8 Ways Global Irish Studies Can Change the World

2 Oct 2013

‘Though leaves are many the root is one’ 

W.B. Yeats

The Global Irish Studies Centre UNSW cultivates an outward-looking, inter-disciplinary and collaborative study of Ireland and the Irish diaspora. It is based in Sydney, Australia, the ‘most Irish country outside of Ireland’.

Why study and teach Irish Studies?

1. Making the Irish Visible

Even as Irish culture is globally ‘branded’ in a world that goes green on St Patrick’s Day, the complex contributions of the global Irish needs to be studied and understood. This is especially so in multicultural Australia, where the specific Irish contribution to building the nation can be submerged in a unified ‘Anglo-Celtic’ strand. Australia needs to understand its Irish past and present. Not least for it to confront its current challenges of immigration and multiculturalism.

2. Enhancing Peace and Reconciliation

The Irish ‘peace process’ is founded on respect and recognition for the traditions and identities of all those living in Ireland, north and south. Respect is based on understanding, of the past and present. Irish studies has played a vital role in ensuring that Ireland continues to enjoy peace and reconciliation. It challenges stereotypes about ‘other’ groups and simplistic myths about history. Our work, such as that by our post-doctoral researcher Gemma Clark on the Irish Civil War, enriches our understanding of the past, including the struggle for independence, and contributes towards an understanding of Ireland that is capacious and inclusive.

3. Irish Literature and Culture

For a small country Ireland has produced a wealth of literary giants, including four Nobel prize winners in literature. The Global Irish Studies Centre puts this astonishing achievement at the heart of our teaching and research, in my own research on modern Irish literature and with two PhD students writing theses on Joyce and Beckett. The Irish literary revival and Irish modernism made a huge contribution to world culture and is an essential part of ‘Global Irishness’, as is the ongoing creativity of Irish writers, musicians and artists around the world.

4. Enhancing Diasporic Connections

The Irish economic crash has led Irish politicians and business leaders to organize forums and ‘gatherings’ in which the Irish state engages with those of Irish heritage living abroad. To give these networks depth and substance, cultural, social, historical and political understanding between Ireland and its diaspora must be cultivated. Irish studies needs to be fostered in countries like Australia, so long a major emigrant destination for Irish people, for Ireland to succeed in deploying its diaspora to aid in its current difficulties.

5. Community and Cultural Encounter

Finding ways for deeply diverse cultures and communities to live together peacefully is one of the key challenges of our times. The Irish diaspora has experienced multiculturalism for hundreds of years. Our research initiatives, such as our Irish government sponsored initiative on Irish-Aboriginal Encounters, shows us how cultures and peoples interacted in the past. This helps us form new conceptions of social and political community today.

6. Understanding the Past to Build the Future

You can’t change the world without understanding the past. Through researching and teaching the history of the Irish in Ireland, in Australia and around the world, Global Irish Studies allows us to face the challenges and opportunities facing the global Irish today. Irish emigration has surged recently due to the economic crash in Ireland. Understanding the effects of this in Ireland and abroad means looking back to the long history of Irish migration, and how it affected home and host nations.

7. Irish Cultural Experience for Global Comparison

Ireland occupies a unique and instructive position. On the one hand, it was the first British colony to decolonize, with all that goes with that in cultural and social terms. On the other hand, there were many Irish people involved in the legal and military institutions of imperialism. It is a country of heightened advanced technology and modernity today, which never experienced an industrial revolution. It is one of the world’s great diasporic nations, but is also English speaking. This ‘in-between’ quality to the Irish experience, and the global reach of the diaspora, means that Ireland can be a cipher or a conduit between cultures. The Irish experience is abidingly relevant and instructive for a world that often experiences tensions and conflicts in negotiating the different perspective of modernity and tradition, of developed and developing worlds.

8. Passing the Baton

Academics are, amongst much else, custodians of culture. Through researching and teaching Irish studies, and organizing public events to promote it, we pass the baton to a new generation of students who might otherwise remain unaware of the Irish contribution to Australia and the world. Irish studies changes the world, but sometimes the best way to change things is to preserve the memory of what was!