What’s in a Name: The Dialectics of Diaspora and Irish Emigration

Author: David Lloyd

The sudden, if predictable, transformation of Ireland from its brief moment as an island of immigrants back into what for so long it always was, a nation of emigrants, demands the re-interrogation of a term that for a brief time came to seem a natural way to address Ireland’s global migrations. The application of the term diaspora to people of Irish descent living outside Ireland is, after all, of relatively recent date and replaces a term that has been quite resonant in the Irish vocabulary, namely, emigration. What is the cost, and what are the possible gains, of displacing a term that has colloquial resonance and some political charge as well as a considerable degree of social scientific and cultural history behind it? Since I am for the most part an outsider to the field of “diaspora” or emigration studies, my remarks in this brief paper will reflect on the cultural and political meaning of that shift in terminology rather than attempt any sustained empirical contribution to the history of Irish migration and settlements.[1] My argument is not that the term “diaspora” is prima facie inappropriate as a term for the global dispersal of Irish people—on the contrary, I will explore the extent to which current theorizations of the term do help to conceptualize certain aspects of Irish migrations. At the same time, however, the deployment of a diasporic discourse to address the issue of Irish emigration, which is a continuing and class-specific phenomenon, risks diminishing both the traumatic impact and the politically critical valence of emigrant histories. Such an outcome would be richly ironic, given the extent to which diaspora theory, along with postcolonial and subaltern work, has tended to assume a critical stance with relation to normative national and state-oriented narratives. But, as James Clifford has succinctly remarked, “The political and critical valence of diasporic subversions is never guaranteed.”[2] In the Irish context, as elsewhere, the theoretical work of diaspora theory will only retain a critical edge by virtue of its performativity. That is, rather than assuming a descriptive and categorical relation to its objects, theoretical usage must hold in mind its constitutive force in relation to the objects it addresses. As I shall argue further, whether the term we deploy be “emigration” or “diaspora,” what is at stake is whether those terms have the effect of disavowing or activating the memory of painful displacements that have stemmed from a colonial and postcolonial history, whether their invocation induces a compliant or critical relation to contemporary states in which what Avtar Brah has usefully termed “diasporic space” entwines the long history of Irish migrants with the contemporary and ever violent dispersal of peoples.[3]

From the outset, we need to question to what extent the history of Irish emigration fits the paradigms that have developed under the rubric of diaspora. What are these paradigms and do the causes of Irish migration and the patterns of Irish settlement and social relations elsewhere correspond to or contradict these models? In exploring these questions, it is equally important to bear in mind the distinctions within the notion of diaspora that Clifford and Brah have established between “diaspora theories, diaspora discourses, and distinct historical experiences of diaspora.”[4] The Irish case may extend this set of distinctions by requiring that we perceive not only different histories for different populations, but different historical moments and relations to migration within the long history of movements of “single” peoples. At stake for us here is each of these moments in the concept of diaspora. Theoretically, and at this juncture most importantly, how does the theory of diaspora frame the history and meaning of Irish migrations? In terms of diaspora discourse, to what extent have Irish emigrants tended to produce an overarching culture-in-diaspora which is self-reflective and engaged in an ongoing dialogue both over time and across the wide geographic spaces through which Irish people have been dispersed? And in terms of the historical experience of diaspora, how far can we speak of a continuous and unified “stream” (to allude to the title of one book on post-famine Irish emigration) and how far must we differentiate between distinct moments and diverse diaspora spaces to which Irish emigrant and settled populations may have different relations?[5]

Although the concept of diaspora has been extended over the past few decades to incorporate African, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Palestinian, and South Asian diasporas, among many others, its “ideal type” remains that of the Jewish diaspora which continues to exert what Clifford calls a “strong entailment” on diaspora studies.[6] Though Clifford cautions here against “making that history a definitive model,” there is no doubt that certain aspects of the historical Jewish diaspora have irrevocably marked the conceptualization of diaspora in general. Among the characteristics that have tended to define diasporic experience specifically among various kinds of movements of peoples, in what is admitted to be a field full of blurred boundary markers, a number are everywhere salient and based on the initial use of the word diaspora to describe the displacement and exile of the Jews.[7] Because of the derivation of the typology of diaspora from this Jewish model, almost every recent attempt to delimit the nature of diasporic cultures, as opposed to migration in general, emphasizes the catastrophic or traumatic nature of the origins of diasporic movement. The nature of the catastrophe is not necessarily violent conquest, though it may involve any combination of invasion and dispossession, enslavement, colonialism, or simply the endemic poverty that results from colonialism or neo/post-colonialism. Accordingly, there may be good reason to reject the classification as diasporas of “trade” and “imperial” migrations, to borrow from Robin Cohen’s rather over-expanded typologies—for without a sense of catastrophic expulsion from an “ancestral” homeland, the second salient and common element of the diasporic experience, nostalgia, or the desire for an eventual return home, cannot adequately be explained.[8] Only if the migration is in some sense understood, whether accurately or not, to have been coerced can the subsequent “backward look” make any kind of critical sense, as opposed to the occasional homesickness experienced by any emigrant. This profound psychic consequence of an expulsion that removes the possibility of an immediate return while constituting the deferred desire for its achievement is what Clifford nicely captures as diaspora’s mediation, “in a lived tension, [of] the experiences of separation and entanglement, of living here and remembering/desiring another place.”[9]

