In this article I present an overview of the key United States based findings of an independent research project, co-authored by me with Prof. Liam Kennedy and Dr. Madeleine Lyes at the UCD Clinton Institute, entitled Supporting the Next Generation of the Irish Diaspora.
Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) funding from the Irish government to the United States has been consistently strong, marking that the Irish in America have a deep, rich heritage.
There is an old adage in diaspora engagement that the most powerful tool in engaging diaspora effectively is your ability to listen to them.
During my research trip to the United States, I had the pleasure of meeting many individuals and organisations – both professional and voluntary – who work at the interface with the Irish in the region and who deserve recognition. In the spirit of listening to the diaspora, one quote stuck with me from my trip which reads:
“I think when I hear the word diaspora, I don’t think it includes a lot of the people we deal with…..because when you talk about diaspora, people do not think you mean the vulnerable, that they are separate.”
This strikes at the core of future issues facing organisations engaging those marginalised in the United States. Support for the undocumented, building greater capacity and visibility to tackle associated issues pertaining to health (mental and physical), substance abuse, and lack of return are intrinsic to the future cycles of effective engagement in the region through ESP facilitation.
Other established and emerging hallmarks of Irish vulnerability in the region such as a growing number of elderly Irish, employment rights, and isolation will continue to require close attention and support.
Whilst there are changing needs within the above topics which need to mapped and monitored by those most closely impacted by such – the vulnerable and the organisations helping them – there were also some interesting trends emerging within the research project.
Given the scale of the diaspora in the United States, it is clear that the multiple communities who consider themselves Irish – born, ancestral, or affinity – cut across the spectrum of American society. It is important to note that whilst programmes such as the ESP should continue to support those most marginalised as the core of their work, indices of support are also changing.
For example, as tighter immigration controls emerged recently in the United States, those arriving tend to be young, professional, and well networked. However, this should not lead to the assumption that this sector of the community does not suffer vulnerabilities. Issues such as isolation, a heightening tendency to overstay, and rising housing costs are fast emerging.
Again, it is important to provide enough access points for the community to continuously map these issues and greater capacity is afforded through social media and emerging networks to do so. To the point above, a multi-tiered approach to vulnerability and support is important in the times ahead for the Irish in the United States.
Whilst a summary of some of the issues is useful, it is also important to offer some preliminary thoughts on future trends of engagement from the research. Firstly, the nature of the role of government in this endeavour is highly debated. Government facilitation is well established as the optimal mode of engagement and the strong communal/organisational infrastructure in the United States – particularly through networks such as the GAA – is well suited to this approach.
The level of experience and expertise I encountered during the research was impressive – more could and should be done to acknowledge this and can be a key lesson for other diaspora engagement actors in other locales such as Canada and Australia.
There are also opportunities to enhance greater collaboration between organisations in the region to harmonise their efforts – some preliminary work has been done in this regard and deserves note. This building within and across organisations in the U.S. could be a powerful tool in narrowing likelihoods of new vulnerabilities and identifying new forms of approach.
The changing ways in which diaspora communities communicate and, indeed, government communicates with diaspora has fundamentally changed. Diaspora media is not a new phenomenon but platforms through social media and the work of platforms like Irish Central can be new drivers in effectively preparing emigrants for the realities of the journey ahead. Diaspora engagement is now high tech and high touch.
Expectations of the relationships between Ireland and the Irish in America are too many to cover here yet I offer three closing thoughts. In the last census information available on those who claim a sense of Irishness, the largest singular age breakdown was 5 – 17.
There is potential there to shape another important chapter in the U.S. – Irish relationship (which should not be taken for granted) and exploratory work in areas such as Diaspora education and cultural exchange may be a useful roadmap for the future.