The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin city centre has the builders in at the moment and as a result of the ongoing refurbishment, the best, or most well-known, of the Irish-painted works have been thrown together in one room. Each painting has a little placard giving a little information about the artist and the work. And each artist’s birth and death year is shown, as is the place of birth and place of death. What is remarkable is the number of Irish artists who died overseas. Yes, some died in Rome or in France, traditional homes of great art, but most died in London, or Exeter or the Isle of Wight. Or Poughkeepsie in New York state – hardly world-renowned for its artistic attractions. With the intense Irish weather, the brilliant skies and preponderance of rain, you might have expected more of our artists to stay, and even to attract artists from elsewhere. But this one great room in the National Gallery shows us as much about our history of emigration as it does about our art.
Actor, Gabriel Byrne – star of “Bracken” where he was Dinny and Miley’s neighbour, and “The Usual Suspects” – hit the headlines this week for criticising An Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech launching The Gathering 2013, a speech which Gabriel claims rubbed Americans up the wrong way and which he also found hollow in light of his own experiences with the famous Irish Diaspora – emigrants and their descendants. The Gathering 2013 is primarily a tourism drive promoting Ireland to the Diaspora and inviting the Diaspora to visit the country in 2013 where a number of special events will be held, and where there will be individual “gatherings” of those with the same family surname.
What seems to have gotten Gabriel’s goat is the overt commercialisation of The Gathering, the key performance indicator of which will be the hoped-for 325,000 extra tourists and their contribution to the revival of the Irish economy. And as a worker himself in the US, Gabriel has encountered that painful aspect of illegal Irish emigration – the Irish emigrant working illegally in the US, unable to return to Ireland for a funeral, christening or wedding because they would be unable to re-gain admission to the US afterwards. So Gabriel attacked The Gathering 2013 as a “scam” claiming we don’t care about our emigrants except to shake them down for a few quid.
The evidence suggests Gabriel is correct. We have senior members of this Government hoping that emigration will lessen the burden on the social welfare budget and help make the unemployment figures look cosmetically better. We have Minister Noonan dismissing concerns about emigration – 87,000 in the year to April 2012 according to the Central Statistics Office or an average of 240 for each of the 365 days last year – and suggesting it is a lifestyle choice. And maybe for some it is a lifestyle choice, but it seems that lifestyle choices have altered radically since the onset of the financial and property crisis in 2007/8 when only an estimated 45,300 emigrated in the 12 months to April 2008.
Irish has a painful history of emigration.
And do we care about our emigrants? Officially we seem glad to see the back of them. Unless of course the nation’s finances get so dire and the local well of gombeenism runs dry, and then we have to resort to appealing to their patriotism and sense of roots. As long as they bring their cheque-books with them.
Perhaps one day in the future, we might get a leader that will stand outside Dublin airport on St Stephen’s Day and apologise to those taking the planes to London, Boston and Sydney for the failure of this country to provide a space to grow up, be educated, work, have a family and a career and to grow old. And perhaps one day, we might frame a series of events that go beyond the fleecing of a few dollars by those who stayed from those who didn’t.
(Graphics above produced by Japlandic.com, contact here)