Travelling Texts: Irish diaspora history, the North Atlantic and contemporary literature.

The Irish Diaspora Histories Network seeks to highlight how different disciplinary traditions intersect with each other through blog posts and conversation. Dr Alison Garden explores the ways that her own work – across contemporary literature and history – can shed light on the varied experiences within the Irish diaspora. If you would like to contribute to this interdisciplinary endeavour, please get in touch.

I touch their silky faces on my screen.
I am three thousand miles ago,
five hours in the red.
‘Away’, Vona Groake, Spindrift (2009)

In ‘Away’, the Irish poet Vona Groake opens with a confession: ‘I babysit by Skype’. The poem goes on to track the difficulties of being an ocean away from one’s children, attuned to the ‘eerie displacement of attempting to share daily life across different timezones’.[I] One of Ireland’s most critically acclaimed poets, Groake has spent significant amounts of time in numerous universities in the United States in various roles and, as a result, substantial amounts of time away from her family. Groake’s poetry is testament to the particular dynamic of living so far from home: the bittersweet strain of personal attachments that pull despite the professional opportunities offered by the United States. While the specifics of Groake’s situation may make her more privileged than many other fellow migrants, temporary or permanent, Groake’s experience is one shared with millions of Irish people throughout history.

Readers of this blog will no doubt know that emigration has been an unexceptional reality for many in Ireland for centuries; worldwide, approximately seventy million people claim Irish ancestry.[ii] However, the literary depiction of Irish migration is long and varied. As Ellen McWilliams & Tony Murray have argued, from ‘Colmcille’s departure from Ireland in the sixth century through the Celtic sagas of the early middle ages, the Flight of the Earls and the Wild Geese of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the great migrations after the Famine in the nineteenth’ century, the Irish have been particularly mobile.[iii] In recent years, in parallel with the move in Irish historiography, there has been a surge of interest by scholars in the body of literary and cultural work produced by the Irish diaspora. A small selection of compelling new work in the field includes: new studies on the afterlives of the Famine by Marguérite Corporaal, Lindsay Janssen, Christoper Cusack and Ruud van den Beuken; Ed Madden’s work on ‘Queering the Irish Diaspora’; Ellen McWilliams & Bronwen Walter’s special issue on women and the Irish Diaspora; the late Sinéad Wall’s book on Irish-Argentine migrant literature; Oona Frawley’s edited collection on the diaspora and memory studies; Ailbhe McDaid’s new study on Irish poetry and migration; and Sinéad Moynihan’s nuanced, insightful study into the dynamics of race as it intersects with Irish and Irish-American culture.[iv]

My research has focused heavily on the Irish in the Atlantic world in the long twentieth century. With Muireann Crowley, I co-edited a special issue of Symbiosis: a Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations on the literature of the Irish Atlantic; I have published on Ireland, memory and circum-Atlantic poetics and have an article forthcoming on Roger Casement’s Irish-American afterlives. I am particularly interested in how modern and contemporary literature by and about the Irish diaspora fashions the Atlantic space as, what Joseph Roach has termed, an ‘oceanic interculture’.[v] Roach’s work is indebted to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), a foundational work on diaspora theory, in which Gilroy ‘develops the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective’.[vi] Building on Gilroy’s work,[vii] we can read the Atlantic space as an especially storied one, and one that retains the memory of the histories, migrations and experiences of many people. Modern and contemporary writers are acutely aware of the inescapable weight of this shared Atlantic past, from Seamus Heaney’s commune with ‘ocean-defended voices’ and the ‘powers of Atlantic thundering’ in ‘North’ (1975) to Emma Donoghue’s Astray (2012), a collection of 14 stories set across the North American Atlantic, all inspired by historical documents and archival finds.

Much of this engagement with the Atlantic history of diaspora by Irish (and other) writers is explicitly intertextual, borrowing from the historical, cultural and literary inheritances of other diasporic peoples to make sense of one’s own heritage. Given the dislocations that migrants endure – from home, nation and family – it is unsurprising that writers often turn to other people’s stories (or, in Steve Garner’s phrase adopted by Sinéad Moynihan, ‘other people’s diasporas’) in an attempt to understand difficult and complicated relationships. In her explanation of the ‘fascinat[ation]’ that ‘emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways’ hold for her, Emma Donoghue says that they intrigue her ‘because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth’.[viii]In the imaginative work of writers – of poetry, prose and drama – the diasporic history of the Atlantic becomes a shared textual resource that can be mined, transformed and rewritten. The storied history of the Atlantic is transformed into an intertextual body of cultural memory that is expressed, embodied or dislocated across Atlantic space.

