Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Diaspora v Deoraíocht - Correctly Describing the Irish Emigrant Experience

Emigration has been part of the Irish experience since the flight of the Earls at the start of the seventeenth century. But it’s only in the past sixteen years that we’ve described the vast Irish population that lives outside of the island itself as the diaspora.

In fact, we can pinpoint the exact date the Irish emigrant population became a diaspora – it was February 2nd, 1995.

A search of the entire Irish Times newspaper archive returns 2,287 hits for the word “diaspora.” The word appears 518 times between the paper’s first edition on March 29th, 1859 and February 2nd, 1995, an appearance rate that averages out at three times a year. “Diaspora” appears 1,769 times between February 3rd, 1995 and last Saturday, or once every three days. Quite the increase.

February 2nd, 1995, is the key date because that was when President Robinson delivered an address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas called “Cherishing the Irish Diaspora.” It’s clear from the simple but reasonable metric of the Irish Times diaspora hit-count that this address to Tithe an Oireachtais made the Irish emigrant experience synonymous with the word “diaspora.” The pity is that the world does not accurately describe the phenomenon.

There is an element of imposed foreign force to the leave-taking in other cultures that exhibit a diaspora. The Jews were forced from the Holy Land by anyone who showed up for the entirety of their history, and aren’t entirely welcome there now either. The African slaves were taken to America and the West Indies in ships where men had to lay in bunks that were sixteen inches wide and two per cent mortality was allowed for in the bookkeeping.

Emigration is not forced on the Irish. The Roman Empire isn’t billeted in Athlone. There are no slavers waiting in the harbour at Cobh. That does not mean the emigrants want to go – a visit to an airport and a count of red eyes and bitten lips will answer that question. But diaspora is the wrong word to use.

Ireland does not have a diaspora. It has a population in exile. And we have word that describes that condition of Irish exile exactly. The word is “deoraíocht.”

One of the more frequent criticisms of the Irish language is that it uses “makey-uppy” words, with “héileacaptar” and “teileascóp” being two of the more egregious examples. “Deoraíocht” dates back to Old Irish, the language heard by St Patrick during his slavery and his apostolate. There’s nothing makey-uppy about it.

“Deoraíocht” has a strong literary tradition. Pádraig Ó Conaire’s only novel is called “Deoraíocht,” the story of an Irish exile in London. One of the definitive accounts of the life of an Irish navvy in England after the Second World War is Donáll Mac Amhlaigh’s “Dialann Deoraí.”

The title has been translated in some places as diary of an emigrant but that’s not accurate; “Diary of an Exile” is the correct translation of “Dialann Deoraí,” as Valentin Iremonger, Mac Amhlaigh’s official translator, knew. There is a difference between being an emigrant and being an exile.

We can’t blame the waves of emigration from Ireland in the 1950s and 80s and now, or the steady trickle that’s always existed, on the British. Our condition of exile is our own fault. We were promised an Ireland that was Gaelic, united and free.

We’ve failed at every turn in creating a distinct, viable and independent state and people who can’t bear this failure feel they have no option other than exile. They don’t want to go but they want to stay even less.

Diaspora doesn’t describe that duality of not wanting to go and hating to stay. Exile does. The fact the Irish word has “deor,” meaning “tear,” as its route is especially poignant.

Michael D Higgins will be sworn in as the ninth President of Ireland on Friday. Higgins has already done his bit for the language in the founding of Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4, during his time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

There’s a case to be made that the foundation of TG4 is the best thing to happen the language since the Gaelic League was founded by Douglas Hyde, the man who would go on to become the first President of Ireland. Now Hyde’s eighth successor has a chance to do something else for the language, and initiate the use of a particularly Irish word to describe a particularly Irish experience.

Mary Robinson spoke during her own inauguration in 1990 that Irish was an important part of our culture and that she herself planned to learn it: “Tá aistear eile le déanamh anois agam — aistear cultúrtha, leis an saibhreas iontach atá sa teanga Ghaeilge a bhaint amach díom féin.” (“I have another journey to make now – a cultural journey, to find the wonderful richness that is in the Irish language for myself.”)

It would be wonderful if our new President could restore the primacy of Irish to the Irish people and help us on our long journey to finding out just who exactly we are, whether we are at home or overseas. Go n-éirí leis.