in Thoreau, H.D. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, New York: Dover Publications Inc, P.57

4. Bhabha, H (1990) The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha In: Rutherford, J. [ed.] (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.209

5. Hall, S (1990) Cultural Identity and Diaspora in Rutherford, J. [ed.] (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.225

6. For more on how this I would suggest reading The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture, especially Catherine Eagan’s essay Still “Black” and “Proud”;Irish America and the Racial Politics of Hibernophilia

7. Glynn, I. (2012a) Famine Commemorations and Asylum Debates in Ireland Conflated in Glynn, I. and Kleist, J.O.(2012) History, Memory and Migration: Perceptions of the Past and the Politics of Incorporation London: Palgrave MacMillan, p.173-174

8. Bhabha, H (1990) The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha In: Rutherford, J. [ed.] (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.209

9. Maples 247

10. Bhabha, H (1990) The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha In: Rutherford, J. [ed.] (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 208-211

11. ibid; Nora, P. (1989) Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations 26, 7–25, p.8

12. Quinn, E.M. (2009) Taking Northern Irish Identity on the Road: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival of 2007 in Brady, S. And Walsh, F (2009) Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 215)