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  • American Dreams:Emigration or Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction?
  • Elizabeth Cullingford (bio)

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Cover Image.

David Creedon, “Singer Sewing Machine,” from series Ghosts of the Faithful Departed (2006), courtesy of David Creedon. Creedon’s brilliantly evocative photographs of abandoned Irish houses visually capture the affective losses of emigration. The ordinary things left behind—a sewing machine, a radio, a religious picture—are saturated with the emotions of their former possessors.

In Ireland the debate about emigration and exile, newly revived since the economic crash of 2008 and the demise of the Celtic Tiger, is fuelled by a capacious archive of public and private feelings.1 The affective legacy embedded in official nationalist memory colors (and is colored by) family legends and contemporary personal grief. From the Flight of the Earls to the Great Famine and on to the economic depressions of the 1950s and 1980s, emigration was represented as, and often was, involuntary exile: a heartbreaking saga of families destroyed, children lost, and a country drained of its most precious resource—its people. The public staging of the “American wake,” a gathering on the eve of an emigrant’s departure that replicated the rites of a funeral, including poteen, dancing, and keening, reinforced the idea of leaving Ireland as death-in-life.2 Ireland’s current outward migration, therefore, is frequently represented through tropes drawn from the archive of historical trauma and haunted by the specter of the Great Famine. Without rejecting the term “trauma” as it is properly applied to the Famine, I will read three contemporary Irish novels of migration, Colm Toíbín’s Brooklyn (2009), Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011), in search of a more nuanced vocabulary for the complex feelings evoked by displacement and loss.

The persistence of certain representations of exile over a large span of time can be traced in a variety of media, including the visual. [End Page 60]

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Figure 1.

Henry Doyle, “The Emigrants’ Farewell,” illustration in Mary Francis Cusack, An Illustrated History of Ireland (London, 1868).

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Take, for example, Henry Doyle’s woodcut, which shows an Irish family bidding a grief-stricken farewell to a young man who is about to board a sailing ship, and originally appeared in a popular nationalist history of Ireland written by Mary Francis Cusack, better known as the Nun of Kenmare. Now it appears on countless Internet pages as visual shorthand for the enforced losses of emigration. On 29 May 2013, a television report, “Irish Youth Groups Warn of Emigration Crisis,” began and ended with the image of a three-masted sailing ship from the 1840s, just like the one in the woodcut. The Famine Ship Dunbrody in New Ross, Wexford, is an “authentic reproduction,” complete with waxwork émigrés, of what its promoters call “The Irish Emigrant Experience.”3 A contemporary crisis with quite different economic and political causes finds articulation through a simulacrum derived from the Great Famine.

In their introduction to a 2012 special issue of Éire-Ireland, “New Approaches to Irish Migration,” Piaras Mac Éinrí and Tina O’Toole provide an excellent summary of the major theoretical and historical questions raised by emigration. They note that “the victimhood theme has again begun to feature prominently in Irish public discourse” (8). For example, in a 2011 New York Times article, “The Grim Good Cheer of the Irish,” novelist John Banville rehearsed the traditional anticolonial narrative, featuring the familiar trope of the Famine ship and evoking “the violent poetry of leave-taking”:

Irish memory is long, and darkened by bitterness. The country has suffered repeated waves of emigration, much of it compulsory, ever since the Flight of the Earls at the beginning of the 17th century, when English forces defeated the army of the Irish aristocracy and drove its leaders into exile. After the disastrous uprising of 1798 and throughout the rebellious century that followed, thousands of what would nowadays be called freedom fighters were deported to the penal colonies of Australia. In the 1840s—the Black Forties, as the decade...


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