Memory and migration: Towards a hybrid space

Memory and Migration: Towards a Hybrid Space


In his book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization Michael Rothberg writes that,

…pursuing memory’s multidirectionality encourages us to think of the public sphere as a malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interactions with others; both the subjects and spaces of the public are open to continual reconstruction. [1] 

He continues that the borders of memory and identity are ‘jagged’ and that memories are not owned by a certain group. The anachronistic quality of memory, he asserts, is what gives memory its ‘powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the materials of older ones’. [2]

The discussion of migration in this series owes much to Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory and its, ‘potential to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.’ [3] Having spent the two previous pieces discussing the problems of hegemonic single narratives in the context of migration, I want now to explore the alternative spaces of myriad voices, as articulated by cultural theorists and created by artists.

In an interview with Jonathon Rutherford in the book Identity: Community, Culture, Difference Homi K. Bhabha articulated a ‘third space’, a space of hybridity. He explains that it is not a position of identity itself but an identification, a process of identifying with and through another object, an object of otherness. Like Rothberg’s multidirectional space Bhabha see the hybrid space as a site of potential: ‘The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of meaning and representation.’[4]

The cultural theorist Ien Ang also notes the creative potential of this ‘third space’. In the forward to her book On Not Speaking Chinese Ang suggests that the, ‘diasporic intellectual may in fact be especially well placed to analyse this complicated entanglement [of the hybrid space] because it is embodied in her own life trajectory’. [5] She asserts that:

[A] critical diasporic cultural politics should privilege neither host country nor (real or imaginary) homeland, but precisely keep a creative tension between ‘where you’re from’ and ‘where you’re at’… the productivity I am referring to fills that space up with new forms of culture at the collision of the two: hybrid cultural forms born out of a productive, creative syncretism. [6]

I would argue that this is exemplified by the work of Arambe Productions, an African theatre company based in Dublin who create opportunities for often excluded African actors by, ‘ producing classic and contemporary plays in the African tradition, [and] reinterpreting relevant plays in the Irish canon’. [7]

In 2006 Arambe staged The Kings of the Kilburn High Road during the Dublin Fringe Festival. The play, written by Jimmy Murphy in 2005, is set in London twenty-five years after a group of Irish men sailed to England in hope of making a fortune and returning home. They meet up to drink to the memory of a dead friend and look back at their ‘lives, lost dreams and their place in the new Ireland’. [8]

Poster for The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, 2006, Arambe Productions.

In an essay entitled Who’s Laughing Now? Comic Currents for a New Irish Audience Eric Weitz notes how the humour in the production demarcates in-groups and out-groups of belonging in the audience, at once demonstrating cultural differences and creating a space of positive potential. [9] On the subject of articulating the traditional migration narratives of Kings through the African voice he writes:

Remarkably there are passages of text from Kings which played like an up-to-the-minute cautionary tale for African-born spectators who have emigrated to Ireland for economic betterment… Speaking through the mouth of Irish characters, there were many poignant opportunities for the Arambe actors – all but one of whom were born in Nigeria and spoke in their own accents – to give voice to yearnings and disappointments concerning the concept of ‘home’. The spectacle of five young black men caught in similar circumstances and enacting the potentially destructive social rites of their adopted country implies a hard glance in the rearview mirror at a wave of Irish emigration, even as it looks forward to our African-born immigrants. The oscillation between them evoked lament and warning simultaneously, though surely in different measure for the two main groups of spectators. [10]

At this juncture it should be clearly stated that I do not believe that expressing the cultural experience of one group through the voice of another automatically creates a site of multidirectionality or hybridity. Indeed I believe it can often be used to present an acceptable face of competitive memory or as an exercise in multicultural containment.  However as Weitz notes, it is the view of contemporary African migration to Ireland, through the renegotiated memory of Irish migration that opens up a space of solidarity in this case. [11]

In so doing the Arambe production created within the audience a site of collected memory. James Young suggests collected memory, as an alternative to Maurice Halbwach’s problematic concept of collective memory, proposing a space where,

… we recognize that we never really shared each others actual memory of past or recent events, but that in sharing common spaces in which we collect our disparate and competing memories, we find common (perhaps even a national) understanding of widely disparate experiences and our very reasons for recalling them. [12]

Like Bhabha and Rothberg, Young is proposing space, physical and theoretical, that brings memory together in recognition of inescapable differences.

The video installation How Capital Moves by Kennedy Browne also opens up a site of collected memory by creating space within the work to understand the trauma that globalisation exerts on local communities through the disparate and overtly competitive experiences of communities affected by the migration of transnationals. The work features six avatars, played by the same actor, each delivering a monologue addressing a particular experience and attitude to The Company, a large multinational computer firm which relocated from Limerick to Lodz in 2009. [13]

Image still ‘believed_in_company’ from How Capital Moves (2011) Kennedy Browne

The script is ‘an accumulation of translations and transcriptions’; from the language of the online accounts, into the written UK English of the script and then into the spoken Polish’. [14] This process of translation is extremely important; as Bhabha says, ‘the act of cultural translation (both as representation and as reproduction) denies the essentialism of a prior given original or originary culture then we see that all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity’. [15]

Denying this essentialism is vital. The real event on which How Capital Moves is based is in its very nature a site of competition. It is the nature of multinational companies to site themselves in the most competitive context, creating a climate of competition where countries lobby for business, often by undercutting their own citizens. Press reports at the time, exemplified by the Irish Independent’s headline Poland celebrates: ‘good for Lodz, bad for Ireland’ [16] gloss over the company’s role in the job losses in favour of drawing comparisons between Ireland and Poland, sites of capital migration, in a contest of economic hardship and unemployment woe.

Rothberg writes that ‘Comparison, like memory, should be thought of as productive – as producing new objects and new lines of sight – and not simply as reproducing already given entities that either are or are not “like” other already given entities’. [17] In contrast to the narrative presented by mainstream media outlets the work by Kennedy Browne presents the memory of the event through the medium of the Polish actor’s monologue, thereby ensuring the remediation of the memory to include and be read through the Polish perspective. [18] In so doing they transfer the critical focus onto The Company and their complicity and draw a ‘new line of sight’ through the integration of the Polish voice. [19]

It is in this use of voice and readymade, in the form of anonymous online testimonies, that multidirectionality is anchored. In the foreword to the script that accompanies How Capital Moves they state:

These fictions tend to be developed from existing, marginalised materials from within the plots and subplots of global capitalism. The use of readymade, found material in combination with a collaborative method of scripting ensures that Kennedy Browne’s fictions are networked to a multitude of referents rather than tied to a singular author. [20]

By presenting a ‘multitude of referents’ and weaving them together through the process of fictionalisation Kennedy Browne build on the strength of these combined stories and what they reveal about each other, to direct a critical refocusing on the effects of global capital migration. This, says Bhabha, is the power of the third space, to displace, ‘the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom’. [21]

The third or hybrid space, multidirectional or collected memory, all foreground the conflict that is inevitable in the collision of cultures that is commonplace in our contemporary world. As citizens we need to advocate for these spaces and their potential for building new visions for our future states. They reject the negation that is inherent in multicultural containment and in doing so make room for the creative tension in those spaces of complex, antagonistic entanglement. Here we can redraw critical focus onto the hegemonic voices of power which have privileged single narratives in the name of cohesion but instead breed xenophobia and fail to make room for migrant memory.

Written by Ruth Annett

[1] Rothberg, M. (2009) Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.5

[2] ibid

[3] ibid: 4-5

[4] Bhabha, H (1990) The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha in Rutherford, J. [ed.] (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.211

[5] Ang, I (2001) On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West London: Routledge, p.3

[6] ibid: 35

[7] Arambe Productions, 2013, Accessed:18/3/2013 Available at Arambe Productions online.

[8] Playography Ireland, 2013, Accessed: 22/4/13 Available at <>

[9] Weitz, E. (2009) Who’s Laughing Now? Comic Currents for a New Irish Audience in Brady, S. And Walsh, F (2009) Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture, London: Palgrave MacMillan, p.226

[10] ibid: 228

[11] ibid; Rothberg, 2009:4-5

[12] Young, J.E. (2010) Memory and Monuments after 9/11 in Crownshaw, Kilby and Rowland (2010) The Future of Memory Oxford: Berghahn Books p.81

[13]  Kennedy Browne (2011) How Capital Moves – The Script [online] Accessed: 18th April 2013Available at<> p.7

[14] ibid

[15] Bhabha in Rutherford, 1990:211

[16] Byrne, C. (2009) Poland celebrates: ‘good for Lodz, bad for Ireland’ The Irish Independent 9th January [online] Accessed: 18/4/2013 URL:

[17] Rothberg, 2009:19

[18] Erll, A. (2011) Travelling Memory, Parallax, 17 (4), p.12

[19] Rothberg, 2009:19

[20] Kennedy Browne, 2011:35

[21] Bhabha in Rutherford, 1990:211

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)