In February 1995, President Mary Robinson exercised her constitutional right to address both Houses of the Oireachtas on "a matter of national or public importance". The title of her speech was 'Cherishing the Irish Diaspora', which some advisers in Áras an Uachtaráin thought sounded too obscure. "I sounded out my father," Robinson recalled in her autobiography Everybody Matters. "'Definitely use the word diaspora Mary,' he said, 'the Irish love new words'."
A quarter of a century later, it's clear that Dr Aubrey Bourke's judgement was right. The Irish diaspora is now widely recognised as a constituency of about 70 million people to be honoured, memorialised and occasionally milked for hard cash. Leo Varadkar did his career no harm at all when, as Minister for Tourism, he invited anyone with Irish ancestry home for The Gathering in 2013 - even if the actor Gabriel Byrne dubbed the initiative "a scam" and "a shakedown". As John Gibney writes in his introduction to this impressively diverse collection of essays first published in History Ireland magazine, Irish people have been leaving these shores ever since boats were invented. To quote just some of the more startling statistics, about eight million departed between the Act of Union in 1801 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne, almost 43pc of her army was Irish, while by the end of the Great Famine, New York had more Irish residents than Dublin. Independence did not stem the tide and in 1931 one out of every four people born here was living abroad.
"There are as many reasons for emigrating as there are emigrants," Gibney argues, something borne out by the sheer variety of subjects here. He includes articles about Irish people who went away to join monasteries, set up farms and become international slave traders. Some fought in South America's wars of independence, others signed up for the French Foreign Legion. Most readers will be familiar with the Fenian leaders exiled in the United States, but how many of us knew that the Orange Order founded several branches in west Africa that survive to this day?
"To be born English," the imperialist Cecil Rhodes once declared, "is to win first prize in the lottery of life." Sadly, these historical sketches show that the Irish have often been regarded very differently. At a 1617 military procession in Stuttgart, the actors playing Irish soldiers were dressed to reflect what Hiram Morgan calls our alleged "penchant for violence, incivility and popery". Reviewing the works of trainee priests at Irish colleges in 17th century Spain, Oscar Recio Morales notes: "[They] attempted to erase… a negative image promoted by English chroniclers of an isolated island occupied by 'savages'."
Edmundo Murray's piece on Latin America notes that Irish railroad workers were condemned by the Cuban royal council in 1835 as "worthless, lazy, disease-ridden drunkards".
Emigrants often sent back advice to anyone thinking of following in their footsteps. Kerby A Miller details the career of Reverend James MacSparran, a Derry-born clergyman who wrote three letters home from Rhode Island in 1752 that were later published as an effective guidebook. The Irish were "less esteemed than they ought to be", he warned".
John Dunlap, however, a Co Tyrone man who became famous for printing the United States' Declaration of Independence in 1776, had no such qualms. "The young men of Ireland who wish to be free and happy should leave it and come here as quick as possible," he declared. "There is no place in the world where a man meets so rich a reward for good conduct and industry as in America."
Two chapters concern republicans who decided to strike a blow for Irish freedom in Canada. Two years after the 1798 Rebellion, a group of about 80 British army soldiers joined the United Irishmen and staged a mutiny in Newfoundland - a place so Irish that the Colonial Office dubbed it "a Transatlantic Tipperary". As recounted by Aidan O'Hara, the uprising failed and eight prisoners were hanged, including one called Garret Fitzgerald (apparently no relation to the late Taoiseach).
Undaunted, a Fenian faction of roughly 600 Irish veterans from the US Civil War calling themselves the 'Right wing IRA' invaded Canada in 1866. "For the first time in well-nigh 70 years," The Nation newspaper crowed back in Dublin, "the red flag of England has gone down before the Irish green." Once again, such celebrations were wildly premature, partly because as David A Wilson explains, the Washington government offered no support at all.
In fact, Irish nationalists have constantly felt let down by their sentimental but ineffectual relations Stateside, with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington once complaining: "The Irish (mainly comfortable, elderly gentlemen) come and talk about old times and the days of the Kerry dances… but the moment I talk about 1918 and what could be done now, they close up!"
Like many academic books, The Irish Diaspora is full of interesting information presented in dull and lifeless prose. Still, it's an erudite and eye-opening anthology that perfectly illustrates a line from Mary Robinson's groundbreaking speech: "We cannot want a complex present and still yearn for a simple past."