Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

On Both Sides of the Atlantic: Migration, Gender, and Society in Contemporary Irish Literature

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

On Both Sides of the Atlantic: Migration, Gender, and Society in Contemporary Irish Literature

Article excerpt

1.Ireland on the Move

For centuries, geographical movement in Ireland has been characterized by rural-urban transfer to be subsequently followed by overseas migration. Only recently has the magnitude and persistence of this phenomenon been acknowledged in some official documents (Report of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants, 2002; Global Irish: Ireland's Diaspora Policy, 2015). In the meantime, abundant literature has examined the Irish migration phenomenon from many different perspectives, though little interest has been shown in the relation between female migration and place. Undoubtedly, this is a complex issue that has deserved much academic attention (Gray, 2000; Martin, 1997; Ryan, 2001; Walter, 2004). More recently, it is the lives of Irish women abroad and their implicit/explicit relations with their homeland that have been the object of scholarly interest (Donkersloot, 2012; Harte, 2009; Miller, 2008; McDowell, 2014; O'Keeffe, 2013).

Border crossing is a significant decision with vital implications that do not affect men and women equally, as the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants (Government of Ireland, 2002) indicates. According to Walter (2004), the USA was the preferred choice of Irish women from the early 19th century, whereas in the early 20th century Britain became the most popular destination. Later, the flows to the neighbor country became massive between the 1950s and the 1980s, a trend that changed by the end of the last century when other European destinations became more attractive. These movements necessarily affect the concepts of land and nation as the sense of identity begins to multiply and diversify. Ideologically, the feminine icons of Mother Church and Mother Ireland (or Erin) had been gaining ground since the 19th century for nationalistic purposes, and from the first decades of the 20th century, women were "actively interpellated as national subjects through identification with territory, soil, land and landscape" (Gray, 1999: 205). At the time, paintings, songs and discourses praised the rural Irish woman who embodied "the values of motherhood, tradition and stability" (Nash, 1993: 47). According to Ingman, "nations construct their identity around fixed concepts of gender" (2007: 3), and Ireland was no exception as, for too many decades, the social status of women was framed by institutions that served to oppress them one way or another. These institutions, identified as family and household structures, and employment and welfare policies, were also legally supported in the 1937 Constitution. That Irish gendered project targeted women to limit their access to work and public spaces in order to produce "decent women inhabiting virtuous spaces" (Crowley and Kitchin, 2008: 355). Symbolically, as the new values of the nation clung to the homely rural landscape, virtuous Ireland became the place to be whereas other places such as urban spaces, or destinations such as Britain and the USA were identified as materialistic and threatening (Ryan, 2001: 272-273). In this context, the phenomenon of female migration necessarily implied a break with a particular social model and would involve a menace to the national construction of the Irish Free State, as the numerous debates in the media at the time demonstrate (Ryan, 2003). Furthermore, that "sense of place" which has been identified as "a component of identity and psychic interiority" (Martin, 1997: 92), has for long been disturbing for many Irish women too, as mixed feelings involving duty, love, anger, independence and sorrow have been detected in female migration reports (Ryan, 2008; Walter, 2004). Discomfort might be the word for many women's experiences abroad who felt the tension between an assimilated Irish cultural space and the actual space of opportunities ahead. Contemporary Irish literature shows a strong tendency to look backwards and evoke those Irish migrants' experiences, an issue that is witnessing much success at present in the form of fictionalized lives of Irish migrant women. …

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