Condotta Lee on Nititham and Boyd, 'Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture: Movements in Irish Landscapes'

Diane Sabenacio Nititham, Rebecca Boyd, eds. Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture: Movements in Irish Landscapes. Studies in Migration and Diaspora Series. Burlinton: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014. Illustrations. 260 pp. $114.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4724-2510-2; $114.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4724-2509-6.

Reviewed by Kristin Condotta Lee (Tulane University)
Published on H-Material-Culture (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Marieke Hendriksen

Irish studies remain heavily shaped by expectation. Since the publication of Oscar Handlin’s aptly named The Uprooted (1951), scholars have described the experiences of Irish migrants as characterized first by dislocation and second by communal attempts to reunite around common traits, notably, Catholicism and nationalist sentiment. The paradigm continues to abound. Attend any conference panel in the field and you will still find audiences attached to this traditional narrative. Complexity, it seems, has been slow to permeate perceptions of the Irish diaspora.

Complication, however, is the exact goal of the eleven interdisciplinary essays in Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture: Movements in Irish Landscapes, edited by Diane Sabenacio Nititham and Rebecca Boyd. The text is part of Ashgate Publishing’s Studies in Migration and Diaspora series. Nititham, Boyd, and their contributors particularly aim to move discussions of island mobility beyond dominant, time-specific narratives of “coffin ships … mail boats … and the Ryanair effect,” or post-1845 and World War II emigration and non-European immigration during the Celtic Tiger (p. 1). They do so through intimate case studies of cultural expressions in so-deemed Irish landscapes, either located in Ireland or involving Irish ethnic traits. This includes essays on the Irish language and tourism overseas, as well as on artwork, commemoration, globalization, grassroots activism, and health care in Ireland itself. Employing sources as diverse as archaeology, newspapers, performance, and personal interviews, they truly demonstrate the potential, much-needed breadth of the field of Irish migratory studies.

The text is divided into three sections, each of which explores migration via a different cultural medium. Part 1 looks at place, or spaces, invested with individual and communal value. Boyd’s opening essay introduces the concept of hybridity, by examining how early settlers in Viking Dublin infused their households with values that made sense in prior tribal contexts. The next three chapters build on this site-conscious theme, exploring the ways Famine-era traumas linger in current County Mayo politics, the ways some Newfoundlanders have supplanted their mixed Anglophone past with a tourist-aimed Irish heritage, and the difficulties asylum seekers have in finding their own integrative sites in Ireland.

Part 2 moves readers to the realm of memory. With his study of skilled Michigan miners, William H. Mulligan Jr. largely debunks the scholastic myth that all circa 1845 immigrants to the United State were uneducated. Laura McAtackney, Krysta Ryzewski, and John F. Cherry, meanwhile, highlight Caribbean Montserrat’s contested path toward globally familiar St. Patrick’s Day festivities and away from memorializing an island slave revolt (against Irish slaveholders) on that same day. Finally, Kate Antosik-Parsons’s exposé of Jaki Irvine’s 2003 art installment, The Silver Bridge, recreates the difficulties of Irish return migrants, whose search for a familiar home are complicated by their present liminality.

Part 3 concludes with four reflections on globalization and worldwide markets. The first two essays, on the Irish language in Canada and the Orange Order in New Zealand, point to the transferability of certain social and cultural organizations overseas, along with their benefit for Irish migrants. The latter two essays, on Filipino foodways and female refugees’ access to health-care options in Ireland, in contrast, highlight the possible challenges when such continuities disappear, or globalization fails. Tanya Sorj Bakhru mourns that the consumerization of choice has largely left reproductive decisions out of reach of resource-strapped asylum seekers. Nititham, conversely, argues that “shared landscapes of dislocation” themselves can and have become meeting grounds for new immigrants (p. 215). Her interviewed Filipina settlers find community not only in common flavor palates but also in shared stories of long trips to the few Oriental groceries and restaurants found in Ireland.

Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture accomplishes its aim of scholarly diversification via its inclusive definition of “Irishness,” employed by authors to denote not only Irish natives and their descendants but also persons in Ireland who identify with or whose experiences mirror Irish migratory narratives. I particularly was struck by the term’s potential reach in the chapter of Filipino immigrants, some of whom self-identified as “Irish” in a recent census, noting “citizenship is where one lives and participates” (p. 201). At the same time, and with the many proposed reviews and revisions of this text, I wonder at what point the concept of a cultural “Irishness” itself might be questioned. As a historian of Irish migration to early America, I have come across many instances in my research where Irish-born men and women chose not to worship, marry, work, or even simply socialize with each other, even when it was easily possible. In the specific context of these collected essays, this inspires a number of questions. Where is the boundary of “Irishness”? When are scholars in danger of assigning the identity to past and present persons who might not have assigned it to themselves? Was, for example, the choice of migrants not to maintain the Irish language post-relocation always a need-based, practical one? How flexible were Irishmen and women abroad with certain aspects of their individual and communal identities? Is assimilation alone too simple (or external) of a reasoning for such potent, personal choices?

The text, in general, could have done more to clarify its conceptual framing. Its authors wield many hefty terms—identity, landscape, diaspora, neoliberalism, globalization—whose meanings are not always clear. The editors might have offered some general guidance on these ideas in their introduction, especially given the diverse disciplines (and discipline-specific references) of their contributors. This said, I do appreciate the reader-active nature of the overall text. It can seem a bit disorienting to jump between chapters on Viking-era Dublin; the Caribbean; Canada; the United States; and modern-day Irish environment, health, and foreign policy. I think this shake-up, however, is exactly what the field needs and what the editors are seeking. I expect it also would inspire some very enlightening discussions in upper-level undergraduate and graduate-student seminars.

Nititham and Boyd’s text does much to push the boundaries of Irish migratory studies. Material culture scholars will be impressed by its array of approaches, but it primarily—as is the case with most essay collections—offers only a small taste of research that can be pursued in contributors’ individual works. The goals of Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture ultimately are methodological, and, in challenging its readers to rethink a standard narrative, it is a success.

Printable Version:

Citation: Kristin Condotta Lee. Review of Nititham, Diane Sabenacio; Boyd, Rebecca, eds., Heritage, Diaspora and the Consumption of Culture: Movements in Irish Landscapes. H-Material-Culture, H-Net Reviews. October, 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.