Telling Identity Stories: the Routinisation of Racialisation of Irishness

by Elaine Moriarty
Trinity College Dublin

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 23 Feb 2005     Accepted: 13 Jul 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


During the last decade, the emergence of what has been coined 'the celtic tiger economy', the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland and net immigration following decades of emigration, represent critical moments in Irish history that have opened up the question of identity in Irish public culture. This paper examines the processes involved in mediating who belongs and who doesn't belong in early 21st century Irish society by examining the creation and circulation of an urban legend in Dublin in 2004. I consider how such a story gains legitimacy, bestows meaning and constructs reality, to explore what it says about 21st century Ireland. To develop this argument, I firstly posit identity construction as processual rather than fixed (Hall, 1996), and examine the forms of knowledge through which the story is constituted and elaborated into objects, concepts and theories. Secondly, I use fragments of the story to examine the construction of self/other and us/them dichotomies through the interaction between narrator and listener, and the construction of threatened Irish identities and invading 'non-national' identities. Thirdly, I locate this story in global regimes of representation which are highlighting the paradoxical positioning of the nation state as subject to significant global changes such as population movement but also enabled by such phenomena in the shaping of belonging. In order to examine how these patterns of enacted conduct become routinised in the context of the nation state, I examine the context of the debates around immigration and racism in Ireland, highlighting the remarkable continuities over time in the images and discourses circulating about the Other, particularly migrant women. Ultimately, I argue that a dialectical approach is required to understand the current debate in Ireland around immigration and racism through considering the interrelationships of discourses, narratives and the constitution of identities.

Keywords: Ireland, Narrative, Practice, Identity, Race, Immigration, Gender, Urban Legend.


I was at the bus stop in town and we were all getting on the bus. It was one of the new buses, you know the ones ... which allows you bring on prams and buggies. ... there was this woman, a 'non national' probably from Nigeria, who had a baby and a buggy. A brand new buggy, you know one of the expensive ones. ... the driver told her that she would have to wait for the next bus because there was no more room for another buggy, ... The non national - black woman just looked at him ... and she left the buggy at the bus shelter and got on to the bus with the child under her arm. Another woman said to the bus driver - 'look at that she is going to leave the buggy behind her'. The driver said 'sure they don't care, all she has to do is to go to the health centre tomorrow and they will give her a new one'. There was another woman on the bus ... and she said 'my daughter has just had a baby and gets nothing for free like the 'non nationals' do.' She got off the bus, after paying her fare and said to the driver 'I'll get the next bus and give the buggy to my daughter - she will be delighted with it'. ...
1.1During the last decade, the emergence of what has been coined 'the celtic tiger economy', the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland and net immigration following decades of emigration, represent critical moments in Irish history that have opened up the question of identity in Ireland[1]. About 200,000 non-Irish immigrants (approx. 5% of the population) have arrived in Ireland since 1996 with close to 57,000 of these being from non-EU countries. Overall, immigration levels peaked at 66,900 in the year to April, 2002, falling to 50,000 in the year to April, 2003 (CSO, 2003; MacÉinrí & Walley, 2003: 10)[2]. Ireland is arguably challenged by the increase in in-migration and this has led to a preoccupation with issues of identity and difference and crucially of race. This is not a unique position within the western world with diversity and associated racism becoming a commonly discussed topic in public culture[3]. These discussions are particularly potent within the context of globalisation and the potential for new identity constructions to develop with increasing diasporic movement and associated transnationalism, cosmopolitanism and hybridity (Sassen, 1998; White, 2001; Werbner, 2002).

1.2 In recent times, questions around national identity and the possible demise of the nation state (e.g., Rex, 1999; Delanty, 1996), race and the relationship with the state as well as the construction of the Other (e.g., Goldberg, 2002; Lentin, 2004) and globalisation and the restructuring of power relations (e.g., Bhattacharyya et al, 2002) have received much attention. Against this background of increasing global migratory pressures, an increase in asylum applications and a growth in hostile reactions to refugees and asylum seekers across the European Union, in Ireland, research has been focused on macro dimensions including state immigration policies and racism (e.g., Allen, 1999; MacÉinrí, 2001; Loyal, 2003), and micro dimensions of such phenomena, including the experiences of refugees in dispersal centres (e.g., Comhlámh, 2001), asylum seekers and the right to work (e.g., Fanning et al, 2000) and education (e.g., Ward, 2002). My approach in promoting a more dialectical emphasis, suggests that exploring the links between race, the larger processes of identity formation and managing multiculturalism and everyday lived practices have been under researched. Thus, in this article, I posit a dialectical relationship is involved in mediating who belongs and who does not belong in early 21st century Irish society. I explore this claim by examining the narrativisation of past and present stories through the creation and circulation of an urban legend[4] in Dublin in 2004, cited above. I consider how such a story gains legitimacy, bestows meaning and constructs reality, to explore what is says about 21st century Ireland.

1.3 This line of enquiry emerged quite accidentally for me in that I did not seek out these stories, the stories was brought to my attention over the course of the last academic year in Trinity College, Dublin, through a number of fora linked to my field of research[5]. The stories emanated from students I teach on the MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies in Trinity College, Dublin, from people whom I've told my field of research and from casual acquaintances. Thus, the material I discuss here is chosen illustratively rather than as a result of structured, interview-based work. It was first told to me as the version cited above, but a number of other versions emerged over time, in varying contexts. As regards the kinds of people who recounted the story or similar stories, these varied substantially as suggested by an unlikely source, a former Minster for Health and Children[6]. In examining this story - only one of many urban legends circulating in 21st Ireland in relation to asylum seekers receiving 'free prams', 'subsidised cars', 'luxury apartments' and 'free mobile phones' as documented by Comhlámh (2004) in their work on myths/FACTS about asylum seekers/refugees, I will suggest that it is an under-researched area of everyday practices which succeeds in capturing the movement of knowledge dialectically between everyday chat and government and media discourses, ultimately constructing, communicating and constituting both the other and the self. Through my repetition of the story, through becoming a teller of the story, I am aware of my own role in reconstituting that which I try to deconstruct. I am mindful of my involvement as I seek to problematise it.

