At a time when Ireland is busy celebrating Yeats’s birthday and the centenary of Joyce’s Dubliners while preparing for the great commemorations of 1916 and 1921, the focus is not only on the past, but also on the future. What brave new Ireland is coming our way?
Declan Kiberd’s plenary address, “Disappearing Ireland,” reflected an important theme of the ACIS-CAIS conference: the role of the past in shaping the future. According to him, rather than fetishize Ireland’s past, commemoration and remembrance must revisit dormant issues and facilitate discussions about past dreams still waiting to be fulfilled.
Kiberd gave the example of the Irish Revival to illustrate how “commemoration can give a boost to reconsider the past.” He reminded us that the Revival took an active part in the ceremonies at the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion and thus forced the debates of the following decades, while bringing the desires of previous generations to the forefront. Kiberd chose the term “re-member” to describe the coming together of individuals as well as the act of commemoration itself. This expression was quite fitting as it allowed him to problematize The Gathering Ireland 2013 as a commodification of Irish identity to an audience of hundreds of delegates from around the world brought together at University College Dublin to present their research on the very issues at the core of The Gathering’s initiatives: representation, nationalism, globalization, transnationalism, culture, and identity. He warned against fetishizing the past and turning it into a commodity.
Kiberd also discussed the old and new immigrations. In the past, he stated, emigration was driven by the inability of the Irish to imagine a future for themselves in their own country. As a result, they looked elsewhere for a better life. The present immigrants to Ireland, in contrast, have chosen it as the place where their dreams can come true. In the process, they are an important force in creating the Ireland of the future as we witness the disappearance of the Ireland of the past. As Kiberd put it, “Often, when culture is about to evaporate, an outsider comes in to save it.”
Eugenio Biagini in his own plenary address two days later also referred to the contributions of outsiders, stating, “minorities are the stuff of what Irish identity is made of.” Although the minorities he discussed, Travellers, were not the new inward migrants to which Kiberd was primarily referring, but internal ones at the margin of Irish society, his question, “Can minorities be part of the solution?” echoes Kiberd’s sentiment.
In the face of a changing Ireland where the old cultural markers no longer suffice to define Irish nationality, it is time to look to not only the new challenges of a multicultural Ireland, but also the latent issues of the past, such as the place of old minorities and their contributions to the new Irish society. As Kiberd put it, “‘After Ireland’ should be approached as an opportunity as well as a problem.”