More than that – the Irish have The Diaspora. It’s not just a history or a culture or another word for ’emigrants’. It’s far (and away) more.
From primary school upwards we’re taught about this phenomenon of Irish exile. From the fifth century St Brendan in a currach on the freezing Atlantic, to the 17th-century Flight of the Earls, to the coffin ships departing Cobh in the 1840s.
And on. From those who left in the lean 1930s to the departees of the stagnant ’50s and ’80s – right up to the most recent wave of emigrants, those who left following the economic crash of the late 2000s.
The story of The Diaspora isn’t confirmed to history, academic reviews or news stories. It informs a large part of the national character. It may also go some way to explaining the Irish people’s reputation for melancholy.
It’s also a narrative that’s wound its way through Irish culture and society, a subject in folk memory, books, poetry and song.
Living in Ireland then you’d be forgiven for thinking, at times, that we’re the only country with a diaspora.
Not so, of course. And if you need reminding of this I recommend a novel by Dominican writer Junot Diaz, that I came across (and tore through) last week.
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao taught me about a number of things: the often-tortuous post-colonial history of the Dominican Republic; enough street Spanish to eat, drink and drive my way around Santo Domingo; multiple details of the Watchmen comic book series; the lows of high-school life in 1980s Paterson, New Jersey, and more besides.
It also taught me that the Dominican Republic has a diaspora which in many ways out-Irishes even the Irish one, when it comes to the wrench of exile and the push-pull lure of return.
In terms of emigration the two countries have a lot in common. Seismic social events of the past 150 or so years – a Famine in our case, a brutal 20th century dictatorial regime in the DR’s – catapulted huge sections of our peoples to a common destination, the United States.
And in each case emigration’s two-way street has seen the phenomenon of the returning emigrant, or at least their returning dollars. (It’s no surprise then that Diaz’s novel reaches its harrowing conclusion with the return of the prodigal Dominican son.)
The Irish had an Oscar Wilde, a Dublin-born writer who left to achieve fame and, ultimately, infamy in London. Diaz presents us with Oscar Wao, the overweight New Jersey nerdboy whose descent is intricately linked to his outsider status.
As post-colonial nations both the DR and Ireland are dealing with the often-blinding historical hangover that our histories force upon us.
But Diaz suggests something more at play, hinting that a fuku, a hex, may lie upon the Dominican diaspora, forcing and following them across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States.
Oscar Wao finally breaks free of this, at great cost, as Diaz offers up a tragic, hopeful ending to his novel.
Have the Irish a fuku of their own – a jinx born from dire domestic circumstances that’s forced emigration and its rendering effect upon the country?
After centuries has this finally been dispelled? The existence of a Diaspora minister would suggest not.
Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the brief, wondrous life of Oscar Wao.