But it is at the same time necessary to recognize the collective nature of that desire and that tension in order to distinguish it from the melancholy of the exile or the homesickness of the individual for whom a return might be possible, if difficult. What is crucial to the concept of diaspora is the constitution of a community of the expelled in and among the various sites to which they have been dispersed. Indeed, the very notion of a “nationality out of place” that seems common to all diasporic communities turns around the fact that that sense of nationality is produced in relation not, most urgently, to the original homeland but to the “diasporic space” in which that community now dwells. Hence the importance, again common to most diasporic theory, of the recognition that the diasporic community is normally one for whom assimilation to the state in which it dwells is difficult or denied.[10] Between the memory of the trauma of departure and the impact of a racialization that denies or limits access to citizenship in the state of arrival, a diasporic community is reconstituted in the transvaluation elsewhere of the meaning and possibility of home. At the same time, however, it is this condition that gives rise to the third distinctive characteristic of diasporas, the emergence of a diasporic cultural productivity that is neither identical with the “home” culture from which it draws, often as a retrospectively constructed set of traditions, nor assimilable to that of the state[s] in which it dwells. Whether one thinks of the rich Jewish cultures of the diaspora of which Clifford and Cohen write, or of the counter-cultures of the Black Atlantic which Paul Gilroy and others elaborate, or, indeed, of the flourishing political and cultural formations of a Palestinian exility that has been created by the realization of a Zionist homeland, these cultures that are produced by those who dwell in diaspora absorb indeed the influences of the traditions of home and of the cultures they enter.[11] More significantly, however, they are shaped by something that is distinctive of neither homeland nor the state of settlement—namely, the historical experience of movement itself.

It is this insistence within diasporas of the trace of an historical experience of movement whose final terminus is indefinitely deferred that induces the potential rift between the theoretical reflection on diasporas and the utterances of diasporic subjects and collectivities themselves (“diaspora discourses,” in Clifford’s terms). This rift subsists between the utopian longing of the diasporic subject, whether that be the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish or an anonymous South Asian indentured labourer, and the material conditions that produce that longing, thought as the insufficiency of ideologies of belonging. Avtar Brah captures well this critical edge of the movement from diaspora discourse to the theory of diaspora: “The concept of diaspora places the discourse of ‘home’ and ‘dispersion’ in creative tension, inscribing a homing desire while simultaneously critiquing discourses of fixed origins.”[12] The critique here is double-edged, critical no less of the national ideologies of the state of arrival than of the homeland itself, and derives from the peculiarity of diaspora, which is to constitute, against the desire for a re-territorialization, nations and nationalisms in a-territoriality. Brah is accordingly right to extend the critique of nationalism implicit in diaspora beyond the anxiety as to the terminus of the Jewish diaspora in the Zionist state of Israel, with its claims of ethnic exclusivism and “transfer of the Palestinians,” that seems to motivate Clifford, Cohen and Safran, even in their wider surveys. 

What I have been trying to signal, in keeping with Brah’s formulations, is that a critical theory of diaspora must grasp the historical experience and the various discourses of diaspora in a dialectical manner in order to differentiate diaspora as such from the general movement of peoples and the national longings of diasporic collectivities from either individual desires for at-homeness or the ideologies of belonging generated by nation-states. The initiating catastrophe of a coerced departure becomes traumatic not by virtue of a single experience of violence but in the repetition of catastrophe that is embedded both in the often serial movements of migration and in the exclusion of the racialized migrant in the state of arrival.[13] In response to what Yen Le Espiritu has termed the “differential inclusion” to which immigrants are subjected in the state of arrival, diasporic communities reconstitute their cultural formations dynamically in relation to a conception of home that is not identical either with that home or, especially, with the desire to return home.[14] As Avtar Brah remarks, “not all diasporas sustain an ideology of return.”[15] The relation to home may be, to the contrary, a means to sustainable dwelling in the space of diaspora itself, in the face of actual and always imminent violence, as it is simultaneously the foundation of a distinctive diasporic culture that may be more or less unified across geographical and even historical dispersal. Indeed, rather than the expression of the desire to “return home,” one might see in it the more complex articulation of having been formed, at least in part, “elsewhere,” out of kilter with the culture of the nation-state in which one perforce dwells.

The dialectics of diaspora is in a crucial sense a negative dialectics, arriving not at sublation into the nation-state but into a state of suspension that throws ideologies of belonging into question. The dialectic moves from the moment of expulsion, of a more or less coerced departure, to the state of arrival in which expulsion is repeated in the form of continuing exclusion by way of racialization. The impossibility of becoming at home, of assimilating collectively into the new state, gives rise to a third moment, which is a discourse of diaspora framed in terms of return but which is, as I have suggested, better understood as the utopian rearticulation of a dystopic dwelling in estrangement from either the ancestral or the new nation.  Idealizing of the homeland as the expression of longing may be, it is nonetheless produced rather as a negation of contemporary social conditions in the state of arrival than as a substantial affirmation of conditions in the land of origination. Indeed, given that material conditions in the homeland induced migration, it is most often the case that the diasporic culture imagines the transformation of the homeland rather than a return to its prior state.

