Until relatively recently immigrant and ethnic minority groups were relegated to one of the silences in the history of modern Wales. Where they were mentioned at all it was as outsiders who added a dash of colour and exoticism to the story of the majority but who had little to contribute to our understanding of developments in the ‘mainstream’ of society. In recent years this picture has begun to change, not only in terms of the increased volume of research on immigrants and minorities but also in the way the study of such groups poses searching questions about the nature of society as a whole. Historians, sociologists, novelists and the media have all begun to pay sustained attention to the immigrant and ethnic minority experience. Although the former silence has hardly become a cacophony, there is now a real sense of a debate taking place in the wider culture about the nature and implications of a plural society. It is a debate in which the Irish experience should occupy a prominent role.
There is inevitably a degree of tension between a perspective that takes as its starting point a close examination of the Irish in a particular society and the recent tendency to explore the similarities and differences between Irish migrants in different parts of the globe, a development that has paralleled an interest in ‘globalisation’ among social scientists and cultural critics. The conceptualisation of Irish migration in terms of a global diaspora has yielded many valuable insights. Most fundamentally, it holds out the prospect of a reconceptualisation of Irishness in terms of a more inclusive identity, and one that is not restricted to the territory of Ireland itself.
Such perspectives on Irish migration have been shaped decisively by developments outside of academia. Perhaps inevitably, our ways of understanding the Great Famine and its consequences owe an enormous amount to the experiences and preoccupations of the 1990s, when a determined effort was made by Irish people to comprehend the magnitude and ramifications of the crisis that occurred during the second half of the 1840s. It is at this point that the intersection of a perspective rooted in the idea of diaspora and exploration of the specificity of place come into fruitful contact.