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An analysis of liminality in the context of Irish migrant women – Aisling Keavey

An analysis of liminality in the context of Irish migrant women

I completed a practice-led research Masters in August 2022, the purpose of the study was to explore and answer the question, “How have female members of the Irish diaspora been represented photographically in Britain post the Good Friday Agreement?” The study researches the historic and modern practice of Irish women’s migration to England and contrasts historical and contemporary representation of women and diaspora. There has been a massive absence in the audiovisual exploring women’s migration, and I aimed with this study to fill some of these gaps in practice, therefore contributing to academic knowledge around this study and also practice-led research. The practice-led elements of this study were a printed photo-book which included video stills, portrait photographs, ethnographic interview transcriptions and video and audio recordings of the women. The theories of phenomenology and hybridity were used to explore Irish women’s lived experience of being migrant and how this led to a sense of “third space” of feeling in-between or liminal in diaspora.

Increasingly, the word ‘diaspora’ has been applied to migrants and their descendants who remain defined by their country of origin, whether that definition is employed by the migrants themselves or by others. A precondition of diaspora, for some scholars, is a continuing sense of connectedness to the homeland, and a sense of dislocation or liminal status in the country of settlement. (Butler, K 2001) Sociologist Avtar Brah points out that this sense of connectedness does not necessarily include a longing to return to the homeland, although it often does. She argues that ‘home’ in the diaspora can be seen as a ‘mythic place of desire,’ not somewhere the migrant necessarily can go back to. (Brah, A 1996) She argues further that the migrant’s identity is a “homing identity”, that is, the new diasporic identity encapsulates an acknowledgement that ‘home’ is in the new setting of residence, alongside a concurrent imagined ‘home’ that has been left behind but has not been abandoned in emotional terms. The desire to feel at home in the context of migration is defined against a physical return to an original homeland. (Campt, T 2012) Sara Ahmed brings this further by articulating what she calls a “longing to belong”, which “suggests that ‘home’ is constituted by the desire for a home rather than surfacing from an already constituted home, ‘here’ or ‘there.’ In this sense, home is produced through the movement of desire.” (Ahmed, S 2003)

Brah also argues that the tension between the original homeland and the adopted homeland is essential to the migrant’s diasporic identity. (Brah, A 1996) This ‘home’ that has been left behind has implied connotations of personal struggles with the social mechanisms in belonging to a place, while the ‘locality’ that one finds themselves in represents the processes of inclusion and exclusion involved in ‘belonging’ in certain circumstances in specific geographical spaces. (IIzarra, L 2011) This connection to a home other than where one is situated, and thereby the promise or possibility of a return or quest for a return of sorts, lies at the heart of diasporic consciousness. (Weiss, G 2016) The diasporic identity does not belong to the home of one’s origin, and at the same time, the adopted home. The identity of the displaced is not a distinct, fixed identity but, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, is ‘wholly or in part “out of place” everywhere, not … completely anywhere … nowhere will one be fully “at home.”’ (Bauman Z, 2004) In other words, identity is constructed at the site where the displaced person is, namely, the homeland while the subject is still there.

There have been several theorists dealing with identity and diaspora, among them, Homi K Bhabha and Stuart Hall. Homi K Bhabha puts forth a theory that hybridity of identity is a form of in-between space, namely a third space, which “enables other positions to emerge.” (Bhabha, Homi K. 1990) Bhabha uses the metaphor of a staircase to explain this liminal space of hybrid identity that the diaspora experience: “in-between the designations of identity, becomes the process of symbolic interaction, the connective tissue that constructs the difference between upper and lower, black, and white. The hither and thither of the stairwell, the temporal movement and passage that it allows, prevents identities are either end of it from settling into primordial polarities.” (Bhabha, Homi K. 1990) This liminal space of the in-between “opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha, Homi K. 1990) which contributes to new social relations and identities. The temporal movement is relevant in the context of the Irish diaspora, as the memory of Ireland was important to all my interviewees, this “before” of the homeland in memories and anecdotal ways of speaking.

Keri E Smith puts forth reasoning for the emergence of the hybrid identity in diasporic communities by saying; “A reflexive relationship between the local and global produces the hybrid. The identities are not assimilated or altered independently, but instead elements of cultures are incorporated to create a new hybrid culture.” (Smith, K, 2008) I have found this to be untrue of the Irish diaspora through my fieldwork. Every interviewee has said that they feel Irish and not a hybrid of different cultures. Ien Ang, in On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West, posits a contrasting view to Smith’s that “hybridity is not the solution, but alerts us to the incommensurability of differences, their ultimately irreducible resistance to complete dissolution. In other words, hybridity is a heuristic device for analysing complicated entanglement.” (Ang, I. 2001) This “incommensurability of differences” is mirrored by all of my interviewees, when asked about the notion of home, they all said that Ireland was home and not England, they also all said they feel different to the indigenous population in England.

I aimed with this paper to explore the concept of the liminal space of diaspora as it pertains to Irish women. This concept is also called hybridity of identity or a “third space”, as in the amalgamation of first (meaning where you are born) and second (meaning where you live in diaspora) spaces. (Bhabha, 1994) The “sense of connectedness to the homeland” that some scholars view as a necessary condition of diaspora (Butler, K 2001) was true in the case of my interviewees, each saying that they did not feel at home in England, even after trying to assimilate into the culture.


Aisling Keavey (1991) is a photographic artist, moving-image maker, curator and writer from Dublin, Ireland. Currently based in London, she is a graduate of Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology’s MRes course in Photography (2022, 4.0GPA), in which she reflected on the representation of Irish women in Britain post the Good Friday Agreement, and also Wimbledon College of Arts’ one-of-a-kind (and no longer running) BA course in Fine Art Print and Time-Based Media (2016, 2.1). 

She has an intensely research-based practice, which spans photography, archival material, writing and moving image. Her work focuses on the migration of women from Ireland to the UK, using ethnographic interviews, photography and moving image to connect histories of migration with the contemporary. 


Ahmed, S., 2003. Uprootings / Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migrations. 1st ed. Oxford: Routledge

Ang, I. 2001. On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia And The West. 1st ed. London: Routledge

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994 The Location Of Culture. 1st ed. London: Routledge,

Brah, A., 1996. Cartographies of diaspora: Contesting Identities. London: Routledge

Bauman Z, 2004. Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi, Malden, MA: Polity Press

Butler, K., 2001. Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, 10 (2)

Campt, T., 2012. Image matters. Durham: Duke University

IIzarra, L. 2011. “Don’t Cry for me Ireland – Irish Women’s Voices from Argentina.” Ilha do Desterro A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies, 0 (59)

Smith, K, 2008. Hybrid Identities: Theoretical and Empirical Examinations, Studies in Critical Social Sciences. Leiden, BRILL

Weiss, G., 2016. Diasporic Looking Portraiture, diaspora and subjectivity. In: M. Hinkson, ed.,Imaging Identity: Media, memory and portraiture in the digital age, 1st ed. Canberra: ANU Press