 It is this dialectic that moves from departure through dispersal to dwelling in a culture of displacement that grounds what Vijay Mishra has called the “diasporic imaginary”:

The diasporic imaginary is a term I use to refer to any ethnic enclave in a nation-state that defines itself, consciously, unconsciously or because of the political self-interest of a racialized nation-state, as a group that lives in displacement.[16]

Mishra’s term is important in signaling at once the constitution of the diaspora’s cultural formations in relation to the state as a racialized “enclave” and the counterpointing of displacement and dwelling that gives rise to the critical relation to the nation-state formation that diaspora theory conceptualizes. In so doing, Mishra’s formulation, like Brah’s earlier, moves invaluably beyond cumulative and positivistic efforts to catalogue varieties (garden or otherwise) of diasporic community that are often not only potentially devoid of theoretically consistent limits to what can be included but also self-contradictory. A dialectical approach to the theorization of diaspora enables us to grasp, for example, the redundancy of Cohen’s isolation of a distinct category of “cultural diaspora” or his differentiation of the (unfortunately so-called) “victim diasporas” from “labour diasporas”: such a serial enumeration of types misses the crucial dynamics of diasporic formations and their production and reproduction in relation to the continuing violence of the state. A dialectical approach is also crucial in giving way to an emphasis on the condition of “displacement” rather than posing the bald alternative of assimilation or return, an alternative the very impossibility of whose terms constitutes the space of diaspora in a way that could never hold for what Cohen terms the “imperial diaspora,” whose subjects ultimately control the racialized terms of settlement and nationality “at home” and “abroad.” This is effectively to confuse diaspora with settler colonialism. As Clifford nicely puts it, the diaspora community is “not-here to stay,” and though such a location is one of profound vulnerability, it is also one that, especially in its cultural dimension, radically challenges the “isomorphism of space, place and culture” that James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta suggest lies at the very core of modern nation-state ideology.[17] At its limit, the concept of diaspora brings that of the nation-state to crisis in much the same way as Giorgio Agamben, after Hannah Arendt, has argued the refugee does: “What is new in our time is that growing sections of humankind are no longer representable inside the nation-state—and this novelty threatens the very foundations of the latter. Inasmuch as the refugee, an apparently marginal figure, unhinges the old trinity of state-nation-territory, it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history.”[18]

From the perspective of a dialectical theorization, then, the relevant question becomes not so much whether the patterns of Irish emigration satisfy a sufficient number of the empirical criteria of a descriptive or positivist definition of disapora to qualify for inclusion in the category, as whether the history of Irish migration and settlement gives rise to discourses and practices that embody a critical relation to the hegemony of the racialized nation state.[19] Avtar Brah has remarked of the terms “black,” “Indian,” or “Asian” in British “anti-racist movements” that:

the usage […] is determined not so much by the nature of its referent as by its semiotic function within different discourses. These various meanings signal differing political strategies and outcomes. They mobilise different sets of cultural or political identities, and set limits to where the boundaries of a “community” are established.[20]

Precisely the same point may be made of the use of the terms “emigration” and “diaspora” in the Irish context. As I have already remarked, the “semiotic function” of “diaspora” is thrown into relief by the earlier usage and longer history of the term “emigration.”[21] The notion of emigration bears with it the burden of the Irish Famine, of dispossession, and of dispersal by British colonialism as it bears with it the failure of the postcolonial nation-state to provide economically or socially for the large majority of the population. In Ireland, the continuing hemorrhage of emigration and the demographic stagnation of the population not only gave rise to plaintive volumes like John Ryan’s The Vanishing Irish (1953) but also gave the lie to the conservative Free State’s conceptions of a traditional rural Ireland, of economic self-sufficiency and family values.[22] Consistently, more women than men emigrated, and emigration leached the working class populations that might have formed the basis for a more thoroughgoing socialist critique of reactionary nationalism. Emigration, already the resource of British imperialism in its need to disperse the dispossessed, became no less the safety valve of the post-colonial state. Emigration, obdurately persisting while continuously disavowed and sidelined, marked the continuities between the colony and the independent state. Emigration was effectively the suspension of the decolonizing project in the “sterile formalism” of bourgeois nationalism.[23]

In the face of this history of the practice and the discourse of emigration, it is scarcely surprising that the contrary usage of diaspora emerged and gained currency in time with the state’s investment strategies of the late 1980s and the boom decade of the 1990s and early 2000s, the period of the late-lamented “Celtic Tiger.” Indeed, the invocation of the Irish diaspora was nowhere more powerful than during the Robinson presidency that coincided with the emergence of the “Celtic Tiger,” and its function was deeply implicated in the pursuit of Irish emigrant investment in Ireland. Whereas emigration was a source of political and economic shame, diaspora could be celebrated at a moment when it seemed that the flood of emigration had been stemmed, even reversed. In one peculiarly egregious utterance, an Irish politician even managed to convert the long dispersal of the Irish to abundant population and irrepressible creativity rather than economic failure:

There is an Irish nation, but it is a diaspora. We are like the Jews. Ireland is a home base—like Israel, the promised land. We cannot all live on one small island, we have too much to offer the world.[24]

