Academic journal article Spatial Practices

"This Time and Now": Identity and Belonging in the Irish Diaspora: The Irish in Britain and Second-Generational Silence

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

"This Time and Now": Identity and Belonging in the Irish Diaspora: The Irish in Britain and Second-Generational Silence

Article excerpt


The Irish in Britain have only recently been granted ethnic status. This blind spot which existed towards the Irish community, even as highly visible negative assumptions about the Irish circulated, resulted in a strange invisibility which simultaneously derided as it denied Irish identity, and failed to acknowledge the Irish as an ethnic group. This has effected how the generation born from the 1950's/60's migration into England can both consider and describe their notion of identity. Silence, denial and over identification reveal how the sense of non belonging, or 'otherness' is a common touch stone, and identification as a constant outsider is a prominent note. Criticisms of national identity levelled against the second generation from within the community reveal attitudes about ownership of a 'nationhood' which is still contested ground. Identity displayed through those visible traditions which are frequently stronger in displaced communities can not be taken as the sole markers of national belonging as memories, silences and post memories impact on such constantly evolving groups as are created by emigration. Historic patterns and beliefs which are traceable through the images, stories and customs which were originally brought over create an image bank with which the generation born in England might consider and negotiate its relationship to nation and home. This paper asks whether the models this generation grew up with, and which have begun the journey from lived experience into literature and into folklore, can still have a relevant social function when we consider the idea of identity and belonging?

Key names and concepts: Aidan Arrowsmith - Angela Bourke - Liam Harte - Mary J. Hickman - Marianne Hirsch - Ernst van Alphen - diaspora - identity - Irish - post memory - second generation.

Like oil lamps we put them out the back - of our houses, of our minds. We had lights better than, newer than and then a time came, this time and now we need them...

(Boland 1991: 108)

1. The Constant Past

The title of this paper "This Time and Now", comes from a broken line in Eavan Boland's poem, 'The Emigrant Irish', where the poet pays homage to the generations of Irish who have taken the emigrant's route out of poverty (1991: 108). Such journeys with the metaphors of leaving the old and dreading the new in equal measure are constant features in Irish writing, expressing an idea which has become incorporated into a sense of identity. It is hard to find a country that equals Ireland in the desire to both escape and return to it, and for which, until recently, the answer to unemployment has been to look to emigration.

Boland's broken line which stresses time, "A time came, this time", then counts a beat before the emphasis falls on "now" to drop away into the quieter "we need them" places the past, slap bang up against the present, the "this time and now" of lived experience.

There is apparently a state of being which incorporates into its sense of self not only the behaviours and models of a previous generation, but its memories. Termed post memory (Hirsch 2008) this personal sense of history is markedly different to a family's knowledge of itself, occasionally rediscovered in the search for ancestry. This term has grown out of Holocaust Studies where excavation of the past is further galvanised by the need to capture the testimonies of an ageing, ever decreasing population of survivors. However the shift in post memory is that it locates itself in the next generation (the "hinge" generation, according to Eva Hoffman 2005: 198) with its focus on how such testimonies are not merely interpreted as is the case with histories, but are remembered by this follow-up generation. Post memory is in this instance specific to the children of survivors for whom parental experience has become part of their identities. According to Hirsch post memory "describes the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic experiences that preceded their births, but that were transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right" (103). …

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