Migration in Irish literature: “Irishness”, second-generation and “in-betweenness”

Migration is a leading theme in Irish literature. The aim here is to review how Irish writers - born in Ireland or descendant from an Irish family - represent this phenomenon in their fictional writings. In particular, how the second-generation, the children of those who left, define their “Irishness” (their feeling of being Irish). Jane Urqhuat’s Away will be taken as an example to illustrate those points.

Migration and identity

Despite the difficulties related to the migration in itself - leaving their home country, the long journey aboard those infamous coffin ships, the uncertainties about their country of adoption - Irish migrants have to integrate a new social life. Within a new country, they have to find their place, by becoming a new person, who fits in, who will participate in the construction of their new nation. In order to do so, many migrants change their names, the essence of their identity, in order to sound less Celtic. It is a necessity for the inclusion, but it is also dangerous, as “it condemns [them] to be always something of a migrant, in search of a home that does not exist” (Sugars in Mullen, 2006). [1]

Despite different reasons for departure, different hopes regarding the future, every migrant has to build a new life in a new country, and thus build a new identity, between one’s past heritage and one’s future projects.

Coffin Ship. Irish National Famine Monument. Sculpture by John Behan
Coffin Ship. Irish National Famine Monument. Sculpture by John Behan
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Migration and Literature

As we could see through history, the Irish people needed to tell their stories as they emigrated themselves from their motherland. As Michael Coffey (2020) [2] notices, “writing in Ireland is predominantly about asserting and denying and redefining identity – even inventing it”. Although mainly present in an oral tradition, Irish writers had written down stories, sharing a common past through individual or family narratives. They contributed to redefine Irish identity through migration: more than a land, it is a spirit. Literature is thus a way to express one’s duty of remembrance.

Hence, some migrants’ children feel the desire to write about Ireland. Thanks to oral heritage, strongly present in Irish tradition, they can create their own imaginary Ireland. This storytelling custom shows well the need to preserve the past, for it would be told from one generation to another. This thread between family members often turns family history into myth, as they “must fill the gaps with their own imagination” (Mullen, 2006). Thereby, it is difficult for second-generation migrants to really be Irish without knowing the motherland properly. Indeed, their very own Irish identity is built after imaginary and previous experiences, from their parents for instance.

Second-generation and “in-betweenness”

Those children, either just raised or born in this new country, must grow up in a whole new ethnic society, with a strong cultural background from their parents and the existing social network. Thus, it would eventually take more time than just a generation, if even possible, to completely assimilate to this new ethnic group, losing one’s heritage. All the more so it is common for migrants with a respectable economic position, especially from the United Kingdom, to come back to Ireland during holidays. Murray (2012) [3] explains how important it is for children’s Irishness, for it is the real part of their Irish background, beside oral stories and imagination. This second-generation, children of those who have left, nourish by all these stories, would eventually take part in the “narrative diaspora space” by becoming writers, and thus build a “collective form of post-memory, a body work which regenerates and refigures events from ‘family mythology’ and the associated cultural discourses and ideologies which pre-date the birth of its authors” (Murray, 2012).

Often, the second-generation of migrants would have to face tensions between attachment and rejection of one’s cultural heritage. A distinction is made between those who stayed attached to their Irish roots - and raised the question of how to be Irish without knowing the motherland – and those who reject them, in order to build a new life, which prove their desire to be seen as “true citizens” of their country of adoption.

Eileen and Liam : embodiment of this duality in Jane Urquhart’s Away

Jane Urquhart's Away (1993)
Jane Urquhart’s Away (1993)
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Eileen and Liam are two characters from the novel Away [4]. Sister and brother, they do not share the same feelings about their Irish heritage, thus, do not define their “Irishness” the same way.

In her thesis, Mullen (2006) notices how strong her parents’ impact is on Eileen. She reminds us:

“Eileen’s dream of the old land is thus fuelled by her father’s passion for Irish stories and songs, and by her mother’s nostalgia longing for a faraway place - a place that, for Eileen, exists as an imaginary construct and that, in fact, she knows very little about.”

Ireland is almost a mythical figure, and it precluded Eileen to invest fully in her Canadian identity.

Eileen is born and raised in Canada, where her parents migrate in the novel. She has an older brother, Liam, who was born in the Irish territory, but crossed the ocean with his parents when he was a child. Nonetheless, Urquhart makes Liam reject entirely his Irish cultural heritage, in order for him to be seen as a true Canadian citizen. He cannot understand his younger sister’s strong interest in their common roots, as he does not want to be assimilated with a migratory people. The past is the past, and he shares his parents’ concern about the economic and social opportunities Canada offers them. Notwithstanding, despite his strong rejection of his Irish heritage, Liam needs to prove his attachment to Canada constantly, by taking part in shaping the country, for he will always be a stranger for other Canadians. Thus, he must legitimize his presence here.

This duality between affection and rejection, embodied by Eileen and Liam, is characteristic of the phenomenon of “in-betweenness” experiences by second-generation migrants. As one is moving from one place to another, the “concepts of land and nation as the sense of identity begins to multiply and diversify” (Barros-Del Rio, 2016) [5]. Liam and Eileen are both Irish and Canadian, but they do not really know who they really are, as they feel they have to choose between the two, without noticing they are both. Their identity is multiple. Unlike Urquhart’s characters, Murray (2012), observes that this duality can sometimes be flexible, during early childhood especially, as “they can actually respond to competing situational demands when such a response is required”. Those children live their multiple identities well, before having personal requests and the need for answers they can find in the past. That is why some second-generation migrants sometimes return to Ireland.


[1Mullen, A. (2006). Myth and Memory : Revisioning the Past in Jane Urquhart’s Away. Mythic migrations: Recreating migrant histories in Canadian fiction. (pp. 178-210). Library and Archives Canada. http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-19663

[2Coffey, M. (2020). Are my Stars from Ireland? Reflections on an Irish American Experience. Estudios Irlandeses, 15, 175–177. https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2020-9400

[3Murray, T. (2012). The second-generation. London Irish fictions: Narrative, diaspora and identity. (pp. 149-186) Liverpool Univ. Press. https://books.google.fr/books?id=pu_bJndFkHsC&printsec=frontcover&hl=fr#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4Urquhart, J. (1993). Away

[5Barros-Del Rio, M. A. (2016). On both sides of the Atlantic: Migration, gender, and society in contemporary Irish literature. Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 6(2), 83. https://doi.org/10.22381/JRGS6220165

Published 5 May 2022
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(Edited 31 August 2022)