Memory and Migration: Imaginary Homelands

Memory and Migration: Imaginary Homelands


When thinking about diaspora I return again and again to the writing of Salman Rushdie:

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge-which gives rise to profound uncertainties- that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, lndias of the mind. [1]

In the context of contemporary Ireland looking back has become a demand of the migrant individual and the inter-generational Irish diaspora throughout the world. The language of imaginary homelands, Irelands of the mind, saturate public discourse on the transcultural flow of people, leaving little room for other narratives, as I discussed last week. However an image of Ireland is increasingly being sold that does not reflect the country it is but rather portrays an imagined homeland demanded by a global market.

On the website of UCC’s EMIGRE project a fascinating array of media representations of diaspora and homeland have been gathered. The most recent addition, the animation Origin from 2012, portrays the journey of a man trying to leave the country who gets drawn back by connecting with a mythic past.

The emotive imagery of this piece exemplifies the problematic understanding of emigration and diaspora, assuming that all who leave are driven away by the problems of modern life and can only be drawn back by the imagined purity of a romantic past.

This type of narrative has also been consistently seen in the promotion of The Gathering which purports to ‘provide the perfect excuse to reach out to those who have moved away, their relatives, friends and descendants, and invite them home’, assuming and indeed demanding a look back from those who have left. [2] The question of whether or not this is a commoditization of culture, a cynical peddling of Irishness to reap economic benefits, has been exhaustively debated so far this year. Nonetheless I would like to revisit it within the context of this discussion on memory and migration.

On the webpage What it means to be Irish on we are told that:

From a rock in the middle of the ocean, we have populated the globe with approximately 70 million O’Sullivans, Murphys and Walshes, not to mention the roughly one million Irish-born people who are currently living abroad.

On the page Global Community this theme is continued:

The point we’re trying to make is that you’ll find people with Irish blood scattered right across the globe, and that many of them made a huge contribution to society in their new homes.

It is hard not to view the latter statement cynically, given the obvious source of much needed revenue that such an initiative provides, and the obligation of diaspora that is implied.  Indeed as we cast the critical eye of hindsight on the recent history of globalisation in its economic guises, it is worrying that such an initiative has become a national calling card. Given how the unquestioning embrace of global capitalism has damaged the collective Irish self, continuing to cater to it seems an odd choice.

In the foreword to the book The Irish in Us, published in 2006 Diane Negra notes that;

Over the last ten years a particular set of cultural and economic pressures has rapidly transnationalized Irishness. Recruited for global capitalism, Irishness has become a form of discursive currency, motivating and authenticating a variety of heritage narratives and commercial transactions, often through its status as a form of “enriched whiteness”. 

There is obviously demand for Irishness as a product. In the essay Still “Black” and “Proud”; Irish America and the Racial Politics of Hibernophilia  from the same book, Catherine Eagan explains that much of this appetite comes from America where pervasive hibernophilia not only manifests through consumption of identity symbols but more insidiously through an assertion of alterity and the (re)appropriation of suffering. [4] This I would argue is a condition of postmemory, a term devised by Marianne Hirsch who explains:

[It] is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through projection, investment and creation… [it] characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth , whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that they can neither understand nor re-create. [5]

In the case of Irish America these narratives are derived from a collective ancestry of famine émigrés and the well-documented historic oppression of Irish immigrants in the United States. Generations of Irish Americans have acted as carriers of this memory which has been fed and mediated by the memory of late-twentieth and twenty-first century economic migration. The contemporary experience of Irish Americans has, however, no parallel with the oppression of earlier Irish immigrants, leading to the conflation of Irish and African American oppression, interest in the Northern Irish conflict, and solidarity against racial oppression against contemporary African diaspora. [6]

While aspects of this solidarity have positive out-workings there is an edge to this identification of ‘ethnic’ Irishness.  While there is potential to understand discrimination against the Irish through the subjugation of the black community and vice versa, in line with a multidirectional reading as proposed by Michael Rothberg, what has taken place so far has been distinctly competitive. [7] Writing of the push to educate the American public with an awareness of famine history in 1997, Eagan notes that ‘[d]espite the scholars best efforts, the attendees of these events were at times overeager in their excoriation of the English and their willingness to engage in competitive suffering matches with Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, and other oppressed peoples.’  [8]

It follows that the identification with suffering that has become an inherent part of ethnic Irishness should not lay emphasis on the collective histories of migrant suffering as this fails to recognise the differences in cultural experience. It also ignores the conflict that arises between migrant communities, in favour of a harmonious narrative of collective suffering. The equation of Irish and black oppression in American pop culture products, exemplified by the film Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002), eradicates conflict in favour of a narrative of cohesion, in this case by failing to acknowledge the lynching of African Americans carried out but Irish Americans angry about the inequality of the Civil War draft. [9]

This act of negation demonstrates how highly mediated Irishness travels between the diaspora and home nation in a cycle of re-appropriation, or as Hirsch puts it, ‘projection, investment and creation’, reinforcing problematic stereotypes. In the words of Chimamanda Adichie, quoted last week and who warrants reiteration, ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’. [10]

Though the commoditization of Irishness has been widely debated in the year of The Gathering what is equally difficult to stomach, but less often discussed, is the incompleteness of the commodity it seeks to sell.  Though its cheery colloquial tone does not venture anywhere near the darker side of this collective identity, by quietly implying an ethnic Irishness it is nonetheless implicated. By emphasising the ties of diaspora to their homeland, whether for economic gain or not, these problematic understandings are underlined. For those in Ireland’s racially diverse population who identify themselves as Irish, this is especially unhelpful as these narratives, as they are broadcast to the diaspora, only serve to restate their alterity. As such by catering to this global demand for Irishness through this commoditized view of imaginary homelands and ‘politically insulated ethnic whiteness’ a stereotype is peddled that leaves little room for the many who don’t fit the profile, and little opportunity for a contemporary re-negotiation of Irishness.

Written by Ruth Annett

[1] Rusdie, S. (1992) Imaginary Homelands London: Granta Books p. 10
[2] The Gathering, 2013 Available at <;
[3] Negra, D. (2006) The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture in Negra, D.(ed.) (2006) The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture, London: Duke University Press, p.1
[4]Eagan, C. (2006) Still “Black” and “Proud”: Irish America and the Racial Politics of Hibernophilia in Negra, D.(ed.) (2006) The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture, London: Duke University Press, p.23
[5]Hirsch, M. (1999) Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy in Bal, M et al [eds.](1999) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present Hanover: University Press of New England, p.8
[6] Eagan, 2006:28-29
[7] Rothberg, M. (2009) Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford: Stanford University Press p.3
[8] Eagan, 2006:41
[9]ibid: 32
[10] Adichie, C (2009) The danger of a single story [online video] Available at <;