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

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

7

The invention of history in the Irish-American diaspora

Myths of the Great Famine

Astrid Wonneberger


Introduction

After centuries of Irish emigration to North America, about 44 million people of Irish descent live in the United States today. Like many other ethnic groups in the US, whose aim had been assimilation into the host society for a long period, Irish America began to develop a new interest in its cultural roots in the 1960s. Many people of Irish descent began to look for their 'own' ethnic markers in order to distinguish themselves from other groups in the US. An important role in this process of constructing ethnic boundaries plays a concept of a common history. This serves as a base upon which a common identity and group solidarity can be constructed. 1

During my research on the Irish-American diaspora in the United States, which was conducted among tourists from the US in Ireland in 1997 and in New York, Boston and New Jersey in 1998 and 1999, I found that certain historical events seem to be of special importance for Irish-America. One of them is the Great Famine, which will be the subject of this article.

I will start my analysis with the term 'diaspora' which has become very popular within the last decade and has been frequently applied to the Irish all over the world. However, the term has been intensively discussed and there is still no general agreement on how to define it, although there are some elements which are widely accepted as defining factors. For this reason, I will present the most important results of the debate and use them as an analytical background for my investigation.

The next part will provide the historical background. A brief review of the history of the Famine will be compared with statements I heard during my research, either made by interviewees, or presented in popular history books on Ireland or Irish-American history. Many of these books have a tremendous influence on Irish-America, as they are known to a large readership. Many informants referred to one or even several titles during the interviews and considered them informative and accurate. Because of this influence, I used these publications, as well as other forms of public discourse on Irish-American history, some of which can be found on the Internet, 2 as important sources of investigation.

In the main part of the article, I will present and analyse images of the Famine popular in the Irish-American 3 diaspora. Based on statements which I heard from Irish-Americans or read in Irish-American history books, I will investigate which

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