1.4 To develop this argument I draw from three main themes. Firstly, positing identity construction as processual rather than fixed (Hall, 1996), I examine the forms of knowledge through which the story is constituted and elaborated into objects, concepts and theories. While I put forward an analysis of the formation of discourse and examine how discourses are embedded in institutional practices and power relations, I also seek to emphasise how actors' practices are essential in the construction and reproduction of discourses and systems. In exploring how theories of narrativity have recognised the power of narratives as informative, performative and transformative, I seek to overcome the separation of these processes. I do this by proposing a dialectical approach to understanding the current debate in Ireland around immigration and racism through considering the interrelationships of discourses, narratives and the dialectical constitution of identities.

1.5 Secondly, I use fragments of the story to examine the construction of self/other and us/them dichotomies through the interaction between narrator and listener, and the construction of threatened Irish identities and invading 'non-national' identities. While highlighting how the routinised performance of social practices such as story telling provides continuity and pattern in daily life, I posit the need for deliberate enacted conduct to achieve the constitution of identities. With this understanding, I suggest that the story represents a site of engagement with contemporary changes in Ireland by Irish people but not in a deterministic manner, rather in a processual, constituted negotiation.

1.6 Thirdly, I locate this story in global regimes of representation which are highlighting the paradoxical positioning of the nation state as subject to significant global changes such as population movement and enabled by such phenomena in the shaping of belonging. I suggest that such regimes of representation are continually reproduced in everyday life through the active nature of human conduct, such as the story cited in this article. In order to examine how these patterns of enacted conduct become routinised in the context of the nation state, I examine the context of the debates around immigration and racism in Ireland in recent years, represented through legal and social policies as well as media practices, particularly focusing on the key concepts of gender and law.

1.7 Finally, I propose that the narrative under consideration links past and present situations, illuminating continuities with forms of Othering in Ireland's history. Here I suggest that historical stocks of knowledge about Africanism and the inferior other (Said, 1978; Griesshaber, 1999), and unresolved memories of the Irish Famine and the legacy of emigration (Lentin, 1998a) are interacting to construct a perceived threat to 'Irishness'. I conclude by proposing that in the ambivalent space created through the presence of the constructed Other, the openness of the social is recreated.

Discourse, Narrative and the Dialectical Constitution of Identity

2.1 'There has been a veritable discursive explosion in recent years around the concept of identity' (Hall, 1996: 1). In this article I seek to denaturalise identities and show how identities that are often assumed and taken for granted are in fact socially and discursively constituted through the dialectical integration of routinised practices and deliberate interventions. In doing so, I aim to both highlight the power of routinised practices but also acknowledge the agency of individuals.

2.2 This approach requires recognition of the theoretical oscillation between identity understood as fixed and innate and identity understood as socially constructed and processual. According to Brubaker & Cooper (2000), the common sense approach to identity suggests a fixed entity which people perceive they possess. It also emphasises sameness and continuity over time and across persons, it is based on nature and is adjoined to an essentialist and unchanging version of history. The discursive approach, on the other hand, sees 'identification' as a process of identity formation, which is never completed and always in process. Identity and difference here are established by symbolic marking or representation in relation to others (Hall, 1996).

2.3 I wish to embed the discursive reality of the process in both of these approaches to identity formation. The question of the subject is central to people's identities, or, in identitarian terms, their subjectivity. But there have been varying schools of thought in recent times regarding how the subject is constructed. The rejection of grand narratives along with postmodernism's deconstructionism has intersected with a shift in the general theorising of knowledge (Jaworski & Coupland, 1999), a broadening of perspectives in linguistics, as well as a wider recognition that language and discourse have the capacity to construct meaning and identity in society (Said, 1978; Ahmad, 1993; Hall, 1997). Michel Foucault (1980), rejecting the distinction between ideas and material existence, shifted attention from language to discourse, studying discourse as a system of representation. Representation includes the discourses, signifying practices and symbolic systems through which meanings are created and identities are constituted. Foucault asserted that through discourses the world is brought into being and the individual's subjectivity is constructed. With this understanding, 'reality' cannot be given meaning outside of discourse. This does not mean that nothing exists outside of discourse, but rather that objects cannot be constituted as meaningful outside of the discursive conditions of their emergence.

2.4 Discourse, therefore, has gained importance through a number of concurrent theoretical developments. Linguistic and discursive intersections have been engaged with through critical discourse analysis (Fowler, 1981; Fairclough, 1989; Van Dijk, 1993), but crucially have progressed from a one dimensional discursive structural perspective to a critical position around power and knowledge. However, such critical orientation is not merely deconstructive but reconstructive, reconstructing social arrangements. While the Foucauldian view that social subjects are shaped by discursive practices is important, I am interested in considering a dialectical position on discourse and subjectivity which sees social subjects as capable of reshaping practices (Giddens, 1984; Chouliarki & Fairclough, 1999).

2.5 Moving beyond dichotomous relations such as structure/agency, self/other and powerful/powerless, I propose taking account of the power of discourse while articulating the role of actors in relation to it. This leads me to theorise a more varied view of the relationship between language and social context, which emerges when focusing on social practices. My focus on practices emphasises tacitly repeated actions or habits, which condition (Elias, 1968/1994) or dispose (Bourdieu, 1990) actors to draw from stocks of knowledge (Habermas, 1987), providing people with common background convictions with which to deal with social life on a day to day basis, what Giddens (1984) calls 'ontological security'. These stocks of knowledge enable people's practices as a matter of routine, without either explicit reason or intention, to be sensible or reasonable, serving to reinforce familiarity and a sense of belonging for those with common stocks of knowledge (Giddens, 1984). Concentrating on social action and actual lived realities in the performance of meaning making, this suggests that the meaning of discourse derives from accumulated and dynamic social use.

2.6 This approach allows me to bring together the two approaches to identity referred to above. While we may use the discursive or social constructionist approach to see how identity is constructed, maintained and reconstructed, we must also be mindful of the common sense approach which provides the ontological security (c.f. Giddens, 1984) that we seek in order to know who we are. The ensuing dialectical process of identity formation taking place at all times, leads to a negotiation between identity as fixed and identity as process. Identity then is understood not as something we have, but rather is constituted through routinised enacted conduct, highlighting agency.

