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  • Home and Belonging among Irish Migrants: Transnational versus Placed Identities in The Light of Evening and Brooklyn: A Novel
  • Eve Walsh Stoddard (bio)

Irish women’s migration did considerable ideological and cultural work in the constitution of Irish femininity in the new southern state following independence in the early 1920s.

breda gray

Becoming a citizen of the world is often a lonely business. It is, as Diogenes said, a kind of exile—from the comfort of local truths, from the warm, nestling feeling of patriotism, from the absorbing drama of pride in oneself and one’s own.

martha nussbaum

The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

1937 irish constitution article 41.2.1

As is well-known, Ireland has been until recently a country marked by extraordinary out-migration. While returned emigrants were rare in the early twentieth century, today they are common, given contemporary means of communication and transportation. Although scholars note that there was until recently little known about returned migrants, especially women (Corcoran; O’Connor; Ní Laoire), there is a tradition of fictional representation dating back to 1861 when Mary Ann Sadlier published Bessy Conway. Another early story of [End Page 147] note is George Moore’s 1903 story “Home Sickness” from The Untilled Field. Iconic films such as The Quiet Man (1952) and The Field (1990), based on a story and a play, respectively, portrayed as materialistic males of Irish descent returning from America. However the definition of “Irishness” is ambiguous, given the extensive connections between emigrants, exiles, and those at home in the island of Ireland, including, in recent years, immigrants of non-Irish ancestry. Irishness can be located variously in “the specificity of place, one’s grandparent’s blood, or the ephemeral unity of thousands of people cheering a soccer team of mixed accents and mixed race, something which would have been unthinkable in the Ireland of the 1950s”(Mac Éinrí 8).

As attention to the diaspora and to immigration have complicated notions of Irishness, the recent appearance of two Irish novels about early to mid-twentieth-century female migrants who return to Ireland from Brooklyn can be read as interventions in this debate. Edna O’Brien’s The Light of Evening, published in 2006, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, published in 2009, inscribe conflicting and ultimately indeterminate debates over the nature and location of “home” and Irishness for migrants who leave and then return to Ireland.1 The question of locating Irishness invokes a set of conflicting discourses about “home” and belonging and their inverse, alienation or strangeness, discourses that pervade these two novels through unstable sets of binary oppositions, named below. Insofar as woman’s place is seen to be in the home, as the 1937 Irish Constitution claims, the agency and subjection of the female migrant becomes particularly problematic, all the more so because unusually large numbers of Irish women did emigrate on their own. Both novels, in very different ways, illustrate the “dutiful daughter” ideal noted by Breda Gray in her ethnographic research (40–49; also noted in Ní Laoire).

The alternative criteria for Irishness posited in the quotation from Piaras Mac Éinrí above can be interpreted as follows. First, defining home and belonging through place marks discourses of indigeneity, of [End Page 148] a close tie between subjectivity and concrete place. Usually the unit of place would be smaller than that of the nation, though embedded within it. As Jim Mac Laughlin notes,

Nationalists suggested that the link between the “volk” and their “heimat” was an entirely “natural” even quasi-sacred relationship. From the start, however, categories like “volk” and “the people” were entirely exclusionist, and nationalism, as in Irish nationalism, did not fulfil an anchoring or “territorializing” function for many of the rural poor, including large numbers of young women who were “banished” from Mother Ireland’s farms through emigration.


Thus many had to leave Ireland so that some of those who remained could sustain their close ties to the land. With the scattering of the population, home and belonging came to be imagined through ancestry...


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