Does “Diaspora” Mean Anything?

“So, what are you?”

What a typical question for Americans to ask one another.

What are you?

In retrospect it seems kind of… weird.  What are you?  That could mean really anything.

I’m a size 43 shoe European.  I’m a homo sapien.  I’m something.  I’m nothing. (Let’s get existential.)  Realistically you can answer that question with “I am…” and any number of nouns or adjectives and still make sense.  When Americans ask other Americans this question, they’re most likely asking about what somebody’s ethnic heritage and identity is.

Let’s try this again then: what are you?

I’m Irish and Polish.

That makes some sense, but in Europe it makes no sense for me to respond like that.  I’m American (or more specifically US-American, which I have come to discover is the politically

“Céad Míle Fáilte” means “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes” in Irish and is a well-known Irish-language phrase, which makes as much sense in Ireland as it does in the US.
“Céad Míle Fáilte” means “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes” in Irish and is a well-known Irish-language phrase, which makes as much sense in Ireland as it does in the US.

correct term in Europe) and it doesn’t matter that although for the majority of my life I’ve believed I was Irish and Polish that is apparently only true in the US, because I’m Irish- and Polish-American.  Living in the US just means, I don’t need to acknowledge the American part of that.  It’s assumed.

This whole system of identification in the US is unique in that it is assumed that we’re all American, but we’re all still something else.  We’re Irish-, Polish-, Mexican-, Chinese-, Indian-American and so on.  Americans are a menagerie; we all belong to another culture in addition to American culture.  America is unique in how so many Diaspora populations seem to meet here and only here.

The Irish-Diaspora is incredibly large.  Some statistics put the number at over 100 million people worldwide with Irish descent; others put that number at around 80 million worldwide with the large populations in places like the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand as well as South Africa, Argentina, and even Mexico.  The Irish government only recognizes about 3 million people officially as being a part of the Irish Diaspora however, but it does recognize a “special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad…” in Article 2 of the 1998 amended constitution.

Regardless the influence of the Irish is felt globally.  Saint Patrick’s Day is when everybody is Irish and celebrations occur in places as disperse as Dublin, Sydney, Tokyo, and just about every American city including Chicago where the river is famously died a shade of kelly green.  Irish pubs are just about everywhere I’ve travelled in Europe.  At one end this is all good and fun.  It’s also very endearing to see how beloved Irish culture is around the world.  What does it mean though when you actually are a part of the Irish Diaspora?

My knowledge of my family’s history isn’t as pristine as my mom’s knowledge, but I do generally know where my family came from in Ireland and when they came to the United States. I know the general history of Ireland, and have a general cultural awareness of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, we still have Irish family and friends too, but all that seems at a certain level superficial.  I wonder where the meaning of being part of a Diaspora comes from.  Is it granted by those still living in the homeland or is it something that is created by and comes from those living in the Diaspora itself?

I tried to get some sense of this when I was in Ireland in March.  It was my second trip there (the first was when I was 10).  I visited Dublin and did a tour of Counties Cork, Kerry, and Galway as well as attended a wedding in Co. Meath.  My sister and I saw family and friends and when I was on my own I managed to get to know some new people who are Irish as well.  At no point did I ever feel unwelcome.  I always was welcomed warm-heartedly and treated not as an outsider, but as if I was family member or friend who wasn’t just passing through.

At the welcome sign to Castlegregory, Ireland.
At the welcome sign to Castlegregory, Ireland.

I also had an opportunity to visit the village of Castlegregory.  In the late 19th century a woman named Mary Agnes Fitzgerald left this town for Chicago.  She was my great-great-grandmother.  She married John Morrissey, the parents of my great-grandfather Edward, the father of my Grandma.  Her maiden name is my middle name: “Morrissey”. This was the first time I’ve visited an ancestral hometown any family.  It was touching. The view from Castlegregory at the northeast end of the Dingle Peninsula was gorgeous. I can only imagine that over a century ago it was just as beautiful for her.

It helped me make sense of where my place is in history.  As an Irish-American tourist I came to Dingle to share in the natural beauty the peninsula offers. My family, like so many other families, left for the opportunities in the USA.  Now we come full circle.  My sister is studying in Ireland and I’m studying in Germany because of the sacrifices of people like Mary-Agnes Fitzgerald.  They left family and friends, country and home to embark on a journey that was not only a way for them to find opportunity to prosper, but a way for their family and ancestors to find opportunity and prosper.

I can come back to Europe in part because of that.  I can only be thankful that they did what I struggle to do for even a year.  It is a special experience for me and I know I’ll be back to Ireland as well as Poland at some point too. It is true that I am not Irish or Polish, but I am certainly Irish- and Polish-American.  Even if our native compatriots see us as merely Americans, I do think it is important for people in a Diaspora to reconnect with their heritage.  It gives us an identity and a sense of place in this world, especially for Americans, who come from everywhere.  Perhaps the Diaspora means nothing for the people in the homeland, but it means a connection to something, a history, a unique place for those who no longer live in the homeland.

I also think it gives us a sense of culture and provides Americans and other people in melting pot countries as way to stand out and build unique communities. Plus the deepest roots of what we are exist in places far away, which we need to discover and explore. We feel affection for these places before we even know them.

That’s the feeling I get from being part of a Diaspora.  And I guess it doesn’t matter who grants that feeling.  It almost seems inherent.

It’s cliché, but it gives meaning to the almost everybody has probably heard:


May the road rise to meet you,

May the wind always be at your back,

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields and,

Until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

I met Ireland again and I’m sure I’ll meet Ireland again.  I’ve had winds at my back, and sun shine warm upon my face, and with the life I’ve had, God has certainly held me in His hand with Irish blessings in my heart.