Overweening though it is, such a comment revealed much that would be at stake in what, with apologies to Mishra, we might term the “Irish diasporic imaginary.” It is, in the first place, hard to imagine an Irish equivalent of the commitment to Ashkenazi or Sephardic diasporic cultures that did not seek a “promised land” in Zionist re-territorialization.[25] Such a territorial desire has been in place, of course, since the earliest Gaelic nationalists invoked the analogy with the Jewish exile, whether in Exodus or in the post-Christian diaspora, to seek assurance of an eventual return of the Irish people to territorial sovereignty. The Irish imaginary of diaspora expressed here clearly partakes of a territorializing logic rather than a culture of/in displacement. The assumption is, however, that that nation-state is both established and secure—it is no longer the differential longing of the inveterate emigrant that is expressed but the security of an immigrant group that is assured both of its national “home base” and of its at-homeness in the new state of citizenship. By the same token, it was precisely in the burgeoning, if ultimately short-lived economic prosperity of the Irish state that the painful history of emigration could be erased, to be displaced by what was in effect the invocation of a merely cultural diaspora—the ebullient overflow of a population that was in excess of the purely geographical limits of the island of Ireland. Irish emigration was recast in the Celtic Tiger’s diasporic imaginary as the consequence of the vital contribution the Irish had to make in a globalized economy.

Though these doubtless off the cuff remarks are probably more idealizing than most scholarly approaches to the question of an Irish diaspora would be, it is precisely their status as a “diasporic imaginary,” their immediate availability as the “common sense” of Irish dispersal, that marks their dangerous force and the risk entailed in the invocation of “diaspora” as a term for Irish migrations. The displacement of the history of emigration is no less a displacement of the history of the failure of the post-colonial state. The new Irish diasporic discourse does not give rise to an alternative politics founded in the critique of the nation-state from the place of displacement but is bound instead to an almost euphoric disavowal of the successive violences of Irish history—to a disavowal, indeed, of the history of colonialism itself and of the truncation of the decolonizing process in the constitution of the post-colonial state. Moreover, the Irish diasporic imaginary of the moment proves to be entirely compatible with settlement abroad and sustains no very powerful myth of return. It lacks, accordingly, the “tension” marked by diaspora theory between the homing desire and the impossibility of assimilation in the state of arrival.

The reasons for this weakness of the “homing desire” on the part of people of Irish descent lie in the peculiarities of Irish emigration, peculiarities that derive from what I have elsewhere described as the “anomalous state” of a country that has at once undergone the historical experience of colonization and remained an integral part of Western Europe. As the recent historiography of Irish emigrants, especially in the United States, has shown, Irish immigrants may at first have undergone racialization, suffered the consequent discrimination and labour exploitation and, in short, experienced something akin to the “differential exclusion” suffered by racialized migrants from Asia and Latin America (if not, as some would claim, racial parity with African Americans); the longer trajectory of Irish American history, however, is a story of gradual integration that parallels “the invention of whiteness.” Initially differentiated from the Anglo-Saxon settlers, Irish immigrants, alongside others from the peripheries of Europe, gradually come to constitute a larger racial category of whiteness that incorporates European national and ethnic differences and is differentiated from other homogenizing categories like “negroid,” Asiatic, or simply “black,” “brown,” “yellow,” and “red.” This history has been written in great detail elsewhere and the main point that I want to emphasize is that Irish cultural integration into the category of whiteness, however gradual, meant access both to economic mobility and, no less important with regard to the meaning of diaspora, political citizenship.[26] The Irish, indeed, become the very model of the three generation trajectory of immigration and assimilation that furnishes the “American ethnic pattern” against which racialized minorities have been judged and found wanting.[27] A similar story might be told of the rapid accession of the emigrant and transported Irish to full participation in the “Anglo-Celtic” racial supremacism of Australia. Unlike other diasporic communities, it has been possible for the Irish as white immigrants to assimilate and participate fully in the settler colonies that have been their principal destinations. The dialectical movement from migration to “differential inclusion” that marks the critical tension with the nation-state that diaspora theory locates in diasporic cultures is lacking in the Irish case.[28]

Irish migration is, then, crucially bound up in a narrative of assimilation and citizenship. Although at any given moment of migration down to the present, migrating Irish subjects may experience something like the sensation of “time lag” or “out-of-kilterness” that afflicts any subject moving between the uneven zones of modernity, the overarching narrative of Irish migration is thoroughly modern—a narrative of modernization and of the formation of the modern subject. Even though many Irish in fact migrate from urban locations, migration entails the notion of a movement from a backward and largely rural society to a dynamic metropolitan environment at the most advanced sites of capitalist development. It is a story of the economic modernization of the Irish worker outside Ireland. Moreover, and, in terms of its ideological function, more importantly, it is a story of civic and ethical modernization. For the movement from the rural to the urban is no less a story of the enlargement of the subject from intimate, local but partial horizons—morally as well as socially—to the cosmopolitan and universalist framework of the modern subject. Immigration is in this sense rendered as a “humanizing” move, akin to that from savagery to civilization, by virtue of which the modern ethical subject is formed. It is, moreover, the story of the Irish move from a British colonial state to emerging democratic states where decades of anti-colonial organizing often gave the Irish specific exploitable skills as immigrants. In this sense, the narrative of Irish success as citizens is more than a contingent historical narrative of political shrewdness and subtends a larger integration of the formation of the individual subject as one that takes place in accord with the formation of the state.[29]

