Stop condescending attitudes to diaspora says Notre Dame prof

Shelley Marsden

IRELAND’S response to its Diaspora in the year of The Gathering is still far too “old-fashioned and condescending,” Professor Kevin Whelan, Director of Dublin’s Notre Dame Centre has argued.

Prof Whelan, who spoke on the subject at the weekend’s Galway Arts Festival, told the Irish World: “It’s not so much an attitude that comes from ordinary Irish people, but from a lot of Irish media, and those who consider themselves modern and sophisticated. It’s this kneejerk reaction that Irish-America, for instance, is green beer, paid trousers and loud voices from people that know absolutely nothing about Ireland.  I find that offensive as it homogenizes people. There may be a few who fit that stereotype, but in general Irish-America, like every Diaspora, is much more diverse and valuable to Ireland than that stereotype would suggest. “

The professor argued that more connectivity was needed to break down stereotypes which misrepresent those interested in their Irish roots. “The argument is that people have a fairytale view of Ireland that’s based on The Quiet Man when it’s actually post-Catholic, post-modern and post-whatever you’re having yourself. We’re so busy congratulating ourselves on being modern that we then treat our Diaspora as something that’s out of date, linking it to what we used to think about ourselves.

“Irish-America and the Irish in Britain are very powerful in the fields of culture, sport, politics. We need to be a little less condescending towards them.  And those people aren’t often considered very Irish at all – our version of Irishness is rather narrow, and though there’s a lot of lip-service about the Diaspora, we’re not curious enough about Irish beyond Ireland.

Unfortunately, added Whelan,   the same reaction or indeed lack of interest, is far too often levelled at the Irish in Britain.  He said: “People think particularly of that generation that came over in the 50s and 60s, perhaps the less advantaged, who worked at the coal face. They were almost abandoned by Irish society; in many cases, these people didn’t make good provisions for their pensions and they were away from their families. They’re not quite a dirty secret, but people prefer not to think about them.  They fell through the cracks, but the Celtic Tiger generation never wanted to know. Now that times are tough again back home, they’re considered even less.”

Unlike actor Gabriel Byrne, who famously slammed The Gathering – a country-wide, year-long initiative – for being nothing more than an attempt to “shake down” the Diaspora “for a few quid”, Professor Whelan believes the year-long initiative can only be a good thing as its key message is, ‘We welcome you, and we care about you, not just your pound or your dollar’, a message which he argues has been hitherto lacking.

“It’s saying come and join us – we value you and we feel you’re part of who we are, so let’s start a conversation. I think it’s already been successful in that sense; it’s put real people in real communities. It’s great that it’s not just Dublin-based event, too. If you want to go down to Kerry, Galway or Wexford, away you go. The Gathering is community-based and it may end up putting people in touch with the patron mass, traditional music, the GAA – with real Irish people. Sometimes, tourism brings groups to Ireland but they might never really interact with Irish culture, other than in a manufactured way. “

Prof Whelan chaired the discussion ‘Thicker Than Water’ at the Galway Arts Centre on Saturday, exploring how Ireland could connect and engage with its Diaspora without “that kneejerk, dismissive, Plastic Paddy response”. The discussion also featured contributions from the Gathering chairman Tim O’Connor, former Irish consul general in New York, and Prof Mícheál Ó Súilleabháín from the University of Limerick.



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