A few years ago I had the opportunity of listening to Kingsley Akins give a presentation about the importance of connecting with our diaspora. Diaspora is not a word we use every day, but it is a concept we have intimate knowledge of in Ireland.
A diaspora is a large group of people with a similar heritage or homeland who have since moved out to places all over the world. “The term diaspora comes from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘to scatter about.’ And that's exactly what the people of a diaspora do — they scatter from their homeland to places across the globe, spreading their culture as they go. The Bible refers to the Diaspora of Jews exiled from Israel by the Babylonians. But the word is now also used more generally to describe any large migration of refugees, language, or culture.”
Aikins speaks with considerable authority. He has served as Chairperson of the Ireland Fund. That organisation describes its mission as being “to harness the power of a global philanthropic network of friends of Ireland to promote and support peace, culture, education and community development across the island of Ireland and among Irish communities around the world.” Over the years it has done just that - raising hundreds of millions for community and charitable causes through wealthy Irish diaspora.
As I sat listening to the presentation, all those years ago, a question arose in my mind. How successful has the Protestant community in Ireland been at forming a good relationship with its diaspora? Indeed, is there a diaspora of any size to reconnect with?
Prof Brian Walker’s article (page 7) provides a fascinating insight into the extent of the Church of Ireland and Protestant diaspora.
He notes: “In the United States of America some 35 million claim Irish ancestry, and of these a majority are Protestant or from a Protestant background. This is largely because of emigration of large numbers from Ulster in the eighteenth century and the consequent multiplication of their descendants. Most of these early immigrants were Presbyterian but some were Church of Ireland.”
Irish emigrants did not just head towards North America. Prof Walker also notes: “By the early twentieth century it was estimated that up to a third of the Australian population had some Irish ancestry. It is reckoned that Protestants made up about 20 per cent of total Irish immigration. Among the Protestant Irish in Australia, Anglicans were the major single element. Many came from Ulster, but also from other parts of Ireland.” Emigration to Great Britain has also been extensive over the past two centuries.
What is the point of connecting with our diaspora? The temptation is to think of the only motivation being to seek finance for development or good of those of us who are still in Ireland? The experience of the Ireland Fund in raising significant funds for community and charitable causes has undoubtedly shown how much good can be done in this way. But there are other benefits that come from connecting with those of us who have left these shores.
By reconnecting with our diaspora:
- We rekindle a sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves and the people immediately around us.
- We can draw on their confidence and experience, sometimes built over generations.
- We learn from the perspectives of our kin who have found their home on other places on the globe.
- We are reminded of the resourcefulness of the human spirit, that can create a new future, whatever the challenges.
To suggest reconnecting with our diaspora it not to propose something divisive or narrowly tribal. It is about connecting with something that will empower us to work for the good of all. It is to draw on resourcefulness with the aim of benefitting our neighbour, ourselves and the common good.
By Earl Storey
This originally appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette (08/09/17) and is reproduced with permission