Irish dislocation becomes, then, one that is directed towards a greater approximation to universality, assured by the reintegration of the migrant subject with the state. Hence, within this “diasporic imaginary,” it is as important to invoke a successful nation-state as the site of origin as it is to highlight the emigrants’ success within a new nation-state.  The state comes to cure the effects of dispersion rather than being the agent of a further dislocation of the diasporic community by way of continuing racialization or marginalization. The notion of the state as therapeutic here is not merely the acknowledgement that the state of arrival offers the migrant asylum from expulsion and dislocation, but is bound up with the fuller sense in which the integration of the subject with the state is seen to heal the fragmentation and alienation that are the consequences of modernity.[30] Accordingly, the success of the independent state is one with the success of the Irish emigrant abroad: in their integration, state and individual mirror one another. But there is also a negative moment in that mirroring. Given that Irish integration into the receiving states has been based so profoundly on the eager formation of Irish whiteness, and contributed much to white supremacy, one is tempted to speculate that the characteristic conservatism, authoritarianism, and obsequious conformism so common to the Irish “diaspora” is itself a fearful negative response to the historical traumas of displacement, hunger, and prejudice. To the state that offers refuge, the damaged subject clings with blind loyalty. In doing so, however, that subject is not aberrant, but is in conformity with a narrative that sustains the state in any case.

This is not to say, of course, that Irish emigrant communities are univocally and monolithically conservative, conformist, or hyperpatriotic. But it is the case that the relation between such tendencies and the capacity of the Irish migrant to integrate racially with the dominant sectors of settler-colonial societies signals the difference between the Irish emigrant narrative and the diasporic dialectic that theoretical reflection defines. That is so in terms both of the historical trajectory of racialized diasporas that theory emphasizes and of the political and critical implications it seeks to draw from that theory. Not all dispersed populations meet at all times the “differential inclusion” that produces the peculiar “nationality in a-territoriality” of the diaspora, as not only the history of the Irish but also that of many European settler colonial populations amply testifies. By the same token, not all populations in dispersion and resettlement find themselves over the long duration at odds with the state in such a way as to lead to a critique of the national citizenship paradigm of normative human existence. This should not lead us, however, merely to expand the category of diaspora indefinitely or to abandon the category altogether. Rather, it should encourage us to critique the deployment of the notion of diaspora in the Irish case and to decipher the reasons for its sudden popular dissemination.

What I have been suggesting is that the popularization of the notion of an Irish diaspora was tied at once to economic goals of the Irish state, namely, the attraction of investment to the “homeland” and, more profoundly, to an idea of the state and of the identity of the citizen that is bound up with modernization. The two motivations came together in the Celtic Tiger-era drive in Ireland to move forward into economic modernization and to participate fully in capitalist globalization, a drive that was both accelerated and legitimated by the recently arrested growth of the Irish economy.[31] Modernization became the panacea for Irish backwardness and, in an exemplary fashion, for the inveterate hostilities that had haunted Northern Ireland for some three decades. But modernization, though a future-oriented project, is always also a relation to the past, one whose totalizingly therapeutic function requires the disavowal of the historical violence of state formation and the continuing global violence that goes by the name of development, a violence of which the unsettled diasporic peoples should be the constant reminder. Precisely insofar as transnational development represents the latest moment in capitalist colonialism, Ireland’s successful economic performance, even as a bit player integrated into the larger European sphere, represented less the achievement than the failure of the decolonizing project. Rather than the expression of Irish independence or emancipation from economic subservience, the Celtic Tiger represented the subscription of Irish elites to the direction of capitalist powers and the disavowal of any historical understanding of colonialism on which the possibility of an alternative global politics might have been based.

The perpetual counterpart of modernization in disavowal is its transformation of a cultural production forged in the engagement with material conditions into mere cultural commodities. In this sense, from Riverdance to Lughnasa or Leenane, from The Crying Game to U2, the Irish diaspora was truly, merely, “cultural.” The unity and global dispersion of Irish culture is by no means the circulation through an unsettled and migrant population of the means to narrate, resist, and survive traumatic histories, but the global penetration of Irish commodities into a transnational culture market. The individual or relative quality of Friel’s or McDonagh’s plays or Jordan’s cinema, for example, or their possible local capacity to be received to radical effect, are not at issue here, for what is celebrated has nothing substantial to do with either the form or the content of such works, but simply the fact of their circulation of Irishness-as-commodity. Ironically, such circulation and its celebration constitutes the most overweening of “identity politics,” since in their reception as commodities such works become devoid of any of that differential relation to otherness that constitutes the specific historical locus of either national or diasporic spaces. As such, there is nothing left in their reception but the narcissistically pleasurable afterglow of an Irishness evacuated of content and conflict and therefore as universally consumable as processed cheese.[32] This pabulum is what has been celebrated by politicians and journalists over the last few decades in the new commodity form of the Irish diaspora. It has, “in theory,” little to do with the edgy, endangered dwelling of diasporic peoples.

