You won’t see it on this page but take IF’s word for it: this computer, this whirring, humming miracle of technology, is no match for an old-fashioned, ten-ton dictionary.
Like, say, Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, page 364.
“Diaspora?” Firstly, it is defined as the scattering of the Jews to countries outside Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. Then, in a more general and updated context, it is defined thus: “any group migration or flight from a country or region; any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland.”
The ‘d’ word has its origin in the classical Greek verb diaspeirein, meaning to scatter.
Those of you with a sharp eye for the phonetic will see Ireland writ in the second half of this multi-syllable gift from the ancients.
It is not to be confused with “diaspore,” which, according to Webster’s is “a hydrous oxide of aluminum occurring as a mineral in white to greenish crystals or in foliated masses.
The ‘d’ word was never much used in the context of emigration from Ireland or in reference to Irish communities living in America, Britain, Australia and elsewhere.
That was until President Mary Robinson started using it here, there and everywhere during her seven-year term in the 1990s.
Robinson, with her candle in the window for the exile and extensive travels to emigrant outposts around the globe, did much to place the scattered Irish front and center in the minds of those who remained on the home island.
In doing so, Robinson helped scupper some of the more ludicrous perceptions that continued to linger in corners of the homeland imagination with regards to those who had left the place.
President Robinson’s favorite word was echoed loudly in Dublin recently at a
conference in Dublin Castle intended to “launch a national debate on the Irish Diaspora,” and to be “a forward-looking exploration of Ireland’s relationship with its Diaspora,” as an Irish government statement put it.
So what’s there to debate? Well, a lot of history, a lot of future possibilities and some pressing current problems, not least of them the plight of those in the diaspora who are living undocumented lives in these United States.
The Dublin Castle curtain raiser was hosted by Irish foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern. The Louth man has been especially concerned and active on behalf of those living outside Ireland who enjoy family and historical ties to the island.
“The time is right to review our approach to our community across the globe and to develop a strategy for the years ahead. Just as the nature of our diaspora has never been fixed, our attitudes and our capacity to engage with the Irish abroad have changed with our nation’s fortunes. We need to regularly reshape our policies in this key area and this conference will launch that process,” Ahern said of the gathering about the scattering.
In an example of how the space between communities in the diaspora has shrunk, the conference almost immediately made front-page news on the other side of the world – in the Irish Echo, Sydney, Australia version.
There were a number of notable speakers at the conference, one of them being Richie Neal, the Massachusetts congressman who chairs the Friends of Ireland on Capitol Hill. Neal’s presence was a reminder that membership of the Irish diaspora does not require birth in one of the 32 counties. It can span generations and reach across oceans.
The diaspora is a community, a constituency with common lineage, cultural roots and interest in the future of Irishness whatever it is, wherever it is.
Mary Robinson may not have been thinking of it at the time but she may well have spawned a kind of cultural industry, one in which bonding takes the place of branding.
But this is a digression. Where exactly will a “forward-looking exploration of Ireland’s relationship with its diaspora” lead us? And can it avoid being something more than just a global talking shop?
One thing that should be pointed out from the get-go is that exploration is not a one-way process. The diaspora has long had its say in the evolution of today’s Ireland, even when it was on its knees in some less than hospitable corners of the world.
Most recently, it has provided significant fuel for the Irish economic miracle, not least in the form of returning emigrants desperately needed to boost the tiger and post-tiger labor pool.
But the diaspora is more than just about economics. It has its political, social and cultural dimensions too.
An example of the political dimension, without the least doubt, has been Irish America’s role in the quest for peace, justice and stability of the island of Ireland – a quest that reached to heights of success even as the conferees were settling into Dublin Castle.
The political could well be enhanced in the near future by some form of political representations for the overseas Irish in the Oireachtas, the part of its made up by the Senate.
The cultural and social aspects need nurturing too even though they seem to be natural offshoots of Irishness. The world is becoming a more structured place and structures, Irish cultural and sporting centers, will be increasingly important as the physical glue necessary to maintain a sense of a common bond on oft far flung ground.
All this requires money of course. But Ireland, the 2007 version, has enough spare cash to wax lyrical about its diaspora while at the same greasing its wheels.
Those wheels are turning all over the place. Just a few days after the castle conflab, ILIR came to town to beat the drum on U.S. immigration law reform. In Seattle, 6,000 miles from the former hub of British rule in Ireland, the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in the U.S. was gathering in Seattle for its annual meeting.
The goings on at all these events could he read on the internet anywhere in the world, or anywhere where green is worn as journalist and author Tim Pat Coogan – another speaker at the diaspora gathering – might put it.
Busy days ahead then for all in a diaspora that is yet far flung, but more closely connected than it has ever been.