“To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”- Carson McCullers.
The Irish diaspora (Irish: Diaspóra na nGael) refers to Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and states of the Caribbean and continental Europe. The diaspora, maximally interpreted, contains more than 100 million people, which is more than fifteen times the population of the island of Ireland, which had approximately 6.4 million in 2011.
After 1840, emigration became a massive, relentless, and efficiently managed national enterprise. Counting those who went to Britain, between 9 and 10 million Irish people emigrated after 1700. The total flow was more than the population at its historical peak in the 1830s of 8.5 million. From 1830 to 1914, almost 5 million went to the United States alone. In 1890 two of every five Irish-born people were living abroad. By the 21st century, an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent; which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.- Wikipedia
Exile: Middle English: the noun partly from Old French exil ‘banishment’ and partly from Old French exile ‘banished person’; the verb from Old French exiler ; all based on Latin exilium ‘banishment,’ from exul ‘banished person.’
America called them immigrants, Ireland calls them exiles. I think the word exile sums up how many of us feel. I can only speak to Irish exiles, not those from other countries, because Ireland is my experience and my blood. I have its green hills and windswept rocks in my cells, embedded deeply in my bones. This is where my ancestors made their own history- where they lived out the dramas of their lives—the loves and hates and joys and tragedies that are present even in the most ordinary of lives. The sowing and reaping of Irish soil. The passing of years and the dreams of youth.
I was listening to Celtic Thunder the other day. When I write, music becomes a background thing, I don’t hear the words just the rhythm of the music itself. I kept feeling very choked up during a certain song. I couldn’t quite understand why this particular song was having such an effect and then it suddenly occurred to me that the man singing it had a very Northern Irish accent and it came through even in his singing voice. The first time I went to Ireland I was enchanted by every bit of it, but when we got to the North I felt like I breathed deeply in a way I never had before in my life— I knew this place, I knew these people. They were just like my family, they were what I was used to. When I go to Ireland, I, like most trans-Atlantic travelers, land in Dublin. But after a night’s rest I shoot like an arrow straight North for Belfast. And there I stay so that I can re-connect with my roots, with whatever that thing is that makes me feel like I can breathe more deeply and see more clearly. When I see those rock-banded green fields come into sight beneath the plane, I feel like I’ve been given a glass of clear cold water after crossing the desert. Ireland simply satiates something in my soul, that I know no other place ever will.
How is it that a place I have never lived feels like home to me? Is there something in our DNA handed down through generations that simply knows that soil beneath our footsteps, the taste of that spring by the roadside, that need to silently worship when coming upon a shrine of St. Brigid? Is it the knowledge that my great-grandfather walked here too, that my great grandmother both bore and lost children in this land? That something of me, some trace of the stardust of which we are all made, is rooted eternally in this land?
I have wondered what it is about Ireland that calls so strongly to her sons and daughters, the millions of us in exile. I have heard from so many people how they long to go to Ireland, how they yearn for it, how they worry they will die before they can make it there. Ireland is a magical place, anyone who has been there knows it to be true. Stand on the Cliffs of Moher or the headlands of Inishmore or simply watch sheep amble the laneways just once and tell me that you believe otherwise. Is it her magic we cannot forget, is it her magic we long to reconnect to?
I had an argument about this feeling with a group of Scotsmen some years back. They insisted we North Americans were ridiculously sentimental about Ireland. I told them that we don’t have a history like they do. That in terms of Western European immigrants our countries are very new (I realize this is not true for the First Nations cultures, they do have that connectedness with the land, they do have their own mythology and legend rooted in the land they live with—and I do mean to say with, not on). I told the Scotsmen their history enfolds them every day, they live with it around them, they have the privilege of living within their own culture, the thing that lives in their very DNA. First off they said I clearly had an Irish tongue, because they were now looking at it differently. They solemnly promised, before we parted at the pub door, that they wouldn’t mock North Americans anymore over this particular issue. I’m pretty sure they didn’t keep their promise, but I like to think they at least thought about we exiled North Americans differently for a bit.
Many people are familiar with the four original provinces of Ireland—Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. But not everyone knows that there is a fifth province where the other four meet in the heart of the country, a province that exists in another dimension, the province of An Mhi (Irish for ‘the middle’ also referred to as Meath sometimes). The centre of the country, but the centre in the sense of magic and symbolism, the centre that we carry with us wherever we go, because it does not exist outside us, but within. It is this centre all we exiles carry with us, and so we must return to the root of it, to renew it so that we might carry it away again.
“The idea of a sacred space where the walls and laws of the temporal world dissolve to reveal wonder is apparently as old as the human race.”
The above could describe fairyland, or any number of alternate universes held within our own world, but I think it can also describe the Ireland we exiles hold in our hearts, the one where we hope for a fleeting moment to walk around a corner and bump into our great granddad, the one where we help bring in the harvest and put an extra chair by the fire on Samhain for our ancestors who can come visit on that one day when the veil between worlds is absent. The one where we know, without doubt, that the Good Folk exist and are only a glimpse away. The one where we understand more fully who we are and why we are.
I read this quote by an Irish man once and it’s stuck with me ever since.
‘It is said that Panagea split there first, along the western rim of Ireland, and America drifted away from Ireland and anyone standing on the crack got torn in two slowly.’
Torn in two slowly, perhaps that’s at the core of it for we exiles, we are still torn in two, and we understand that some part of ourselves— our DNA ,our souls, our individual stardust— is waiting there for us to return, so that we can once again be whole.