DR Sarah O'Brien

Much has been written about the first generation of Irish who made their way from Cork’s Beara Peninsula to the United States and then from the East Coast to Rocky mountain towns like Butte, Montana and Leadville, Colorado. We know that the first generation faced a brutal journey across the Atlantic Ocean and left Ireland as disenfranchised victims of colonialism and hunger. The histories of their political activism in the U.S. and their struggle to contest the stereotypes that associated them with disorder and violence have also been well documented, and the most pervasive image of the present-day Irish-American is of a nostalgic descendant who has achieved the lace curtain status coveted by his forefathers but who retains an inherited melancholy for the island to which his grand or great grandparents could never return.

Such grand narratives are useful in outlining the general pattern of a migration movement, but can human histories really be so streamlined? In accepting one historical biography of the Irish in America, and their rise from rags to riches, we are missing out the tangential, the exceptional and the specific details that make migration narrative deeply relevant and which illuminate in human detail the fluidity and paradoxical nature of history.

For seven years I have travelled across Europe and South America, to talk with and record the personal narratives of Irish migrants and their descendants. Interviewees ranged from fourteen to ninety-nine years old, language swayed between English, Gaelic and Spanish, themes emerged organically, and none of the interviewees were experts of Irish history or had particularly sensational stories to tell. They were simply willing to sit down with a cup of tea and talk for a while, mulling over the past, recalling memories, suggesting paths not taken and stories not told. Listening back on the recordings always revealed something new and unique about an immigrant ‘s experience, defying other historians’ neat and all encompassing summary of the general fate of the Irish.

Crucially, the seventy interviews recorded to date do not focus on the first generation of Irish migrants but rather provide an exclusive space for the voices of the second, third, fourth and sometimes fifth generation to be recorded in the annals of Irish history. Until now, consecutive studies have treated as obsolete the diasporic link between Ireland and America after the 1920s, under the hiberno assumption that once contact was lost with the idealized homeland the history becomes insignificant. Irish descendants in America were presumably too foreign, too far away and too assimilated to warrant attention, an attitude that reflects Irish society’s tendency to icily reject the emigrants and their families who show signs of psychologically adapting to their new host environments.

So, do you have a story? Are you willing to sit down and chat about yourself, your ambivalence or affection for your Irish heritage, and the memories that may or may not have been handed down to you from your Irish forefathers? Do you want to rant and rave against the hypocrisies of contemporary Ireland, or Irish-America, or even just America? Can you reveal something that will diversify the story of the Irish in Colorado, and would you be willing to contribute to a biography of the present-day Irish community in Colorado? I await your response.

Dr. Sarah O Brien is an oral historian and author of six publication series on Irish migrant identity in contemporary Britain and South America. Her research has been acknowledged with a scholarship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and has been presented at twenty-five international conferences across Europe and South America. She has lectured on oral history theory in University of Limerick and Buenos Aires, and recently relocated to Denver, to begin comparative research on the Irish Dimension in the Western United States. She can be contacted at saromontevideo@gmail.com.

© 2015 Celtic Connection Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha