Issue Preface: Migration and Diaspora

Author: Margaret Kelleher

The launch of Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies marks a new departure for Irish Studies both in its range of subject and in its mode of transmission. It is fitting that its first issue should take as theme Migration and Diaspora, and with an especial close attention to the circulation of words, concepts, languages and policies, as well as the people through whom and about whom they are mobilized. To point to just some of the rich and varied examples that follow: David Lloyd’s compelling opening essay calls for the reinterrogation of a term “that for a brief time came to seem a natural way to address Ireland’s global migration,” namely “diaspora,” a word which Roddy Doyle in his interview suggests might have “exhausted its sentimental and intellectual potential.” A later essay, by Denis O’Hearn, uncovers the operations and material consequences of a “policy diaspora” with regard to the movement of prison practices from 1970s Ireland to locations in the United States and Turkey. The grammar of poetry is the subject of Kathy Heininge’s intricate and insightful piece, which traces how Eavan Boland’s distinctive use of the ablative conveys a language of “perpetual transition.”

As Denis Sampson memorably remarks in his “Reflections on Otherwhere,” the space between the two prefixes in the term “landed immigrant” is “actually the space I have lived in all these years, a space whose contours have always been shifting.” In the literary treatments of migration and movement provided by this issue—a refreshingly diverse range which includes works by Liam O’Flaherty, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne (Lawrence) and Peter Carey (Heinz), and two evocative poems by Mary O’Donnell—nomadism is “not just a default operation for an uprooted/unsettled person” (to quote from Adam Lawrence) but a productive survival strategy, “a vital tactic for anyone attempting to escape oppressive boundaries, institutions, or situations.” Conversely, however, as the articles by Corporaal, Sampson and Tilki et al. also convey, narratives of return—real or imagined—wield a particular force in the Irish tradition. The changing configurations in post-famine Irish and Irish American famine fiction is the subject of Corporaal’s insightful study of previously neglected fictions, whose narratives of return change from a restoration and revitalization of home, to disillusioned returns, to the reimagining of transatlantic territories as new homes. And in the conclusion of David Lloyd’s essay, “the return of the subject transformed by migration to in turn transform the nature of the nation itself, ‘at home’ and ‘abroad,’” marks an opportunity for Irish Studies as a discipline to return as “trouble” rather than safely assimilated institutional citizen.

In their breaking of new ground, these essays also set compelling new research agendas for the future. Máirín Nic Eoin’s “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Transnational Irish-Language Writing” eloquently conveys not only the dynamism and centrality of her subject—Irish-language writing produced “by authors of Irish birth or extraction who are not based on the island of Ireland, and Irish-language writing by authors of non-Irish birth or extraction living in Ireland or elsewhere”—but the insufficiency of existing categories of literary genre and of social groupings. Since this writing is “neither emigration writing nor travel writing,” its importance—including the significance of language choice—may, she suggests, be best explored in relation to the ongoing development of new “identities of competence” within and outside Ireland. Vital “lessons” for future research are also generously provided by Mary Tilki, Jeff Moore, Eugene Waters and Lisa Clarke, based on their substantial research project on the Irish community in London; these include the critical need for comparative and truly participatory research, recognition of the value of second-generation perspectives, and acknowledgement of the “strengths and resilience” of communities as well as their problems and deficits.

Tilki and colleagues also bring to attention the stark consequences of previous gaps in knowledge regarding migrant groups: “lack of data, the failure to analyze or report on the Irish, are barriers to those attempting research or arguing a case for services.”  It is striking that the means to redress such absences is increasingly to be found in online research and communication tools, whose value in facilitating communication and intergroup engagement is evident in a number of essays: whether the international distribution of Irish-language e-books and e-magazines (Nic Eoin), or online interviews or surveys (Tilki et al.), or other relational forms of information sharing (O’Hearn).

Beyond the force of their specific examples, these instances signal that we are approaching a tipping point for Irish Studies, and its composite subject areas, with regard to the role and impact of electronic modes and digital technologies. This journal offers a unique forum not only to reflect on these changes but also to shape, proactively, their future development. In providing a free open-access and peer-reviewed journal, it is already successfully negotiating some of the challenges faced by its online predecessors. In drawing contributions from established and emerging scholars, through essays that are disciplinary-based, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary, it is also providing a welcome alternative to existing publication fora. Now that it is in place, there exists an opportunity to harness the best potential of this medium to secure newly inclusive modes of discussion, to facilitate dialogue and active commentary through discussion forums, and to generate ongoing and collaborative discussion beyond, and in addition to, our tradition of the single-authored, single subject work. How this potential may be realized depends not only on the journal’s visionary editors but on the responses, suggestions and engagement by you, its first readers.