The writer James Joyce was unique in many ways, but when he left Ireland in 1904, he was joining a tradition of expatriate Irish writers. Difficulty publishing at home in what was then a conservative country was one reason for his departure: in his 1912 poem, “Gas from a burner”, he referred to Ireland as “This lovely land that always sent Her writers and artists to banishment.” But Joyce also declared that after his death “Dublin” would be found inscribed on his heart. Today the word “Joyce” is in turn inscribed in Ireland’s own heritage.
Ireland’s diaspora, whether artistic or economic, is now seen as an asset to be harnessed, and today the government is actively engaging with the Irish abroad. As Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny once said, “The 5 million voices of this small nation are hugely amplified by the 70 million around the globe.”
Ireland has the highest share of nationals living abroad among OECD countries, with around 17% of Irish-born persons aged 15 and over living overseas. The diaspora is a diverse body with no set profile. They work across a wide range of sectors, have different reasons for living outside Ireland, and are a mix of young and old. What they have in common is culture and identity, as expressed today through writing, dance and music, as well as business. The diaspora transcends borders, as the by now global celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day on 17 March demonstrates.
Diaspora with historical ties and influence can be found emerging in countries as far-flung as Australia, where more than 2 million people claim Irish descent, to Argentina, where the navy was founded by Admiral William Brown from County Mayo in the west of Ireland. The largest-and arguably most celebrated community-is in North America, with 35 million in the US claiming some Irish heritage and 4.5 million in Canada, about 14% of the total population, though only 150 000 or so are Irish-born in the US. Meanwhile, there is an enormous Irish-born population in the UK of over 600 000, and a quarter claiming Irish heritage. A small yet strong Irish community also took hold in France when Catholic landowners and merchants fled with their wealth and titles from the clutches of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century.
Even if emigrants stay abroad, connecting with this vast diaspora makes sense in today’s networked world, and Ireland now has a minister of state for diaspora affairs, Jimmy Deenihan. Ireland’s first official diaspora policy, Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy, published in 2015, forms part of the evolving government drive to reach out, notably to graduates, with an alumni fund that aims to provide seed funding for collaborative initiatives.
In November 2015 the fourth Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin brought together this global Irish network, made up of over 350 of the most influential and innovative Irish business people based in 40 countries. Such gatherings have become more numerous in recent years, for just as Ireland’s crisis had global causes, it would have global solutions. Claire MacDonald