Ireland day 0097. Monday 03 January 2022- EPIC
It’s often said that some seventy million people of Irish descent live outside Ireland (Val being one of them, up until we moved here). I’m not sure how you exactly could determine this, because if you go back far enough I am sure that you could probably also declare with some certainty that every human being on earth could claim African ancestry. But it is generally agreed that Irish descendants – or diaspora – constitute the largest such expatriate group of any nation, and is some fifteen times greater than today’s population of the whole of the island of Ireland.
When faced with numbers of such magnitude, a number of questions immediately spring into your mind. Like – why did so many people leave Ireland? Where did they go? And what did they do when they got there?
Luckily, there’s a wonderful new exhibition centre – EPIC – in central Dublin which sets out the answers to some of these conundrums. We had decided to make it our destination for today’s Irish explorations, so after a swift journey into town on the train, we arrived to begin our visit late this morning.
It’s a modern, eye catching exhibition located in a converted warehouse on the banks of the Liffey. (The building itself, known as CHQ Stack A, has a history to tell – it was designed by the same John Rennie that planned the harbour at Dun Laoghaire and was constructed in 1826 entirely out of metal and brick, so it was fireproof – important because it was used as a tobacco warehouse). EPIC doesn’t really stand for anything, though it’s often thought of as an acronym for “Every Person Is Connected”.
The exhibition explains the various reasons that drove the multiple mass emigrations from Ireland. Of these, the Potato Famine in the 1840s is perhaps the best known – out of a population of about eight million in Ireland (modern day North + South), about a million died and a million emigrated. Emigration was often seen as the only way of avoiding starvation. But there had been other famines – for example that in 1741-42 as we discovered yesterday on the top of Killiney Hill, which also led to emigration. But famine wasn’t the only cause. The lack of job prospects at home, the persecution of Catholicism, the oppression of civil liberties and the transportation of convicts were all contributing factors too. In fact more people left Ireland in the years after the potato famine had ended than did in the famine years themselves.
In total some ten million people have emigrated from Ireland since 1800, and even today the population of the island is barely back to where it was before the potato famine. It turns out that the poorer emigrants mostly went to Great Britain, but those with slightly more money went further afield – most to the United States and Canada, but significant numbers also went to South America (mostly Argentina), Australia and New Zealand. There is also an Irish diaspora in Barbados, of all places. This particular one results from emigration in the 1600s forced by Cromwell on Presbyterians and others that he took a dislike to. They were shipped off as indentured servants – essentially what we would call slaves today. The Barbadian singer Rihanna can trace her ancestry back to Ireland through this route.
The final question that EPIC addresses is the fate of all these expatriates. Some quickly found fortune and success, but for the vast majority life was almost as hard in their new lands as it had been at home. It often took many years and even generations to settle, and even today plenty of Irish descendants still identify themselves as Irish. A number have gone on to great things – twenty three US presidents can claim Irish heritage, including John F Kennedy and Barack Obama. Indeed Kennedy himself said “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people” when he visited Ireland in 1963.
So you leave the centre is a slightly more thoughtful mood than you went in. But as I left I found myself reflecting that although emigration was often forced on the Irish in the most dire of circumstances, at least there was new land aplenty which would welcome them. Now the planet is seemingly full, there are no such open arms waiting to receive the millions of refugees from the world’s war-torn and famine struck regions today, putting them in an even more deadly and tragic position than the Irish who forged the emigration escape route before them.
Well, with that historical upload completed, we retired for lunch then headed off to find an outdoor sports shop to but some gloves, as both Val and I have managed to lose pairs recently. I am pleased to report that suitable garments were procured and even more pleased to report that I was awarded a 10% discount when I flashed my Dublin Walking Club membership card. That will do nicely, thank you.
Today’s photos (click to enlarge)