Is there, then, any critical edge to be retrieved from the concept of the Irish diaspora? Perhaps the most straightforward response to that query would be to argue for a continual mindfulness among both scholars and the larger Irish emigrant community of the catastrophic social and economic reasons for the departure of so many and of the long history of discrimination and exclusion that the Irish abroad, like so many other diasporic peoples, had to face. Such mindfulness, even at a moment when the Irish provide the very model for assimilation and citizenship, can furnish the basis for movements of solidarity with other diasporas. Such was, for example, the effort of Irish and Irish-American activists in California and elsewhere in the mid-1990s who, in the course of the Famine commemoration, sought to invoke the history of Irish immigration to the United States as a means to mobilize Irish American opposition to racist anti-immigrant measures like California’s Proposition 187.[33] In the same way, invocation and elaboration of the Irish historical experience of British colonialism and systematic underdevelopment, histories that have a crucial role in shaping the patterns of Irish migration over many centuries, may continue to generate networks of comparison with other narratives of colonized and diasporic peoples in ways that are not merely academic but political. It is precisely such histories that tend to get downplayed and marginalized both by the modernizing Irish intelligentsia (usually on the pretext of combating republicanism as a form of passé identity politics) and within the larger, celebratory understanding of Irish diaspora.

The risk of such invocations is twofold. On the one hand, as I have already suggested, the trajectory of Irish assimilation—whether understood as exceptionalist or paradigmatic—can become all too easily a means to negative comparison with racialized ethnic groups. “Our success” is the yardstick for “their shortcomings.” On the other hand, and more insidiously, the invocation can become the pious recital of Irish sufferings with the intent of retrieving from Irish victimization an ethical differential that saves the Irish from the now morally and politically unenviable position of mere whiteness. Irish victimization in the past becomes in this fashion a means to dismantle the formerly unmarked category of whiteness and to claim special ethnic status, and such an ethical dispensation may, indeed, have been as much at the root of the sudden expansion of programs in Irish Studies as the peculiar intellectual and caché gained, in different ways, from interest in the Northern Irish Troubles and the Republic’s booming economy. The function of such maneuvers, however, is less solidarity with the marginalized of the moment than the disavowal of what George Lipsitz has termed “the possessive investment in whiteness.”[34] Neither tendency enables the alternative thinking on the issues of human rights and the politics of citizenship that a critical diasporic theory so forcefully urges.

Although most diasporas have long histories, often emerging well before what is normally periodized as the advent of modernity, the peculiar contours of contemporary diasporas and the urgent issues they raise are inseparable from the social and political formations of modernity. As Gilroy has argued, in ways that have been extended by Clifford and others to various diasporas, the African or black diaspora is also a distinctive form of “counter-modernity.” A product of modernity, diaspora is also one of the margins at which the totalizing drive of modernity, its urge to transform and incorporate the world without remainder, frays and unravels, producing its own countervailing tendencies in the dislocation of peoples in the very course of economic and political rationalization. Irish emigration is itself a product of such a brutal process of modernization and rationalization over at least four centuries of colonialism. In the narrative of modernity, such brutality is legitimated, as we have seen, by the claim that its ends and outcomes are humanizing, lifting the rural peasant to the level of metropolitan culture. The dominant story of the Irish diaspora has been that it has participated in both the building and the culture of modernity, redeeming the successive catastrophes of Irish history in the larger project of a progressive human history. A tale of victimhood gives way to successful absorption in the very formations of modernity by which the Irish, and other colonized peoples, have been and continue to be dominated. As Walter Benjamin might have remarked, it is no act of historical redemption for the victim to join the victory parade.[35] However it may stand in need of revision, Gilroy’s notion of the concurrent formation of a culture of counter-modernity in time with modernity presents a valuable corrective to the linked narratives of victimhood and citizenship that frame Irish migrations.[36]

For the notion of Irish migrations as a movement from the pre-modern to the modern, from the local to the universal, is partial at best. As I have argued elsewhere, colonial modernization in Ireland took place in time with the emergence, over and over again, of recalcitrant cultural practices and ideologies that we may term “non-modern.”[37] Such elements, which are not to be confused with “traditions” or pre-modernity insofar as they emerge differentially with modernity rather than preceding it, form a repertoire of possibilities for an alternative politics, even where they are so often marginalized and “defeated.” The study of Irish labour migrations similarly suggests that the Irish were continually involved in the production of and struggle for radical alternatives to the capitalist colonialism by which they were displaced into potentially radicalizing encounters with other displaced, colonized, and exploited populations—Africans, Native Americans, and other European proletarians.[38] Not only does reflection on such processes in modernity undercut any tendency to think of the Irish diaspora as a culturally or ethnically discrete entity; it also counterpoints the dominant trajectory of Irish assimilation with an alternative narrative, gapped and fragmentary as it may be, of Irish participation in the persistent struggle for a transformed social order. Such histories rely not on an appeal to victimization and a subsequent ethical leap of identification with the victims of today, but on the material traces of actual attempts to forge alternative social formations. In them, the Irish appear, not as benighted peasants saved by migration into modernity, but as subjects whose history is that of the contrary currents of modernization, of remarkable mobility rather than sedentary localism. As many historians have indicated, though often in backhanded ways, Irish labour, precisely where it was “unskilled” and not industrial, formed part of the cutting edge of capitalism globally and entered accordingly into some of the most radical social movements, from Chartism to the Wobblies.[39]

The fact that such experiences formed not only the basis of radical social movements outside Ireland but contributed, through figures like James Stephens, John O’Leary and other Fenians, or socialists like Jim Larkin and James Connolly, to radical activism in Ireland is a crucial reminder of the multiple flows of diaspora. In the Irish case, the movement is not simply outwards (and upwards), but a complex set of migrations, outward movements counterpointed by returns and by movements between locations outside Ireland, with westward and eastward orientations simultaneously. The challenge to the modern or colonial nation state represented by such movements is not merely theoretical, but deeply connected with movements through and between diasporic communities as the history not only of Irish activists but also of figures like Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X or C.L.R. James might suggest. In them, a link may be discerned between the material disruption of the seamless space of the nation-state and the continuous time of national histories and the fracturing of the normative developmental time of modernity which must increasingly be seen as a recurrent element of radical counter-modernity. At the same time, this emphasis on movement itself as the crucible of diaspora culture recasts the notion of return that is so frequently invoked as a defining element of diasporic culture. Return is not the return to a fetishized, sacrosanct “original” home, but the return of the subject transformed by migration to, in turn, transform the nature of the nation itself, “at home” and “abroad.” In a small way, such a return on the part of Irish Studies as a discipline, a return to the “trouble” that the Irish notoriously stirred up for the institutions of domination in the modern era, rather than its safe tendency to institutional assimilation, might be the guarantee of its continuing intellectual and critical relevance throughout this diasporic world.


[1] For an excellent survey of recent “diaspora discourse” on Ireland, see Mairin Nic Eoin's essay, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Transnational Irish-language Writing,” in this issue of Breac.

[2] James Clifford, “Diasporas,” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 257.

[3] Avtar Brah, “Diaspora, Border and Transnational Identities,” in Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (London: Routledge, 1996), 181.  I borrow the notion of the performativity of theory from feminist critic Tania Modelski’s “Some Functions of Feminist Criticism: Or, the Scandal of the Mute Body”, in Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist”Age (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 45-58.

[4] Clifford, “Diasporas,” 244; see also Brah, “Diaspora,” 179.

[5] The alluded to text is E. Margaret Crawford, ed., The Hungry Stream: Essays on Emigration and Famine (Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies, 1997).

[6] See William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” in Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 84; Clifford, “Diasporas,” 249.

[7] Khachig Tololyan’s “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment,” Diaspora 5, no. 1 (1996), is still an excellent survey of the “dispersal” of the term diaspora from its initial reference to Jewish and then Greek and Armenian communities to its current much wider purview. It also supplies terms for “a detailed and stringent paradigm” (15), that I have drawn on freely in this essay.  See especially 12-15.

[8] See Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (London: UCL Press, 1997), chap. 3 and 4.

[9] Clifford, “Diasporas,” 255. 

[10] Clifford, “Diasporas,” 255-6; Cohen, Global Diasporas, 26, Table 1.1.7.  It is also the implicit definition of the diaspora for Brah that it be a racialized community, “Diaspora,” passim.

[11] Clifford, “Diasporas,” 268-277; Cohen, Global Diaspora, chap. 1; Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Double Consciousness and Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[12] Brah, “Diaspora,” 193 (original emphasis).

[13] The psychological theory of trauma would suggest that it is this repeated condition of “unsafety” rather than any single experience of danger that constitutes trauma.  See Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Harper Collins Basic Books, 1992), chap. 2.  This recognition is clearly important to the theorization of both postcolonial and diasporic traumatization as products of racialized violence.

[14] See Yen Le Espiritu, Homebound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Countries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 47.

[15] Brah, “Diaspora,” 197.

[16] Vijay Mishra, “The Diasporic Imaginary: Theorizing the Indian Diaspora,” Textual Practice 10, vol. 3 (1996), 423.

[17] Clifford, “Diasporas,” 255; Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference” in Gupta and Ferguson, eds., Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 34.

[18] See Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights,” in Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Caesarino (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2000), 21-22. It is evident that there is considerable overlap between the category of the refugee and the category of the diaspora, from the Palestinians to the South Asians of East Africa, from Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians in the U.S and Canada to Chileans in France and Spain.

[19] Almost inevitably, given the role played by racialization in the construction and maintenance of international economic and political power relations, the destination of any migrant in the modern world will be a racialized nation state. Within such states, what Brah terms the “diaspora space” is woven of the multiple and highly differentiated social relations between communities with unequal access to institutions that distribute power.

[20] Brah, “Difference, Diversity, Differentiation,” in Cartographies of Diaspora, 102.

[21] As Tim Pat Coogan puts it in Wherever Green is Worn: the Story of the Irish Diaspora (London: Hutchinson, 2000), ix, “I have been interested since boyhood in what was then known not as the diaspora, but as emigration.” This is a work that has done much to popularize and to naturalize the acceptance of the term diaspora, though as I shall indicate, the ideological work was done much earlier. Coogan’s “interest” is scarcely unusual: there can have been few people who grew up in Ireland in the last century and a half without the expectation of emigration on their horizon.

[22] John A. O’Brien, ed., The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953).  The plangent and obsequious nationalism of O’Brien’s own essays in this volume makes interesting, if distasteful, reading in the context of more recent celebrations of the “Irish diaspora.” This work should not be confused with Timothy W. Guinnane’s recent study of the same name, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy In Ireland, 1850-1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), which seeks to “rethink the views expressed in O’Brien’s volume,” xv.

[23] Frantz Fanon, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 204.

[24] Cited in Mary Corcoran, “New York, New York,” Irish Reporter 1 (1st Quarter 1991): 6.

[25] Indeed, for a strong argument that Zionism is an aberration rather than an expression of Jewish diasporic identity, “the subversion of Jewish culture and not its culmination,” see Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993): 712.

