Committee members Prof Michael Griffin, Ursula McGoey, Joe Farrell, Tom Seery, Arthur Conlon (Chairman) Seamus McCormack (President) pictured with Polish Ambassador to Ireland, Anna Sochańska, and friends Maja Romanowska (7) and Eoin Farrell (9).

Goldsmith’s emigration story recalled at festival

“We should be conscious of the vulnerability of those in limbo for we, as a people, have seen enough of it,” historian Professor Diarmaid Ferriter told the 39th annual Goldsmith Festival over the June Bank Holiday weekend.

In a wide-ranging keynote address, titled 'There are People Dreaming: Emigration and Modern Irish History', the esteemed UCD academic of Modern Irish History clinically analyzed this year’s festival theme on 'Irish migration' to a large and lively audience at The Rustic Inn, Abbeyshrule, on opening night.

The acclaimed author and Irish Times columnist also suggested that Ireland’s complex history with migration raises important questions about the expediency of social change and political transformation within the country and provides key context for dealing with current immigration issues.

Prefacing his argument, Professor Ferriter said that between the year 1700 and today a staggering 10 million people have left this small island, almost twice the population of the Republic of Ireland in 2023.

“That 10 million also exceeds the Irish population at its historic peak of over eight million before an Gorta Mór [The Great Famine],” he said.

With America and Britain, the main destinations for “relentless” waves of Irish emigrants throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Prof Ferriter said “the narrative” behind these departures was a mixture of “exile, banishment, quest for opportunity, and self-improvement”.

“There were a variety of reasons why people left and there were those that had no option. The experiences were multilayered and complex but what doesn't change is the sense of displacement, the sense of dislocation.

“Between 1848 and 1900, $260 million was sent home to Ireland from the United States, one Donegal set of parents were quoted as saying ‘with the £20 that was sent home, we were able to pay our debts and raise our heads’.

“There was also a reluctance to take in refugees. We know from the archives within the Irish Government there was a fear that up to 100,000 Irish men and women would be, in the words of the Department of the Taoiseach, ‘dumped home’ after the Second World War not being necessary for the British wartime economy anymore.

“No doubt many of them, this memorandum went on, ‘would have embodied a good deal of leftism’ and it's a reminder of another kind of safety valve.

“What if all those young Irish men and women had had to remain in Ireland during that period. Would it have been a very different country? Would it have led to more protests? To more demands for social change? Did it add to the conservativeness of Irish society as a result of those kind of exoduses?”

The professor said the old-age theme of dislocation reverberates in the emigration story of Longford-born, Westmeath-raised, novelist, playwright and poet Oliver Goldsmith who took the boat for London in 1756.

“London, by then, was cosmopolitan, a teeming metropolis. Yet Goldsmith wrote to his brother-in-law referring to how vulnerable he felt as an Irishman in London at that time.

“He said that he was ‘without friends, without recommendations, without money, without impudence’ and where appearing Irish is ‘sufficient to make me unemployable’.

“But there was grit there too, he was resolved not to have recourse in his own words to ‘suicide’s halter’. He was determined to try and resist the feelings of depression.

“David O’Shaughnessy, one of the editors of a collection of Goldsmith’s letters, has highlighted the anecdotal evidence that Goldsmith during his time there was also very kind to those who had newly arrived from Ireland.

“This shy immigrant from the Irish midlands who ended up buried in the heart of London’s inner temple was conscious of his Irish heritage all along.

“The themes that he addresses in The Deserted Village, the sense of exile, the loss of that vital connection to the land. Ireland remained very much a part of him.”

Though 65-70 million people worldwide claim Irish descent today, including some 40 million Americans and 40% of African Americans, the professor also pinpointed “the great role reversal” when Ireland became a host population at the turn of the 21st century.

“By 2002 10% of those living in the Republic were non-Irish. I still remember in 2008 there were 20,000 Polish people who were registered to vote in Ireland for their domestic elections back home.

“It was a reminder of how Ireland was changing but it also posed another question for me. If Irish emigrants had been able to vote in New York or Coventry or Birmingham or Boston in the 1950s would that have had a transformative effect on our politics at home?

“There was in 2002 an all-party anti-racism protocol when it came to the general election of that year, a recognition that there was potential for complication when it came to this question of multiculturalism and racism. We have more reminders of that in recent times.

“There was a national consultative committee on racism and multiculturalism that was one of the victims of the crash not so long ago, we need it back.

“We need to think about these questions. How long can we rely on this weakness of the far right, the opportunities to manipulate the situation.

“By 2011 there were 544,257 non-Irish nationals from 199 different countries living in Ireland.

“The recent Census shows over 12% of the population now from those different nations.

“The ESRI also identified in 2013 a sharp rise in opposition to immigration and again that was linked to the change of economic fortunes.

“We should be conscious of the vulnerability of those in limbo. We must understand, for we as a people, have seen enough of it.

“Always I would suggest consider the plight of those who are vulnerable and in limbo, of those who are, in the words of Goldsmith, without friends, without recommendations, without money, without impudence – a reminder of why the words of Goldsmith as they were written in the 1750s, still resonate today when it comes to this complex question of migration.”

Arthur Conlon, Goldsmith Festival chairman described the three-day event as “a tremendous success” exemplified he said “by the huge crowds in attendance”.

“We set out to examine a very important issue through our theme and we feel that it was very well developed in the contributions of all our speakers, musicians, and performers over the weekend. It has really set us up for our 40th festival next year.

“Once again I would like to commend the local authorities for their continued support of our event.”