2.7 This emphasis on agency, developed in what Hinchman & Hinchman (2001) refer to as the 'narrative turn' in the human sciences, lead me to posit a link between narratives and identity formation. They propose that narrative '...emphasizes the active, self-shaping quality of human thought, the power of stories to create and refashion personal identity', and affirms '...the plurality of stories that different cultures and subcultures tell about themselves' (Hinchman & Hinchman, 2001: xiv). This narrative turn does not necessarily suggest a common understanding of narrative. The gaps in agreement about the relationship between identity and narrative are summarised by Hinchman & Hinchman:

...narrativists disagree about whether some accounts of a person's life can be said to be truer than others and, if so, whether the truth or falsity of a narrative is a matter of consequence for the individual. They disagree over whether stories merely "reflect" and "unfold" our inner character, or actively "shape" our identities through the narrative and "behavioural implications" they contain. They disagree over whether a story is something we have, something we create and tell, or something we are (Hinchman & Hinchman, 2001: 119-20).

2.8 Somers & Gibson (1994) propose distinguishing between representational and ontological narrativity. While initially there was a preoccupation with narratives as modes of representing knowledge or explaining social life, more substantial claims about narratives propose that 'social life is itself storied and that narrative is an ontological condition of social life' (Somers & Gibson, 1994: 38). Narratives in this way are more than informative, they are also performative as argued by theorists of narrativity such as Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997), Paul Ricoeur (1991) and Couze Venn (1999), who suggest that narratives are never fixed, they are subject to change at the moment of telling, they can be interpreted in new ways, enriched with new meanings or liberated of old ones (Venn, 1999). For Judith Butler, narratives are performative and performances become more meaningful and more authoritative relative to the extent that they are repeated. Butler asserts that '[P]erformativity is... not a singular "act", for it is always reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition' (Butler, 1993: 12). Repeated performances then have the cumulative effect of normalising their own assertions. The less we question these norms the more successful they become at achieving authority as natural or ideal. The connection to normativity is key to understanding the difference between performance as a singular act and performativity as routinised. Therefore, the performative subject cannot be separated from the normalised routinisation process of which they are a part, both as subject and object.

2.9 This constitutive matrix is key to my argument that the enactment of narrativity is concurrently a mode of knowledge creation, the transmission of knowledge and the product of such power/knowledge systems. In this sense narratives are constitutive of the way we experience life (Butler, 1993), and as Ronit Lentin argues, narratives are also transformative, because in constructing the self, they can also bring about a transformation of society (Lentin, 2000: 101). Hence, Paul Ricoeur's (1991) assertion that life becomes human by being articulated in a narrative way enables me to theorise the story as a site where meaning is created and identity is constructed.

2.10 Having highlighted how they understand narrative and narrativity as concepts both of social epistemology and social ontology, Somers & Gibson define narratives as 'constellations of relationships embedded in time and space, constituted by causal emplotment' (Somers & Gibson, 1994: 59). Narrativity thus demands that the meaning of an event be discerned only by connecting it, spatially and temporarily, to other events. By emplotment, events and topics are drawn together enabling the linking of what can appear disparate discourses and events to form a meaningful story.

2.11 Connecting such an understanding of narrative with identity leads me to postulate that identity is constituted and reconstituted in the process of narrating it. Or as Somers & Gibson put it, 'all of us come to be who we are (however ephemeral, multiple, and changing) by locating ourselves (usually unconsciously) in social narratives rarely of our own making' (Somers & Gibson, 1994: 59, emphasis in original). Narrative identity in this sense is relational in that persons are collectively and individually embedded in a historic, social and cultural context, as I go on to explore by using fragments of the story examined in this article.

Performed Identities and the Narrativisation of the Self/other Relationship

...there was this woman, a non-national, probably from Nigeria, who had a baby and a buggy...
3.1 The story I am examining for this article constructs the durable properties of a character (Ricoeur, 1991: 195), in this case, a 'non-national' woman with a baby and a buggy. Throughout the story, the 'non-national' woman's presumed Nigerian identity, her Blackness, but most importantly her character, is constructed through her presumed casual casting away of the pram. According to Hall (1997), racial difference links visual discourse and the production of racialised knowledge through signifying practices. These include reducing the culture of Black people to nature and thus fixing differences, representing Black people as childish and dependent or dangerous and a threat through essentialising and stereotyping. Significantly, we recognise the 'Irish' woman in the story through her difference from the constructed 'non-national' - there is no mention of 'Irish' in this story, yet it is constituted through the dialectical relationship with the 'non-national' woman. According to this reading, identity is relational - it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, that identity can be constructed. Identity is thus marked out by difference and in this sense, following Hall, identity is processual, constructed through, not outside difference, functioning through its ability to exclude (Hall, 1996).

3.2 As well as constructing the 'other', the story also constructs the 'self' - here identity can arguably be examined as expressing a more primordial or common sense view, where identity is constructed through 'the recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation' (Hall, 1996: 2). In the story, the self is assumed to a large degree, and the object of the story, inter alia, is to define the narrator's 'self' through clarifying the difference with the 'non-national' woman. These processes of symbolic and social differentiation serve to create classificatory systems which apply a principle of difference to a population so as to be able to divide them and all their characteristics into opposing elements, thus facilitating the Othering process (Woodward, 1997).

3.3 This confirms the identitarian process as socially constructed, produced through representations, classifications and discourses. However, in this article, I wish to suggest that this process is embodied and therefore expressed through routinised practices which can appear as fixed and natural through processes of reification and essentialisation. In this sense, story telling is a social practice and the imperative character of practice emphasises tacitly repeated practices or habits, thereby restricting reflectiveness and taking time to choose, raising practical consciousness (Giddens, 1979), habitus (Bourdieu, 1972), lifeworld (Habermas, 1987) above rational deliberation in human action. The routinised performance of practices by actors results in social life being produced, providing continuity and pattern, termed by Giddens as the recursive nature of social life (Giddens, 1984: 5). In other words, the daily stories exchanged serve to both produce and reproduce the fabric of familiarity thus providing the security needed to live everyday life. However, if, as I argue in this article, discourses are unstable and require work to articulate and rearticulate their knowledges, discourses are in this sense open. Thus constituting identities requires constant work and I emphasise the need for enacted conduct to invoke such knowledges which in turn serve to shape identities.

