WHEN I FIRST BEGAN TO WRITE, I didn’t give much thought to the notion of being Irish. The thrill of discovering words that might express unarticulated feeling, or describe much loved landscapes and people, seemed sufficient reason to begin and to keep going. Naturally, there were some writers I identified with more than others, with whose voices and ideas I seemed in tune. Some of these were Irish (Kavanagh, Heaney, Meehan), others American (Hugo, Gluck), but I never really considered that cultural identity in general, or Irishness in particular, inflected my writing. Not until, that was, I moved to the UK for four years to pursue postgraduate studies.
Fast forward to a workshop taking place as part of the Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. I’ve just presented a poem for feedback that includes references to Cemetery Sunday and the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Blank faces surround me which are replaced, once the references are explained, by another expression: pleased recognition that yet another of their cultural stereotypes, that of the religion-obsessed Paddy, is being validated. I’m writing true to form, apparently.
That gave me pause, as did the growing realisation that my Irishness seemed to be in sharper profile now that I was living somewhere else. This was apparent both in other people’s reactions to me, but also in my almost visceral reactions to things that I observed in my new environment. For example there were huge numbers of old oak trees growing in the vicinity of UEA (no massive forest clearances there, my subconscious growled, the learned-by-rote lines of ‘Cill Cais’ echoing in the background) or the obvious age and undisturbed quality of so many small, flint-clad villages dotted around Norfolk (try and find a village in Ireland with buildings more than 200 years old, bad cess to Cromwell). I hadn’t realised the extent of my own cultural conditioning until I was confronted by so many tangible triggers to it.
Not surprisingly, I began to explore this in my writing, and became increasingly interested in other writers who were also exploring their worlds through the prism of displacement, exile, diaspora, whatever name you choose to give it. It struck me that there was a distinct quality shared by writers who, for reasons of migration, emigration, genealogy, found themselves living in one country while having an allegiance of some sort to another. When I took up the residency at the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies in UCD, I was able to translate that interest into a programme of readings by writers who represented some aspect of that diasporic experience.
Some of those writers are included in these pages, as are others who I feel represent that tension between ‘home of origin’ and ‘home of choice’ very well in their work. As with all selections, it is an entirely subjective one; one has to start somewhere, and end somewhere else. I trust you enjoy the journey.