Diaspora, Identity, and Religion: New Directions in Theory and Research

By Waltraud Kokot; Khachig Tölölyan et al. | Go to book overview

2

'Too close for comfort'

Re-membering the forgotten diaspora of Irish women in England

Breda Gray

Emigration has always tended to be an enabling experience for women, more so than men

(Coogan 2000: xvii)

… in its own way, the story of Irish women in America since the Famine, … is as epic as any in the annals of mass migration.

(Lee 2000:20)

While in the USA it seems as though Irish identity is bolstered, in England, it is diminished.

(Smyth 1995:232)


Introduction

The idea that women in the Irish diaspora thrived more than men is often attributed to their determination to escape the confining roles of 'spinsterhood', of housewife and/or mother in Ireland and to their improved prospects outside of Ireland (Coogan 2000; Diner 1984; Nolan 1989; O'Carroll 1990). Although North America plays a huge part in the imaginings and representations of the Irish diaspora, Britain has also been a significant destination for Irish emigrants. 1 However, the geographical, political and cultural proximities of Britain and Ireland tend, as Cherry Smyth suggests, to diminish Irish identity in this important site of the Irish diaspora. This chapter starts with the assumption that it is impossible to do justice to the 'epic' experience of Irish women in the diaspora, without considering the specific ways in which these women constitute their lives and identities in particular locations within the diaspora. The main focus of the essay is first-generation Irish women immigrants to England in the late twentieth century.

In order to pin down the theoretical usefulness of the concept of diaspora, theorists have offered schematic accounts of the defining aspects of diaspora. Some have worked to define the necessary conditions of diaspora (Safran 1991); typologies of diasporas (Cohen 1997); and arguments with a focus on relationships between home and abroad (Brah 1996; Van Hear 1998); as well as on multi-local attachments (Brah 1996; Clifford 1994; Gilroy 1993; Lavie and Swedenburg 1996). Most of

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