- Women and the Irish Diaspora
The story the Irish people who left for America, Britain, and Australia from the l840s down to the early 1960s has been widely chronicled, but—with the exception of Kerby Miller's Emigrants and Exiles and David Fitzpatrick's Oceans of Consolation—this literature has paid little attention to the impact of immigration and resettlement on the identity and sense of belonging of individual immigrants, or to how their absence affected the identity and emotional lives of those they left behind. Historians are usually more comfortable with statistical and material measures than with the elusive and emotional issues of psychic identity. Since the 1980s, a new generation of scholars has begun to analyze the emigrant-immigrant experience within the frameworks provided by poststructuralist social and multicultural theory, in which categories of gender, class, and race serve as counterweights to earlier generalizations and essentialist descriptions. The impact of rapid modernization and globalization of the Irish economy since the 1970s on government and communal attitudes toward emigration and to the status of the Irish living abroad has also received considerable attention.
In Women and the Irish Diaspora, Breda Gray, a sociologist, applies these tools of analysis to the testimony she gathered from interviews and focus groups involving 111 Irish women in the mid-1990s. Seventy-five of her informants lived in Ireland, and included some returned immigrants; the rest were mostly educated middle-class young women living in Greater London. Gray's research goals were to determine how the immigration experience of these female immigrants shaped, first, their self-perceptions, and second, their relationships with their home and family, as well as with London's older Irish immigrants and the indigenous English population.
Gray begins by showing how the socioeconomic profile of Irish immigrants has changed since the 1950s and 1960s, and also how government and societal attitudes toward immigration had been altered in the same span. Immigrants [End Page 144] in the late 1970s and 1980s were usually well-educated, middle-class urban or suburban youth, not the economically and educationally disadvantaged rural youth who dominated the outflow of midcentury. In Ireland, government and societal attitudes to the exodus of its youth changed from a rather embarrassed resignation to one of enthusiastic embrace—a change that came when the demographic peak of young job seekers coincided with the government's renewed determination to position Ireland more solidly within the emerging European and global economy. The language of neoliberal capitalism, which praised free markets and mobility, conveniently obscured the fact that Ireland had not yet provided sufficient employment opportunities to accommodate the first job seekers from the country's baby boom.
Rather than being a sign of defeat and failure, leaving for London, or Europe, or America, was now portrayed as an expected rite of passage and a positive career enhancing opportunity that would enrich individuals as well as Irish society. The Irish Industrial Authority placed advertisements in business magazines promoting recent university graduates as sophisticated "Young Europeans." Now that female employment was no longer seen as a temporary interlude prior to marriage, young, educated women joined in the exodus in greater proportions than previously. As in the past, Greater London provided more varied and better paying career opportunities than were available Ireland's urban centers. Indeed, in 1991 almost 46 percent of young Irish women immigrants in the United Kingdom held professional or managerial positions.
Despite all the rhetoric in the 1980s and early 1990s about the benefits of mobility and of being part of the Irish diaspora, Gray's informants show that their immigration experience to London was by no means unproblematic. "Career advancement" as a rationale for emigrating was often a euphemism that masked other reasons for leaving Ireland, such as the desire to escape the continuing constraints that Irish society placed on individualism and sexuality. For some single mothers and lesbians, for instance, leaving was more often about preserving family respectability in Ireland than it was a preferred choice. Many felt little kinship with the earlier generation of immigrants whose social...