Across The Waves: The Experience of Migration in Contemporary Irish Writing

A distinguished panel gathered in The Arms Hotel Ballroom on Thursday for the first of our Gathering strand of events, to discuss the very timely and relevant subject of Across the Waves: The Experience of Migration in Contemporary Irish Writing. Gathered together were Ireland Professor of Poetry, Harry Clifton, authors Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín and Catherine Dunne. Facilitating the discussion was Professor Liam Kennedy, Director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at UCD, and the recipient of major research awards.

Professor Kennedy commenced with a brief introduction before inviting the panel to speak in turn.

ForumProfessor Liam Kennedy: Emigration.  Exile. In some ways there’s nothing new about the subject, but it’s timely. Why? Because migration is changing and it’s changing in the sense that the special coordinates by which we map our sense of identity as Irish are shifting and changing. The word academics use is globalisation, and what I mean by that is we’re experiencing an intensified flow of information, capital and people across national borders. I think we can broadly agree we are living in an age of globalisation in all of these ways, and particularly because of the way digital electronic communications has intensified this flow. Because of that, what we’re calling migration has changed and I think what has happened is that what we think of as migration, has moved from the margins of our lives and imaginations to the centre. We can condsider some big questions  such as, what does it mean for what we call Irish identity? Or Irish literature? Or more pointedly, is Colum McCann an Irish author or not. But before we go any further, I can break the news tonight that it’s Colm Tóibín’s birthday tonight (laughter and applause).

Harry Clifton: I’m like the boy at the party who’s hiding behind the door here. I will read an extract from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. Why do we like being Irish? Partly because it gives us a hold of a sentimental English as members of a world that never was, baptised with fairy water, and partly because Ireland is still small enough to be still thought of with a family feeling . It speaks to what Liam was saying about this whole idea of Ireland which poets are constantly trying to get around. I got a book the other day called The Pleasure Ground, poems by Richard Murphy. It’s quite clear he’s made his distance. John Montague and Thomas Kinsella, key figures in their their 80s, living at great distances from the Ireland that they explored. It’s interesting that these poets in their old age have distanced themselves from Ireland. The problematic nature of Ireland itself. The wounding aspect of the Irish experience. Why do they need to get away? This is one of the few countries that nurture poets, however there’s this aspect of outgrowing your poetic adolescence and finding youself in a self conscious environment that you have to escape from at a certain point. The intellectual self which tends to migrate, and we’ve seen that right from the beginning of the twentieth century. Writers such as Joyce and Yeats – the later Yates belongs elsewhere; the intellectual impatience of Samuel Beckett; the need to be part of what they see as a more hard edged culture. We see the hunger of younger poets like Charles Donnelly, to be involved in what they see as universal difficulties and questions that have somehow got outside the Irish experience. Being forced into a certain kind of confrontation with conscience. What Joyce calls the unforged conscience of the country, which seems to be forging itself not in Ireland but mainly in Europe. This idea of Ireland which is something that Irish poets have had to get around and get beyond, and they’re still struggling with the idea of the Irish poet as a limiting factor.

Colm Tóibín: In Wexford where I’m from for example, Billy Roche has really handled the local and the global with immense care. For example they were interviewing somebody who wanted to be Strawberry Queen in Enniscorthy, and they asked her what she’d do with the money if she won and she said “Oh I’d feck off to England,” and that idea of being open to the sea gives people a particular interest in what’s on the other side of the sea. The great example of that in Kerry is when people came off the Blasket Islands and they’d no interest in being Irish. All they wanted to do was go to Springfield, Massachusetts, where their descendants still are. I’m not sure that Ireland has emerged fully as a nation or as a place you can talk about as a single entity. The entity of Ireland is a difficult one to describe. I’m not sure about this word Diaspora either. It’s a word that I understood to be about what happened to the Jewish population of Europe, where people spread all over the place and that it was a full spreading, so I would question Ireland, Diaspora and blood. I was on a forum like this in New York after 9/11 and I said something about the firemen I’d seen in a documentary, a lot of whom perished, and a lot of them seemed to me to have Irish faces. This woman in the audience quite rightly said, ‘Could Mr Tóibín please explain to us all what an Irish face is? Instead of saying I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as an Irish face, I found myself saying things about a middle-aged man who had very soft eyes; a very stubborn mouth; happier looking into the horizon than looking directly at the person coming towards him; who’s not good at owning things but likes to own something; who could be very brutal if he was a landlord; and much better at dealing with his daughters than his sons and I went on and on. And I was certain that there was such a thing as an Irish face. It’s understood that emigration has been hard, but homecoming is even harder, and that the space in between is the space where a lot of people live.

