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Irish Emigration on the Agenda at Conference on Irish Migration Studies


Conference Organisers Dr Tina O'Toole; Caoilfhionn Ni Bheachain and Kathryn Laing.

With the prospect of rapidly increasing Irish emigration for the first time in 30 years and with the turbulent change of the past 15 years of immigration into Ireland the delegates of the conference of Irish Migration Studies, which took place at the University of Limerick recently, had much to consider.  The University of Limerick played host to a major international conference on Irish Migration Studies entitled Neither Here Nor There: Writing the Irish Diaspora which brought together some of the best-known names in the field of Irish Diaspora Studies internationally, with speakers coming to UL from Canada, the USA, South America, Britain and Ireland.  

 "This is a very timely conference", said conference participant Piaras Mac Einrí: "With the rise of the Celtic Tiger in the last 1990s, an entire generation of younger Irish people grew up without the expectation of leaving Ireland; the annual pictures of tearful departures from ports and airports seemed a distant memory.  The diaspora has been much less present in our minds these days but now, with the dramatic downturn in the Irish economy, it is back on the agenda."

Tina O'Toole, UL Lecturer and Conference Organiser, agreed with MacEnrí and said that "The conference is also timely in the context of recent immigration to Ireland. After the most turbulent twenty years of change in Ireland since independence, we can say that we have experienced migration and diaspora in all of their many forms - people leaving, people coming here and leaving again, people looking back to their homelands, people embracing their new countries, people torn and 'in between' the two places. Nowadays, the Irish in London and the Bronx have their counterparts among the Poles and West Africans in Clondalkin and Cork. Although many in Ireland are in denial about this, all face similar challenges - adapting to new societies, what to do about the legacy of their own cultures, what kind of 'space' they want to have between the old and the new, coping with prejudice and racism. Yet the individual's experience is also specific and subjective and varies according to class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture and destination."

Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin, Conference Organiser and a lecturer in UL's Kemmy Business School notes that "Individuals, and societies, re-invent themselves through the process of migration. The formation of changed nations and communities and the experiences of women are a special focus of this conference. Such changes can be dynamic, liberating and life-enhancing for both individuals and communities; but they can also be traumatic for the individual and, at a societal level, can lead to xenophobia and a kind of new tribalism."  

Keynote lectures addressing some of these questions were given by leading critics Professor Eithne Luibhéid (University of  Arizona), Dr Breda Gray (University of Limerick), Professor Patricia Coughlan (University College Cork) and Professor Marjorie Howes (Boston College).  Other key figures who spoke at the conference include Prof. Laura Izarra (University of Sao Paolo), Director of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies and Prof. Bronwen Walter, whose ground-breaking book Outsiders Inside on the Irish in Britain has shaped migration debates both here and there.  An evening reading by award-winning Irish author, Claire Keegan, took place on the evening of Friday 31st Oct.

The conference addressed, in particular, to the ways in which these many challenges and dilemmas were addressed in literary and creative terms, in this and earlier generations. The work of a wide range of diasporic writers, such as Alice McDermott, William Bulfin, Padraic Colum, Oscar Wilde, Iris Murdoch and Edna O'Brien, was considered.

Conference Organiser, Kathryn Laing said that "this conference will provide us with an opportunity to view these issues through the lens of the personal and the cultural. Thus, it will provide insights into lives, emotions and experiences of migrants - insights which cannot be gained from statistics, demographic forecasts or political speeches".

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