...It was one of the new buses, you know the ones...A brand new buggy, you know one of the expensive ones...

3.4 Stories are situated, told by someone, and there is someone who hears the story. They connect teller and listener, constituting an 'us'. In this sense there is a need for subjects to recognise themselves in the stories they tell about themselves. Thus, seemingly inconsequential phrases such as 'you know, one of the new ones' when referring to new types of buses in use in contemporary Dublin, serve to draw the teller and receiver closer. Stories are thus important for identity making - they tell us who we are.

3.5 If stories and the identities they constitute depend on their reception by the hearer, then the story must be part of the individual's public life. The story, in other words, must be told. In some ways, in this case, I was the audience and the story was an attempt to challenge me or convert me. However, the preponderance of the story and the number of versions in circulation certainly confirm its widespread public mobility. Perhaps the repeated tellings and hearings serve to establish or reinforce membership or a sense of belonging for those involved in the generation of this story, give meaning to current events and more importantly, legitimate through story form what might otherwise be considered unreasonable or unspeakable. Thus who belongs or who doesn't - and this includes me - is constituted through the public telling of the story.

3.6 Stories about our own experiences are always influenced by stories of other people's experiences and much of the value of these experiences is derived from their familiarity with others' stories. The significance of our experiences becomes apparent by telling stories about them and fusing them with other stories. Narrative identity then is 'the unity of a person's life as it is experienced and articulated in stories that express this experience' (Widdershoven, 1993: 7). But I suggest that through telling these stories, the meaning of our experiences and actions change. Identity is constructed through an interaction between lived experiences and the stories through which this lived experience is articulated, resulting in that experience being modified or changed. This highlights how new discursive orders become embodied in new narratives and hence new identities. Thus, the process of changing or transforming identity can be thought of in terms of the inculcation or embodiment of new discourses. Embodiment is a matter of people coming to own discourses, to position themselves inside them, to act and think and talk and see themselves in terms of new discourses.

...I was standing at the bus stop in town and we were all getting on the bus...

3.7 This process of positioning the teller inside the story can be explored when considering how throughout the telling, this story was presented as fact - usually relayed as having been witnessed by a relative, neighbour or close friend of the teller - attesting to the story's 'truth'. This is particularly interesting: the first time I was told the story, it was presented as 'I was standing at the bus stop', but as it transpired, though it wasn't a first hand account, it was remembered as such. When challenged about the legitimacy of the story, through my previous hearing of the story, most tellers relied on the frequency of telling as evidence of widespread abuse rather than raising suspicions about the veracity of the story.

3.8 This implies that people not only act and interact, or inform and perform, they also interpret and represent to themselves and to others what they do. I want to argue that people are intrinsically involved in society through their ability to reflect on their own behaviour and actively enter into its constitution by deliberate enacted conduct. This highlights the reflexivity that Giddens (1984) sees as available to all competent individuals, a reflexivity that can be engaged to bring about change but simultaneously to maintain continuity. It further highlights how humans do not simply interpret their experience of the world but actively produce it. This means that ways of interacting and ways of being are represented in discourses and are reflexively reworked discursively which results in the performance of identities but also the transformation of identities.

3.9 However, this reflexivity will not necessarily illuminate the 'truth' or 'reality' that it is sometimes deemed to reveal. Rather, according to Chouliarki & Fairclough (1999), reflexivity is caught up in social struggle. Reflexive self constructions can be intrinsic to the maintenance of relations of domination or ideological practices. Ideologies are constructions of practices from particular perspectives which 'iron-out' the contradictions of practices in ways which accord with the interests of domination. People may learn new discourses and use them for certain purposes while at the same time self-consciously keeping a distance from them in order to analyse or change them (Mouzelis, 1995). I'm not particularly seeking to uncover the 'truth' underlying a teller's story, I am more interested in revealing a narrative truth (Widdershoven, 1993: 87) that individuals construct, often in the face of threat, particularly when that threat is difficult to confront or even describe.

...The driver said 'sure they don't care, all she has to do is to go to the health centre tomorrow and they will give her a new one...' ' daughter has just had a baby and gets nothing for free like the non-nationals do...'

3.10 This notion of narrative truth constructed under perceived threat begins to emerge when we consider how the story evolves with the 'Irish' appearing grateful recipients of the 'non-national's leftovers - the discarded pram, highlighting a perceived 'Irish' population subject to and victims of exploitation by 'non-nationals'. The story constructs the state through the 'health centre' as passive and possibly powerless, with 'non-nationals' casually taking and discarding resources which are not available to the perceived Irish population, and also implying that the state should be 'looking after its own'. The exploitation in the story centres around women as subjects of the story, the 'non-national' woman who 'left the buggy behind her', and the woman whose daughter has recently had a baby but 'gets nothing for free like the non-nationals'. In this sense, as social practices, narratives and story telling display a particular gendered character in the production of narrative identities, as I argue in the final section of the article.

3.11 My analysis of this story highlights how people live their lives and tell their stories within socially constituted conditions but their actions and stories also have a potentially transformative impact on society. Ken Plummer (1995) in highlighting what he refers to as a 'sociology of stories', stresses the social role of stories. By this Plummer means 'the ways [stories] are produced...the work they perform in the wider social order, how they change, and their role in the political process' (Plummer, 1995: 19). Indeed, stories can be examined both representationally and ontologically. By this I mean that narratives can be explored as representations of knowledge which are imposed on lived reality to construct meaning, but can also be examined as an ontological condition of social life whereby narrative is not just an explanatory device but is actually constitutive of the way we experience social life. As Plummer suggests '...we tell stories about ourselves in order to constitute ourselves...If they do their work well...stories will give us a sense of our histories - partly of our own life and where we've come from, but no less a sense of a collective past and shared memories' (Plummer, 1995: 172). Narrative can be 'read' as the interrelationships of characters or events in a particular time and space configured through the story, and identity can be read as constituted and reconstituted in the process of narrating it, processually. Thus, Plummer, in encouraging a move 'beyond the text' to 'the social and historical conditions that facilitate the making and hearing of stories' (Plummer, 1995: 19, 45), highlights how a story never stands alone but is rather linked to broader contexts or previous stocks of knowledge, as I now go on to examine.