Catherine Dunne: What fascinated me most was the vast number of stories that had been untold, especially the silent stories of women who emigrated from this country. Many womenCatherine Dunne had mythologised what they had left behind; spun a web of stories about an Ireland which kept her warm, kept her memories safe,  but the realities are were different. It’s very different when you leave willingly, when there’s choice involved.  If you are forced, it becomes a different dynamic. I was in an Irish Catholic Club in London around the time when Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax was being introduced, and there were some Mayo men who were talking about Ireland and how wonderful Ireland was, and one of them made the extraordinary comment that, “well we all know that any tax levied in Ireland would be fair,” and I sat back and was astounded. It was at that point that I though there’s a book here. Irish women emigrated on their own, and that bucked the trend. Irish women voted with their feet. One of the comments women made to me was that you looked as though you belonged until you opened your mouth.

Colum McCann: I was nine years old when my father and I got on the boat to Holyhead. My father stopped at an off licence and bought a bottle of whiskey which was unusual because he didn’t really drink. Then he bought a carton of John Player Blue and I knew he didn’t smoke, so I knew something was up. He said we were going to meet my grandfather who was dying in a nursing home in Pimlico Road. It was the first time I’d met him. I sat on the bed and he told stories. Then I went home, and on the Monday morning at school my teacher said, I want you to write an essay about the person you most admire and I asked my father if he minded if I wrote my story about granddad. I asked him to tell me a little bit about him and he told me a story of when he was about fourteen 0r fifteen years old and he had gone across to England with my grandfather and grandmother.  My granddad said wait here, I’m going to see Mrs Greenfields about a place to stay. They waited and waited and waited and spent the first night in a Salvation Army Hostel, and then on the third day he came back.  He stretched out his arms and said welcome to Mrs to Mrs Greenfields. Not a nice thing to do. In writing that story about my grandfather I was actually writing about my father, and at that early stage I began to have a relationship with leaving. My sister left for England when she was sixteen and it hurt me. I felt wounded and raw. That wounded thing we’ve been talking about. I really went away when I was twenty-two.  I left because I wanted to . I was curious. I didn’t know that I was leaving for good.

Does emigration really exist anymore? You can’t go back to a country that doesn’t exist anymore. One of the difficult things for people is to come back to a country they don’t recognise anymore. I have lived in a ‘useful elsewhere.’  I like the idea of being a citizen of ‘elsewhere.’ Somebody else who is a citizen of elsewhere is Gabriel Byrne, who as you know had a great deal to say about The Gathering. But what Gabriel was actually calling for, and got misquoted for, was a calling for a more nuanced and more complex relationship to our ‘Diaspora.’  He was talking about a people who had culture at the centre of their experience and that we as a nation have to build bridges back and forth to England and America. We as Irish people have to be bigger and broader and more usefully engaged, in that people are not just coming to us but we are going to them. Part of the literary experience doesn’t always have to be us looking inward but by looking outward it’s an alternative form  of gazing inward at ourselves, and that’s what Gabriel was talking about. Gabriel was also talking about the forgotten; those that can’t come home; are not allowed to come home; don’t have visas or enough money, and what are we doing as a culture to go out to them. This is very important too. It’s not always about the emigrant coming home, but us going out to them, engaging them and saying this is a re-gathering. His contribution to this debate has been debased in a way. We’re a complex people. We’re a bit snooty about people going away to the US and about St. Patricks Day. But the big thing in New York at the moment is Bloomsday.  These people are marking themselves as a different type of people to what we’ve been stereotyped into. By looking outside ourselves we become bigger and stronger and better.