- Introduction:Beyond the Nation
In April 2016 a much-anticipated diaspora museum called EPIC Ireland opened up in the CHQ Building on Custom House Quay in Dublin. Its tagline reads, “the unique global journey of the Irish people.”1 EPIC Ireland is aiming for a blend of domestic and tourist footfall, hoping to offer a slightly cheaper alternative to the twenty-euro entrance fee handed over by 1.1 million tourists to the Guinness Storehouse every year. For sixteen euros at EPIC Ireland the visitor can find a mixture of celebratory accounts of Irish lives that have been carefully gender-balanced and calibrated to accentuate Irish American connections throughout—a reflection of the likely audience. Curated and managed by CHL Consulting—the people who brought us the Titanic Museum in Belfast in 2011—this is billed as an “experience,” not a museum, and one that will effectively take the place of a national diaspora museum. It is an entirely private venture backed by E. Neville Isdell, the former chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola corporation, who was born in County Down.2
One of the most interesting things about this experience is how much of the “journey” and “story” takes place off the island of Ireland. In one experiential display the visitor can sit down at an empty table adjacent to a floor-to-ceiling simulation of the interior of an Irish pub—complete with craic, ceol, agus caint on loop—but this turns out to have been filmed at a pub in London. In another room we learn that the Barbadian pop star Rihanna is part Irish, along with Boy George, Johnny Rotten, The Beatles, and Morrissey. In all, some 372 Irish lives are “celebrated” in the exhibition. Generational distance, partition, ethnic purity, and hyphenated Irishness are the sort of topics left underinterrogated by EPIC Ireland. Instead, we experience an [End Page 7] emotionally transnational account of Irish identity and potential. Mid-exhibition, a quote from former president Mary Robinson exhorts: “After all, emigration is not just a chronicle of sorrow and regret. It is also a powerful story of contribution and adaptation. … In fact, I have become more convinced each year that this great narrative of dispossession and belonging, which so often had its origins in sorrow and leave-taking, has become, with a certain amount of historic irony, one of the treasures of our society.”3 If we can leave our academic skepticism of such a binary to one side for a moment, we can see a kernel of truth within this remark. The Irish relationship to exile, migration, and its own diaspora is a most conflicted and contradictory one. It can be seen as a burden, an embarrassment, or a mark of domestic economic and cultural failure. For some it is a wellspring of celebratory stories, triumph over adversity, endurance, and emergence.
Framed in relation to EPIC Ireland, the diaspora is a resource, both cultural and financial, that can be commodified, repackaged, and monetized. Such an attitude is sometimes met with resistance. This is the feeling of “shakedown” so resented by the actor Gabriel Byrne when the Fáilte Ireland tourist initiative “The Gathering” was announced in 2013. Byrne’s much-quoted comments, delivered on live Irish radio in November 2012, illustrate the point:
The only time the diaspora or Irish Americans are ever mentioned is as tourists and “how can we get these people here to boost our tourism and how can we get people back here so that we can shake them down for a few quid?” One guy I know, who’s a plumber in Philadelphia, said to me, “Do they not understand that there’s a huge recession here? I’m a plumber and I can’t afford to get on a plane and bring my family back to see a game of hurling in Belmullet, or wherever it is.”4
Byrne, who has since distanced himself from these remarks, was thinking of the same awkward relationship between diaspora and [End Page 8] “home” as can be felt in reverse in Bernard Canavan’s wonderful painting Vertigo II on our front...