Race and Global Technologies of the Exercise of Power

4.1 While recognising that notions of Irishness and Otherness are social constructs and in a constant process of change, I want to suggest that certain discourses and representations have become dominant in recent times in Ireland serving to shape the ways in which Irishness and dialectically Otherness are imagined and acted upon in ways which have specific implications for those subject to such understandings. The constitution of Irishness as a discursive formation gives rise to an apparatus that systematically relates forms of knowledge and technologies of power, which I refer to, following Foucault (1980) and Hall (1997), as regimes of representation. I take this particular approach as, in my understanding, there is a dialectical relationship between routinised practices (such as story telling) located within specific regimes of representation and dominant representations and hegemonic practices in relation to those perceived as the Other in Irish public culture. I will suggest that this regime of representation is continually constructed in everyday life through the active nature of human conduct, animated through the ideas and practices of social actors, such as the story cited in this article, but there is a mutual interdependence with global systemic conditions.

4.2 It is only possible to understand fully what this story means by examining its embeddedness in the global changes of recent decades which have involved the movement of peoples on an unprecedented scale, the break up of empires and decolonisation, the creation of the new Europe and other power blocs, the destruction of old nations and the re-formation of new ones. Zygmunt Bauman suggests that postmodernity and globalisation have heralded a wave of fragmentation, dislocation and uncertainty which have led to people searching for someone to blame for their insecurities. 'And so it happens that the solution to the individual identity crisis is sought in the postulated security of collective identities' (Bauman, 2000: 8). He also maintains that '...the mysterious and elusive threats to individual identity tend to be placed at the doorsteps of an all-too-tangible enemy: the stranger next door' (Bauman, 2000: 8). Bauman perceives the individual as threatened by the loss of ontological security in the global age, seeking to explain this fear by displacing the threat to the stranger in proximity (the migrant, the asylum seeker, the other). Consequently, there is a fear that we have entered an age of identity crisis (Bauman, 1995) where the concurrent quest for security has highlighted the presence of individuals claiming political asylum, hence challenging the control of borders, the sovereignty of nations and the fixity of identity and belonging.

4.3 While the movement of asylum seekers occurs on a global scale, responses to asylum seekers' arrival occur primarily in national contexts where the perceived threat to the nation state emerges as do potential opportunities to renationalise the nation (Luibhéid, 2004: 2). Theorists such as Omi and Winant (1994), Goldberg (2002) and Lentin (2005) argue that the development of the nation state and the concept of 'race' are intrinsically intertwined. Goldberg (2002) asserts that the racial state defines the population of a nation state through constitutions, border controls, law, policy, bureaucracy and governmental technologies such as census categorisations, invented histories and traditions, ceremonies and cultural imaginings, thus linking race and nation. These apparatuses and technologies employed by modern states serve to reify the terms of racial expression leading to the invisibility of the intrinsic relationship between race and state as well as the consequent reproduction of racist exclusions and subjectivities.

4.4 But race and ethnicity are not fixed identities and racial categories change relative to the time and space of their utilisation. The meaning of race has varied throughout modern European history (Solomos & Back, 1996) as has the meaning attributed to phenotypical differences such as skin colour within racialisation practices. This raises the question of how such shifting signifiers come to wield such influence on the lives of people? Lisa Malkii highlights how post-World War II Europe was a key site for the emergence of the figure of the refugee/asylum seeker, because this is when and where 'certain key techniques for managing displacements of people first became standardised and then globalised' (Malkki, 1995: 497). This provided the foundation for developing the category of refugee/asylum seeker which, through enactment, disavowed the diversity of experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. But Eithne Luibhéid argues that

...rather than seeing [refugees and asylum seekers] as "problems" that trouble the nation state...we can instead inquire how refugees/asylum seekers occasion policies, discourses and practices that provide opportunities for nation states to reinvent themselves in particular ways (Luibhéid, 2004: 337).

4.5 I want to suggest that these apparent paradoxical understandings of the stranger's presence both challenge and enable the reproduction of the nation state through opening up the categories and boundaries of who belongs and who does not. It also highlights a key point of this paper - that these technologies and tools of racialisation need constant 'work' to be engaged meaningfully and dialectically the routinisation of their usage enables the recursive reproduction of a racialised nation state system as I now examine in the specific context of Ireland.

The Routinisation of Racialisation in the Irish State

5.1 With increased in-migration to Ireland from the 1990s as highlighted earlier, the perceived 'influx' of refugees and asylum seekers has become a widely discussed topic in Irish public culture. Lentin (2005) argues that the Irish state has adopted a contradictory approach to the debates around immigration and racism. While funding anti racism campaigns which purport to promote '...diversity, equality and cultural difference...', through the KNOW Racism campaign, the Irish government has concurrently pursued a range of policies around immigration to Ireland. These include pre-emptive exclusion through policing of ferry ports (Haughey, 2001), fines for air-carriers and ferry companies found to be carrying undocumented asylum applicants and repatriation programmes for 'failed asylum applicants'. Since 2000, asylum seekers in Ireland are governed by direct welfare provision systems which provides an allowance of 19.05 euro per week per adult and 9.52 per week per child and dispersal policies which sees asylum seekers dispersed throughout the country where they are neither permitted to seek work nor education (Comhlámh, 2001;Free Legal Advice Centre, 2003). I want to argue that in fact there is no contradiction occurring here and that the State has consistently demonstrated its intent to reinforce the white, settled nature of what it means to be Irish, utilising governmental technologies of the law and gender as I examine below.

