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Wednesday 5.11.05: Romance of the Exile

Anyone paying attention here over the past year or so will notice that I keep returning to the theme of the expatriate. Immigration is part of our national history, of course, but for me it is also a powerful metaphor for how it feels to leave a job of 24 years. After a couple of decades in the same office, your workplace becomes your nation. You are a citizen of its predictable culture. Leaving, while all of your friends are still there, feels like exile, no matter how wise or courageous the move. No matter how happy you are sipping coffee in the sidewalk cafe of your new life, you still eagerly look for news from "home."

Last night I started reading "Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America" by Kerby A. Miller. In the introduction Miller states that, in general, the Irish immigrant was fixated on the idea of being an unwilling exile, driven from the beloved homeland by the policies of the wicked English.

Miller argues that the facts are different from the romantic image. Of the seven million Irish who emigrated only a tiny proportion were compelled to leave by the 1840's policy-driven famine. Most came between 1856 and 1921 -- a voluntary act to better themselves.

Although the undeniable difficulties the Irish encountered in North America might prompt and nurture the piteous content of the exile self-image, the concept itself reflected not the concrete realities of most emigrants' experiences but a distinctive Irish Catholic worldview rooted deeply in Irish history and culture. The origins of both worldview and exile image long preceded the English conquest of Ireland and the mass migrations of modern times. Subsequent historical circumstances of rebellion and defeat, despoliation and impoverishment, served to ratify and magnify aspects of preconquest Irish culture which made the exile motif seem more poignant and appropriate...

This strikes me as funny. Here I am, "discovering" the exile metaphor for myself when I may be re-enacting my own cultural history. Like my ancestors before me, maybe I have the gift of romanticizing myself to get me where I want to go (or to justify where I am).