Take Colum McCann’s novel Transatlantic (2013), for example.McCann’s work migrates across spatial and temporal boundaries, and his novels are written in a highly distinctive ‘braided’ style that assembles disparate narratives together. TransAtlanticincludes sections about the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Canada to Ireland in 1919; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ trip to Ireland in 1845 (though McCann omits to mention how Douglass was heckled in Belfast); senator George Mitchell’s negotiations for the Northern Irish peace process; and other narratives based around fictional characters from both sides of the Atlantic. McCann’s literature is both implicitly and explicitly engaged with Ireland’s history of migration and the diasporic Irish presence in North America. But this is a novel that is also deeply engaged with the Black Atlantic and other diasporic groups in Canada and the United States. McCann’s novel seeks to tease out the ‘identification’ between the Black and Irish Atlantics to highlight the overlaps in their shared diasporic experience, and the affects of diaspora on modern life.[ix]

In an article about McCann, now one of Ireland’s most successful literary exports, the critic and poet Eamonn Wall claimed that, given its long history of emigration, return migration and, most recently, immigration, ‘Ireland has become more of a frontera, constantly crossed and recrossed, than a fixed nation’.[x] Echoing this sentiment, Jahan Ramanzani calls attention to the ‘intercultural space’ and ‘layered geography’ of Irish literature, with its ‘transnational sedimentation’.[xi]My work on the Irish diaspora traces how literature depicts, bloats and complicates a shared memory of the Atlantic and its histories.

Alison Garden is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Institute, University College Dublin. Prior to this, Alison was a Fulbright Scholar at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University, and a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD from 2015-2016. She has published widely on modern and contemporary literature and culture, and is currently completing a monograph, The Afterlives of Roger Casement, for Liverpool University Press. From October 2018, she will be a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. For more about Alison’s work, see www.alisongarden.com, follow her on Twitter at @NotSecretGarden or email her at alison.c.garden[at]gmail.com.

[i]Dorothy Butchard, ‘Time, Data and Transatlantic Longing in Spindrift and The Sun King’, Symbiosis: a Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations, 19.2 (2015): 193-210, 204.

[ii]Enda Delaney, ‘Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies XXXVII 148 (2011): 83-105, 86.

[iii]Ellen McWilliams & Tony Murray, ‘Irishness and the culture of the Irish abroad’, Irish Studies Review, 26:1 (2018): 1-4, 1.

[iv]Marguérite Corporaal, Christopher Cusack, Lindsay Janssen and Ruud van den Beuken ed., Global Legacies of the Great Irish Famine: Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives(Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014) and Marguérite Corporaal, Relocated Memories: The Great Famine in Irish and Diaspora Fiction, 1846-1870(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017); Ed Madden, ‘Queering the Irish Diaspora: David Rees and Padraig Rooney’,Éire/Ireland47.1&2 (2012): 173-200; Ellen McWilliams & Bronwen Walter ed., ‘New perspectives on women and the Irish Diaspora’, Irish Studies Review, 21:1 (2013), 1-5; Sinéad Wall, Irish Diasporic Narratives in Argentina: A Reconsideration of Home, Identity and Belonging, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017); Oona Frawley ed., Memory Ireland: Diaspora and Memory Practices, Volume 2(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012); Ailbhe McDaid, The Poetics of Migration in Contemporary Irish Poetry(Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017); and Sinéad Moynihan,‘Other People’s Diasporas’: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish American Culture, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013).

[v]Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 4.

[vi]Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, (London: Verso, 1993), 15.

[vii]This is not to suggest that all diaspora experiences are the same. Scholars must remain critically attuned to these vital differences. For nuanced analysis into such cross-currents, see Kathleen Gough, ‘Introduction’, Kinship and Performance in the Black and Green Atlantic: Haptic Allegories. New York: London: Routledge, 2014; Steve Garner, Racism in the Irish Experience. (London: Pluto, 2004); Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh, Racism and Anti-Racism in Ireland. (Belfast: BTP Publications), 2002; Lauren Onkey, ‘Introduction’, Blackness and Transatlantic Irish Identity: Celtic Soul Brothers. (London: Routledge, 2010); Peter D. O’Neill and DavidLloyd, ‘Introduction’ to Peter D. O’Neill and DavidLloyd, ed. The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross-Currents of the African and Irish Diasporas, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), xv-xx; Diane Negra, ‘Introduction’ to Diane Negra ed. The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture, (London: Duke University Press, 2006), 1-19; Sinéad Moynihan,‘Other People’s Diasporas’: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish American Culture, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 1-28.

[viii]Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray, (London: Picador, 2012), 263.

[ix]Alison Garden, ‘”Making It up to Tell the Truth”: An Interview with Colum McCann’, Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations 18: 1 (2014): 1-19, 7.

[x]Eamonn Wall, ‘Winds Blowing from a Million Directions: Colum McCann’s Songdogs’, New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora, ed. Charles Fanning, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 284.

[xi]Jahan Ramanzani, ‘A Transnational Poetics’. American Literary History 18.2 (2006): 332-59, 346.

ImageThe Eastern Telegraph Co.: System and its general connections. Chart of submarine telegraph cable routes, showing the global reach of telecommunications at the beginning of the 20th century (1901).

Source A.B.C. Telegraphic Code 5th Edition, via Atlantic-cable 
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