5.2 The gendered nature of public discourses around asylum seeking and refugee childbearing is a good illustration of my argument in relation to the narrative under investigation. Lentin (2004) and Luibhéid (2004) have documented numerous incidents of both government and media sources reproducing images of asylum seekers childbearing and its (mostly negative) implications for the Irish nation. Key government officials, particularly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and media commentators have served to construct asylum seekers childbearing as being associated with crime, welfare abuse, exploitation, cultural dilution, economic pressure and a threat to Irish citizenship, as I now demonstrate.

5.3 Migrant women in Ireland have been represented by the media as '...arriving on the verge of giving birth...travelling from abroad late in their pregnancy...landing at our ports and airports and heading straight for hospital' (McSweeney, 2003). Masters of the maternity hospitals have been reported by the media as saying that,

...typically, the women come late in their pregnancies. Details of medical histories are sketchy...but statistically they have far more complications than their Irish counterparts. Often the women need translators to help them communicate and social workers to look after their other children while they give birth. In some cases, fathers are not involved (O'Doherty, 2003).

5.4 Cullen records the Minister for the Justice, Equality and Law Reform as highlighting the potential for abuse of residency rights and welfare by childbearing refugees being 'well known abroad':

A significant proportion of female asylum seekers were pregnant upon arrival here and their decision to seek asylum was partly motivated by the benefits they could obtain through having a child in Ireland... (Cullen, 2001).
These discourses have been reproduced throughout national and local radio chat shows, national and local newspapers and have contributed to producing and circulating stories around
...asylum seekers, at taxpayers' expense, allegedly getting subsidised cars, which don't need to be insured; free mobile phones; and lump sums in social welfare payments tv licences (Sheahan, 2002)[7].

5.5 Such discourses have contributed to links being made between the presence of asylum seekers and a threat to the 'Celtic Tiger' as well as causing the dilution of Irish culture and citizenship. I want to suggest that it was through discourses on childbearing that a dominant set of ideas about asylum seekers, the threat they pose and what comprises legitimate strategies for governing such a threat, were developed, circulated and legitimated.

5.6 Omi and Winant (1994) highlight that while certain forms of racist speech and action have become unacceptable, the use of code words and symbols have replaced these which indirectly relate to racial themes. This enables the continued expression of older racist ideas without necessarily using offensive language. Lentin (2004) reports that Irish public and media debates regarding asylum seekers have been couched in a set of euphemisms such as 'non-nationals' to describe non-EU migrants which has replaced 'aliens', a legacy of the 1935 Aliens Act, and the euphemism 'Irish-born children' which racially differentiates the children of non-nationals from all other children born in Ireland. Lentin further asserts that using the category 'non-national' in the narrative of 'flooding Dublin's maternity's hospitals' serves to both conflate all migrants - asylum seekers, refugees, labour migrants, illegal immigrants, students and non-citizens, but also to de-humanise those subject to such classifications (Lentin, 2004).

5.7 I want to highlight the relationship between these government and media ideas, discourses and practices about asylum seeking childbearing and the story I cited above, which serves to constitute Irishness and Otherness in particular ways. I propose that the story is a site where euphemisms such as 'non-national' dehumanise and not only allow discourses such as 'refugees spongers' to circulate but further such stories demand a greater role from government in 'protecting the nation'. I suggest that the circulation and performance of the story routinely enabled a public culture in which the State could act to propose and secure legislation which changes the fundamental basis of the right to be Irish. This has been evidenced most keenly by the actions of recent high court cases rolling back the rights of parents of migrant children (January, 2003) and copperfastened by the recent referendum (June, 2004) changing a long standing birth right to citizenship in Ireland which was passed by almost 80% of the voting public[8]. Thus, the story represents a conjunctural site which can illuminate how government and media discourses migrate and are embodied in everyday practices such as story telling, but crucially such official discourses are dialectically shaped and enabled by routinised practices such as story telling. It is also necessary to consider the legacy of the past in the constitution of such stories and discourses which I now go on to consider.

Narrative, History, Gender and Remembering

6.1 What stories do people tell each other in Ireland and why? It is interesting to consider how narrative and history are intertwined, or how narratives about the nation are co-articulated with the stories we tell and the stories told about us. While the narrative I presented suggests a level of fabrication, it can also be examined as a form of negotiation where the elision between the personal and the national becomes visible. Here I am suggesting that each time the story is told, it changes a little - accommodating or trying to explain new elements of social life. Roy Foster suggests that '...the need for self-renewing narrative encourages a swerve into identity politics', a process which disables '...the barriers between historical narrative, personal history and national fictions' (Foster, 2001: xix). Ireland has utilised different devices, including music, rituals, story telling and place names, for keeping alive or inventing a past that was necessary in a colonial context. This was crucial in constructing and sustaining an identity but also functioned as a form of resistance.

6.2 Drawing from my proposal regarding the constitutive nature of narrative and identity, I suggest that people learn in ritualised ways what to remember and what to forget about the past, thus enabling the constitution of social identities transmitted through collective experiences such as story telling. Remembering together is primarily achieved within the everyday practices of ordinary conversation and story telling, which support collective ways of describing common events and shared means for assessing those descriptions in order to agree on 'truth'. These stories are both embodying conflicting memories but also generating public memory.

6.3 The narrative I am examining links past and present situations, illuminating the continuities with various forms of Othering in Ireland's history, often inspired by Ireland's ambivalent colonial condition. Racialised groups have encountered social distancing both before and since the foundation of the nation state. Examples include Jews in twentieth century Ireland (Keogh, 1998), Hungarian refugees of the 1950s and Chilean refugees of the 1970s (see Ward, 1998; Fanning et al, 2000) and Irish Travellers on-going experience (MacLaughlin, 1995).

6.4 The Irish state has a long history of policing bodies in the quest to manage the nation (Smyth, 1992). The Catholic Church also took a powerful role in the imposition of a particular version of gender differentiation (Inglis, 1987). Lentin (1998b) has demonstrated how the 1937 constitution encompassed these values by making explicit links between family and nation, retaining the notion of Irishness as racial and the Irish woman, understood as white, Catholic and settled, as the bearer of the responsibility to maintain the nation. The intersection of Catholic Church and State practices can be seen in examples such as the Magdalene laundries which mirror the practise of Othering. In this case, single pregnant women in Irish society were identified as 'different' and managed through institutionalisation. The internment of single pregnant women served two functions - the functional expression of intolerance, but more importantly the development of a sense of sameness regarding sexuality within Irish society (Moriarty, 2000: 55).

