Case study

Award-winning research gives a voice to Irish diasporas

Researchers have delivered important new perspectives on the historical relationship – and interdependency – between the Irish and British by capturing a wide range of Irish diasporic experiences.

Research at the University of Derby has given a voice to Irish diasporic communities through award-winning creative projects including broadcasts, films, exhibitions, publications, oral history and public readings.

Drs Daithí McMahon and Moy McCrory, specialists in creative writing and media research, have rediscovered half-forgotten stories and brought the experiences of first- and second-generation immigrants spanning the past 120 years to a broader public audience.

Their work sheds fresh light on Irish emigration that was driven by economic hardship at home and the lure of work opportunities in post-war Britain. It chronicles how chain migration and established host communities in Britain have provided a setting for emigrants to establish new roots while maintaining connections to their Irish heritage.

It also addresses themes that have not been investigated before, such as how Irish expatriates connect and re-affirm their identity via Facebook and the social attitudes towards mourning and female public expressions of grief in diasporic communities.

Dr McMahon challenged common perceptions of Irish immigrants with his critically acclaimed radio drama, William Melville: Eve of War. The programme spotlighted the career of Melville (1850-1918), an Irish immigrant who became the first chief of the British Secret Service Bureau but whose achievements had largely gone unrecognised. Commissioned and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, it was broadcast by Radio Kerry and reached an audience of around 33,000 listeners per broadcast.

It became one of the most celebrated radio productions internationally in 2016, winning Silver for best writing at the prestigious New York Festivals International Radio Programme Awards and being nominated among 231 qualifying entries from 35 countries in the Prix Europa broadcasting festival. Both entailed peer adjudication by radio industry leaders and the programme was applauded for its historical accuracy based on high-quality research.

Dr McMahon extended his research by capturing the personal experiences of first-generation Irish emigrants in Our Story, a four-minute film unveiled at Derby’s FORMAT international photography festival. He went on to produce a 26-minute version which was shared online as part of the To Be Irish festival. Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs praised the project as a new way of connecting with the increasingly diverse global Irish, including non-traditional diasporas and young emigrants.

Dr McCrory’s research, meanwhile, has explored how Britain’s second-generation Irish community has often been rendered invisible, excluded and silenced. Her focus is on the ways in which this community uses its creativity to maintain connections with home, especially through narratives that blend fact and fiction as a compelling way of conveying experience and shaping identity.

She co-edited the ground-breaking anthology of fiction, poetry and essays – I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The Second Generation Irish in Britain – which was the first to showcase the experiences of second-generation Irish writers. The Irish Literary Society hailed the publication as “vital” in demonstrating how diaspora narratives inform a sense of identity while the Irish Times review described Dr McCrory’s own chapter within the anthology as “excellent”. Live public readings and launch events in various cities brought I Wouldn’t Start From Here to the attention of the wider public: a live streamed launch at Derby’s QUAD arts centre attracted an 80-strong audience.

Overall, the University of Derby’s research has played its part in fostering greater respect, understanding and appreciation for the rich and diverse multicultural and multi-ethnic make-up of UK society today.

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