From the wandering Irish soldiers-of-fortune who served European kings in the 18th century, to the emigration of a quarter of the nation’s population to the United States following the Great Famine of 1845, to the proliferation of Irish pubs around the world, the concept of Ireland’s national identity has become intrinsically connected to the idea of an emigrant people who forever seek to escape the problems of home, for a better life abroad.
In some ways, this emigrant trend and its connection to “Irishness”, has continued to this day. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Ireland experienced a renewed period of sustained emigration, with a record 89,000 people leaving the country in 2013 alone, out of a total population of just under 4.5 million. As former US President John F. Kennedy, himself the great-grandson of Irish immigrants who had settled in Boston after the Great Famine, said during his visit to the country in 1963: “Ireland has only one export, and that is people”.
Yet, despite the setbacks of the recession years, Ireland has in fact undergone something of an economic renaissance since the early 1980s, with the country dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” – a reference to the Asian Tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. This change in economic fortunes is most visible in the technology sector, where Ireland has become the European operations hub for a plethora of American tech companies. As a result, GDP per capita, has grown from being 25-30 per cent below countries like Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK in 1980, to exceeding all three in 2016. This economic trend, combined with the perception of Ireland as a safe society with a vibrant culture – the “land of a thousand welcomes” in the local parlance – has drawn significant numbers of migrants to the country for the first time in its modern history.
According to the latest information from the country’s statistics office, nearly one in eight of Ireland’s residents are now foreign-born; with those from the United Kingdom, the United States, Poland, the Baltic states, Germany, and Brazil now making up some of the largest migrant communities. While many of these foreign-born residents have been attracted to Ireland for short-term economic reasons – such as the availability of well-paid tech jobs in Dublin, the country’s capital – a significant number of those who have obtained residency have chosen not to return home after a few years of living as an “expat”. Instead, they have decided to settle in Ireland for the long-term, and now consider the country their home. Some have developed strong family and social connections within Irish society, and have come to adopt an intrinsic dual-identity; while others are still searching for a sense of self – and their own concept of “Irishness” – that transcends fixed notions of ethnicity and nationality.
At the same time, the patchwork of personal relationships built up by Ireland’s globe-trotting populace has resulted in another group of migrants taking up residence in the country: those who settle there for reasons of love, or who are themselves children of an Irish-born person and a non-Irish-born person.
Working with subjects from across the country over two years, Irish photographer Jonathan Ho photographed those who call Ireland home, while having a dual or shared sense of national and cultural identity. By photographing his subjects in locations and environments that are reminiscent of home for them, his portraits highlight the reality beyond the stereotype of an ethnically and culturally homogenous, emigrant nation.
Valeska Magalhães, 47
Born in Brazil, living in County Longford, Ireland
Ireland is my fourth country. I was born in Brazil and I have lived in the United States and also in Spain. I am a dual Brazilian-Spanish citizen and my husband is Irish. We met in bar in Barcelona – where else do you meet an Irish person?
I had very high expectations when I arrived here. Firstly, that I was going to find a job overnight, because the economy is flying and there are several multinational companies here. And I speak the language; I have experience. But, no – that’s not the situation. And the flat thing … we want to find a flat in Dublin, but it is really difficult – really, really difficult. Longford is just … it’s like I’m not even living there. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the place, but I’m not a person who wants to live in a big house in the country.
I am an urban person. I like museums. I like galleries. I like festivals. I like public transport.I don’t like to drive; I don’t need a car.
My friends go: “Ireland …?” And I say, “Yes, you don’t know that there is a very exciting innovation driven environment in Ireland?” So my definition of Ireland is more than St Patrick’s day; it’s more than Guinness; it’s more than fantastic music and comedy. The country has been growing like mad – Ireland was a very poor country not very long ago, but it has this capacity for transformation, which I like. I don’t have this feeling of “home” yet, because – for me – the place I call “home” is where I am living and where I work; and where I have friends and my life all organised. My life is not all organised – it has big ups and downs, and it has been that way for a while. So I have this goal to establish my home somewhere, and I hope that I will do this in Dublin.
Seán Laoide-Kemp, 23
Born in the UK, living in County Wicklow, Ireland
When I was growing up, I really identified with my English side. I was incredibly proud of it, and whenever someone asked me what nationality I was, I would say “I’m half-English, half-Irish, but I was born in England” – I made sure that was very clear.
I have a huge love of sports, and growing up I was all about the English teams. That may have been to do with the fact that English teams were often more successful in more sports than Irish teams, but even to this day – in the Six Nations for example – if Ireland and England go up against each other, I still go for England. Whereas, if Ireland are playing anyone else, of course I fully support them. So I think that, all through my childhood, I almost neglected my Irish side. It was almost like that was a given because I lived in Ireland and had an Irish mother. And in recent years, I’ve come back to it, and started embracing it; it’s like I’ve come full circle now – I actually relate a lot more to my Irish side than the English side.
I suppose the reason is that I have a huge interest in history, and – as I grew up – a mother who was very keen that I knew about Irish history and the eight-hundred years of English oppression. That does have an effect on you, upon your mentality growing up, and your idea of nationality. But it is also a lot easier to connect with Irish history than it is with English history. For example, the whole idea of the British Empire, that’s not something that, personally, I’d look back on with pride and say, ‘I connect with that’.
It’s a lot easier to have a connection with a history that has, let’s say, been viewed as “oppressed” – actually gaining independence – rather than that of a country which is known for imposing themselves on other countries, and onto various other cultures. But then it could have been different, if I’d grown up in England.