6.5 Women's bodies have long been targeted in order to control racial boundaries and hierarchies, particularly focusing on their childbearing and child rearing as Yuval-Davis & Anthias (1989) have discussed. According to Yuval-Davis & Anthias, the nation is invested in women as carrying its burden of representation. Women's bodies demarcate the symbolic and material boundaries of national, ethnic and religious collectivities and are also the sites upon which these boundaries are contested. Lentin suggests that 'Motherhood...always enfolds notions of otherness, through processes of individuation and separation, but also through the positioning of women as mothering nations...' (Lentin, 2004: 303). This is a key consideration when acknowledging the centrality of migrant mothers to engendering and racialising configurations of the Irish state. Lentin suggests that the current debate about migration views

...non-national women as intentionally mothering the next generation of Irish citizens,...positioning sexually active Irish and 'non-national' women alike as a danger to themselves, to men, and to 'the nation', and as subverting the certitudes of traditional constructions of Irishness (Lentin, 2004: 308).

6.6 Historically, Irish emigrant women in Britain have been subject to similar discourses as those presented in the story. Bronwen Walter argues that racialised cultural traits were represented in distinctly gendered ways. While Irish women were situated in many low-wage occupations in Great Britain, they were racialised through their childbearing:

Irish women's bodies were implicitly present in stereotyping through their role in the process of reproduction, especially their 'excessive' fertility...The rhetoric focuses on families and their threat to the English way of life both biologically and culturally. These include through 'swamping' and racial degeneration, the weakening of Protestantism, unfair demand for resources and lack of control over bodies, both their own and those of unruly, dirty and over-numerous children (Walter, 2000: 91).

6.7 Historical stocks of knowledge about Africanism and the inferior other are also interacting in contemporary Ireland with unresolved Irish memories of colonisation, the Famine and emigration. This includes the relationship of Irishness to British imperialism, particularly around the missionary role, and 'black babies' tradition[9] and the settler experience of the Irish in North America, Australia and South Africa, particularly the whitening of the Irish in contradistinction to other perceived competing racial groupings (See Ignatiev, 1995; McVeigh, 1996).

6.8 Contemporary dominant discourses of Irish helpfulness, settler success and colonial legacies are integrated with discourses of 'bogus refugees', refugee spongers, posing a threat to the state in producing representations of Irishness and Otherness. This begins to emerge when we consider how the story evolves with the Irish appearing grateful recipients of the non-national's leftovers - the discarded pram highlighting a perception of the 'Irish' population subject to and victim of an 'invasion' of refugees.

6.9 In this sense, story telling is a mediated discursive practice whereby meaning is constructed through a relational communicative production between past and present, memories and imaginings, discourses and representations. Drawing from the dialectical constitution of identities and applying this to memory and remembering as social practices, a major link is revealed between individual social practices and public cultural systems operating over time. This realisation enables me to posit the migration of discourse from one social practice to another, from government and media contexts to everyday chat. It also raises the question of power whereby actors draw upon diverse mediated discourses to reflexively rework existing discursive formations in the context of their own lifeworlds so that these mediated discourses are appropriated in both reproductive and transformative ways.


7.1 In this article, I have argued that it is necessary to adopt a dialectical approach to understand the processes involved in the current debate around immigration and racism in Ireland. This, I suggested, would reveal the dynamic interrelationships of routine enactment of narrativity and the constitution of identities. In examining fragments of the story under review, I suggested that stories can be examined both representationally and ontologically. Thus, while the routinised performance of social practices such as story telling provides explanatory devices to maintain continuity and pattern in social life, I proposed that deliberate enacted conduct is required to actually constitute identities and through telling the story, in this case, self and other dichotomies are reproduced.

7.2 In examining the circulation of discourses and narratives in Ireland, I suggested that this constitutive matrix offers a means to both introduce new racial and ethnic hierarchies, and reconfigure existing ones. The linking of childbearing refugee women with exploitation and threat to the Irish nation and the normalisation and expectation that the state will 'take care of' and protect the nation through legislative control over female bodies has particular implications. In the process, asylum seeking women become reduced to pregnant bodies, while there is also evidence of an increase in both verbal and physical attack on pregnant Black women (Haughey, 2002) demonstrating the eliding of distinction between refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers, tourists and 'Irish' women, euphemistically referred to as non-nationals - highlighting what I describe as a clearly racialised regime of representations. This, Eithne Luibhéid suggests, is the Irish state's way of renationalising the nation - drawing on existing racial boundaries and creating new ones.

While childbearing by asylum seeker women is represented as a threat to the sovereignty of the nation-state, in fact, their presence has allowed the state to refashion the national imaginary, reinvent itself, and implement new strategies of sexualised, racialised governance (Luibhéid, 2004: 344-5).

7.3 Despite the acknowledgement that meanings are never fixed but constantly being negotiated, there are remarkable continuities in the images and discourses circulating about the Other, particularly migrant women. These interlinked practices of nation building and racial formation have become naturalised in Irish public culture, serving to maintain and reproduce difference, in the form of dichotomies and ambivalent relations between a superior Irish self and an inferior other. The dialectical interrelationships of these representations and discourses have succeeded in constructing an Other against which the state is mobilising its efforts through reasserting the threat to the Self. Therefore, everyday practices such as story telling and governmental technologies such as referenda are dialectically integrated in that the structural exclusion and repression of those constructed as Other are consistent with and rationalised by regimes of representation which problematise and inferioritise the Other leading to an 'I am not racist, but...' type of common sense rationale.

7.4 However I also want to suggest, following Bauman (1991), that while modern technologies are preoccupied with classifying and categorising in order to maintain order, the ambivalence of the modern condition cannot be denied or suppressed. Indeed, according to Bhabha (1994), the practices of classifying, separating and dichotomising contain the potential for their own destruction. The appearance of the stranger contributes to the quest for the rearticulation of identity and belonging, and at the same time provokes uncertainties around the fixity of the nation.


