Part of the study abroad experience involves getting different cultural perspectives on important issues. I’m taking an American Literature class at the University of Limerick, and a recent discussion on the Mixed Race Initiative has got me thinking about the way the Irish view the issue of diversity.
The Irish generally view themselves as a very homogeneous group. My American Lit lecturer stated this view outright and many of my Irish classmates expressed similar opinions. Even my Linguistics lecturer suggested that Ireland is pretty homogeneous, both racially and socio-economically, and is constantly turning to American for examples of linguistic diversity to discuss in class. There are many historical and geographical reasons why this might be true. First of all, Ireland is an island; this leads it to be somewhat more isolated and self-contained. In addition, Ireland historically has not been a particularly popular destination for immigrants, for a variety of political and socio-economic reasons. (Although, it has been pretty popular among a variety of colonizers over the centuries.)
To an extent, it is true that Ireland is currently a more homogeneous country, especially from an American perspective. The differences between America and Ireland in this area really sank into me during an exercise with my American Lit tutorial group. To introduce us to our discussion on mixed race literature, our instructor asked us to consider the ways we might consider ourselves mixed. Our instructor first gave the example of how she was half-Irish and half-American. One of her parents was from a family that had been living in America for centuries, and the other had been fresh off the boat from Ireland. I raised my hand to say that my father is from Irish descent and my mother is from Eastern European Jewish descent. I also brought up that even my father’s two parents were from totally different parts of Ireland. After I spoke, there was a lull in the class and no one else seemed to want to speak up about the ways they are mixed. After a few minutes, one student said, “Well, my parents are from opposite sides of Limerick.” At least three or four other students seconded this sentiment. It astounded me that in a class of about twenty students, hardly any of them had a heritage that crossed county lines.
However, Ireland is not entirely homogeneous. Times are changing, and Ireland is growing in diversity. There are communities of immigrants already living in Ireland. I saw groups representing the Polish and the Filipino communities of Limerick marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Irish youth are increasing their interaction with people from foreign countries. Studying abroad is particularly popular. Many Irish students study abroad, and over 10% of the University of Limerick’s student body is made up of international students. The Irish have a history of immigrating to foreign countries, which continues to this day. In the past, many Irish came to America. Today, the most popular destinations include Canada and Australia. Thanks to modern technology, however, it is much easier to keep in touch with family members abroad and to travel back and forth between countries than it was when the Irish first came to America. In this way, the Irish are increasingly coming in contact with areas of greater diversity.
I predict that within the next generation, Ireland will grow significantly in its ethnic and cultural diversity. I think it’s great that they are getting a head start now in talking about the complicated issues of race and identity.
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