Migration and Memory

Irish Poetry in the United States
  • Jack Morgan
Part of the New Directions in Irish and Irish American Literature book series (NDIIAL)


Even prior to Brian Coffey’s extended expatriation, Gerald Dawe notes, his poems “are full of references to, and depictions of, sea-journeys, voyages, and moments prior to departure…We have the impression of constant restlessness…” (“Absence” 123). The earliest Irish literature had to do with journey, pilgrimage, seafaring, the mythology of voyage, and as recently as the 1980s the Pogues’ song “Thousands are Sailing” was an anthem to young Irish émigrés in the United States. Real adventures, the boy narrating Joyce’s story “An Encounter” reflects, “do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad” (Dubliners 13). This extraterritorial focus is a surviving preoccupation — the central novel in modern Irish literature plays off the Odyssey, and the journey motif remains prevalent in contemporary Irish literature, having been reinforced across generations by the experience of exile — the “American wake” situated the sadness of impending exile, but also the excitement of adventure. Paula Meehan in her poem “The Pattern” describes how, growing up in Dublin, she would watch the seaward Liffey for hours, sure one day it would carry her “to Zanzibar, Bombay, the land of the Ethiops” (19). Irish literature is informed by this kind of wanderlust on the one hand and on the other the drift of memory back to the native island, itself a kind of arc upon the ocean, as Francis Stuart viewed it from Berlin in 1944: “Drifting through ages with tilted fields awash, / Sleeped with your few lost lights in the long Atlantic dark, / Sea-birds shelter, our shelter and arc” (35).


Canal Zone Green Card Irish Parent Journey Motif Mating Dance 
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© Jack Morgan 2011

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  • Jack Morgan

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