I would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. I would like to thank the anonymous referees and Dr Ronit Lentin, in particular, for their helpful comments on this article.


1 Ireland in this article refers to the space of the Republic of Ireland. There is recognition of the Republic of Ireland as having an historical, colonial legacy, of Northern Ireland as colonial, and recognition of the continuing influence of this legacy on Ireland (both north and south) within global power relations. Ireland has gone through a process of change in the past century, moving from the colonial experience to the free state which played a dominant role in shaping class and status structures reinforced by the church's role (Lee, 1989; Breen et al, 1990). Modernisation in Ireland since the 1980s has entailed a renewed emphasis on external investment, and a heightened awareness of Ireland's position globally. This has led to the prioritisation of economic globalisation principles through cultivating what has been coined the 'Celtic Tiger' project characterised by significant economic growth and associated labour needs (O'Riain, 2000; MacÉinrí & Walley, 2003: 3). There has been considerable analysis of the Celtic Tiger in its social, political and economic implications ranging from an economic success story (see MacSharry & White, 2000), highlighting the state as primary mediator of success in promoting social partnership internally and courting global economic connections externally (see O'Riain, 2000; O'Riain & O'Connell, 2000) to critical Marxism which sees the Celtic Tiger economy enriching a small elite while leaving the majority, relatively worse off (see O'Hearn, 1998; Allen, 1999, 2000).

2 While there is a question about the reliability of relevant statistics (MacÉinrí & Walley, 2003: 6), immigration of varying types constitutes a significant aspect of social change in Ireland. Returning Irish immigrants accounted for almost 55% off all in-migration in 1999 (MacÉinrí & Walley, 2003: 5), falling to just over 35% of in-migration in the 12 months to April, 2003 (CSO, 2003). There are a growing number of non-EU migrant workers in Ireland. The aggregate annual number of employment permits, work visas and work authorisations rose from approx. 3,000 in 1995, to 47,551 in 2003 (Dept of Enterprise, 2003). These include 23,300 new employment permits, 16,600 permit renewals and 1,100 work visas to people from 140 countries, representing an increase of more than 600 per cent since 1999 (MacÉinrí & Walley, 2003: 7, 11). The numbers seeking asylum in Ireland has increased over the past decade with applications numbering between 10,000 and 12,000 per annum from 2000 to 2002 compared with 39 applications in 1992 (CSO, 2003). Nigerians have consistently been the largest number of asylum seekers followed by Romanians. Asylum applications, however, declined in 2003 to 7,900 (ORAC, 2003) mainly due to EU and Irish state border controls increasing.

3 Public culture is a description of a particular way of life which expresses dominant meanings and values not only in semiotics but also in institutions and everyday behaviour. My understanding of public culture draws from Habermas's writings on public sphere which broadly refers to the social space in which people dialogue on issues of social and political concern in ways which can affect policy and shape social change (Habermas, 1989).

4 Urban legends perpetrate a type of folklore, circulated primarily by word of mouth, repeated in news stories and popular press. People frequently recount such tales as having happened to a "friend of a friend". Dhúirt bean liom gur dhúirt bean leí is a term in the Irish language sometimes used to explain the origins of myths and urban legends. It translates as a woman told me that a woman told her that... Urban legends combine myth and legend to produce an erroneous story that if it had any fact at all has long lost it as the 'story' spread and was adapted in the telling. Jan Harold Brunvand (1981) proposed that legends, myths and folklore do not belong solely to so-called primitive or traditional societies, and that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such legends. It is in this realm that I am interested in deconstructing the story under review in this article.

5 This article is part of a wider research project which critically examines the processes involved in the production of discourses and representations of Irishness and Otherness in the 1990s as it relates to issues of migration and anti racism.

6 Dr Ronit Lentin in her forthcoming book recounts such a 'story'. When appearing with Fianna Fáil Minister for Enterprise and Trade, Michéal Martin, on RTE 1's 'Questions and Answers' panel on 31 January 2005, the Minister told her during the commercial break that he 'knows' of a Nigerian woman who had quintuplets, and who 'had the first one in Nigeria and hopped on a plane to have the other four in Ireland'. When Martin, a former Minister for Health and Children, was challenged by Dr Lentin about his utterly illogical assertion, he said that he firmly believed that 'airlines should not let these women on the plane' (Lentin & McVeigh, forthcoming).

7 Such myths as those apparent in the story under review were investigated by Comhlámh in their leaflet 'Myths/Facts about Immigrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees'. When dealing with the myth around "refugees and asylum seekers getting free prams, phones, cars etc from social welfare', Comhlámh (2004), states that 'There are limited welfare schemes, open to EVERYONE whereby, in exceptional circumstances, once-off payments can be made for the purchase of necessities such as prams, cots ...NO ONE is given luxurious goods under social welfare...'

8 Following the 1990 Fajujonu Supreme Court case, the migrant parents of children born in Ireland had a claim to remain in Ireland to provide 'care and company' to their children (Kennedy & Murphy-Lawless, 2003). This process of application for permission to remain was overturned in January, 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled that 'non-national' parents no longer had the right to be allowed to remain in Ireland to bring up this child. Further the Supreme Court argued that the 'integrity of the asylum process' was privileged over the care and company of the child (Lentin, 2005). The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had re-asserted the right to citizenship of all those born on the island of Ireland confirming the jos soli approach to Irish citizenship that had in fact been in existence since the 1922 constitution. In June 2004, the government held a constitutional referendum changing the rules around Irish citizenship. This referendum was passed by 79% of the voting Irish public, thus children who do not have at least one citizen parent will no longer be entitled to Irish citizenship.

9 Representations of Africa in Irish public culture have focused on African inferiority and need for help through the dialectical production of Irish generosity through missionary and development work. Collections for 'Black Babies' were until recently a common feature of the Irish Catholic Church's missionary work for so-called Third World countries. The visual image of a hungry looking, begging child appeared on collection boxes and in missionary publicity material from the 1970s (Fitzgerald, 1992).


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