[26] On these histories, see Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control , vol. 1 (London: Verso, 1994), 167-199; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, revised ed. (London: Verso, 1999), esp. chap. 7.  Peter D. O’Neill points out forcefully that the Irish were, in fact, never in legal terms defined as non-white in the United States, and it is to him that I owe my emphasis on Irish cultural assimilation.  See Peter D. O’Neill, “Laundering Gender: Chinese Men and Irish Women in Late Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” in Peter D. O’Neill and David Lloyd, eds., The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross Currents of the African and Irish Diasporas (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 115.

[27] For a critical history of the emergence and implications of this “ethnicity paradigm,” see Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 14-23.

[28] For reasons that have to do at once with the intense continuing racialization of the Irish there and the impact of the decolonization struggle in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom may be the exception to this.

[29] The notion that the Irish succeed out of Ireland is one of the most enduring commonplaces of colloquial narratives of emigration.  There may be some substantial reasons for the statistical success of Irish immigrants. Joseph Lee, for one, has suggested that the experience of mass mobilization in mid-nineteenth century Ireland may have provided a kind of training ground that enabled effective Irish political mobilization elsewhere (“Emigration: The Irish Experience,” talk to the Center for Western European Studies, U.C. Berkeley, October 1994).  Prior knowledge of the English language may also have assisted.  Tom Murphy’s play, Conversations on a Homecoming, is a fierce dismantling of that convention. See Tom Murphy, After Tragedy: Three Irish Plays (London: Methuen, 1988).  On the importance of the Irish differential relation to two modes of state formation, see my “Black Irish, Irish Whiteness, and Atlantic State Formation” in O’Neill and Lloyd, eds., The Black and Green Atlantic, 3-19.

[30] See further, in relation to the Irish Famine and Irish modernization, my essay “Colonial Trauma/ Postcolonial Recovery?” in Irish Times: Temporalities of Diaspora (Dublin: Field Day, 2008), 22-38, and chap. 1 and 2 of Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[31] For a critique of the “Celtic” or “Green Tiger” phenomenon, see Denis O’Hearn, “Global Restructuring and Irish Political Economy” in Patrick Clancy, et al., Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1995), 90-131.  For a more recent, and critical, study of the Celtic Tiger and the reasons for its eventual collapse, see Peadar Kirby, Celtic Tiger in Collapse: Explaining the Weaknesses of the Irish Model, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[32] Nic Eoin, “Transnational Irish-language Writing,” offers invaluable instances of striking alternatives to this commodified Irishness.

[33] Elsewhere, of course, and especially in Britain during the decades of the Northern Irish conflict, the invocation of exclusion and discrimination is not historical but actual and has led to ongoing anti-racist organization in solidarity with the Caribbean and Asian diasporic communities.  At times, the lines of solidarity are no less critical of Irish “traditions” themselves and form complex lines of affiliation and disaffiliation.  See, for example, Clara Connolly’s discussion of her work with Women Against Fundamentalism in Clara Connolly and Pragna Patel, “Women who Walk on Water: Working across “Race” in Women Against Fundamentalism” in Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, eds., The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 375-395.

[34] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), chap. 1.

[35] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1969), 256.

[36] Gilroy’s work has been criticized from numerous perspectives.  Clifford, “Diasporas,” 266-7, enumerates some of these, especially The Black Atlantic’s somewhat gender blind emphasis on travel and its related inapplicability to “African American history.” Neil Lazarus is far more direct and far-reaching in his attack on Gilroy’s dismissal of Marxist analysis, and in particular in his ignoring of world system’s theory which, for Lazarus, leads to his retention of an idealizing and essentializing notion of blackness despite his critiques of black nationalism and Afrocentrism.  See Neil Lazarus, “Is a Counterculture of Modernity a Theory of Modernity?” Diaspora 4, no.  3 (1995): 323-339. Laura Chrisman supplements Lazarus’s critique of Gilroy for his inattention to Marxism and also points to his unnuanced critique of nationalism.  Her analysis of Gilroy’s dismissal of any transformative potential in labour leads her to fault him for the aestheticization of blackness and for an overemphasis on a putative “death drive”; see Laura Chrisman, “Journeying to Death: Gilroy’s Black Atlantic,” Race and Class 39, no. 2 (1997): 51-64.  Charles Piot, “Atlantic Aporias: Africa and Gilroy’s Black Atlantic,” South Atlantic Quarterly 100, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 155-6, points to the silence on Africa itself in Gilroy and others. None of these critiques, however, seriously address what is at stake in the concept of a “counter-culture of modernity,” a concept which, even where Gilroy tends to dismiss Marxism, demands a rethinking of overarching concepts of development as deployed in modernization theory and Marxism alike.  Rather than relegating subaltern formations of culture and practice to anteriority, this concept, like that of the “non-modern,” emphasizes the coevality of modern institutions and disciplinary as well as economic practices and those that emerge in resistance and recalcitrance to them.

[37] See David Lloyd, Ireland After History (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000).

[38] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000) is highly suggestive in its weaving of Irish narratives through those of other peoples, tracing a specifically Irish contribution to the enduring notion of the “commons.”

[39] For a survey of some of these all too submerged elements in Irish labour history, see my “Rethinking National Marxism: James Connolly and ‘Celtic Communism,’” in Irish Times, 101-126.