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Migration

James Barry, Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and his Companion Fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus, c.1776. Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

How does Ireland’s diasporic history intersect with Irish appropriations of Homer and Ovid? 

Homeric and Ovidian models are grafted onto an Irish context in ways that blur traditional boundaries, with Ireland becoming the locus for musings on both home and exile.

The wandering hero is a central figure in Irish story-telling dating back to the medieval period, when Ireland produced its own version of Homer’s Odyssey, the  Merugud Uilix Maicc Leirtis ‘Wandering of Ulysses son of Laertes’. With a diaspora that has been estimated at 70 million, experiences of travel and exile are an integral part of Irish identity. What emerges as striking, however, is the way Irish authors engage with Homer and Ovid to cast Ireland as familiar yet also strange. This anomalous engagement with classical exile literature points to Ireland’s complex relationship with Britain, which is both intimate and foreign.

Selected examples

  • In 1685, Roderic O’Flaherty’s history of Ireland Ogygia, seu Hibernicarum Chronologia was published, crystallizing the identification of Ireland with the Homeric island of Ogygia, also noted in Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (1634), following Plutarch’s comment in The Face of the Moon that Ogygia was located to the west of Britain. This mystical island, which offers immortality, but in which Odysseus is trapped in distressed exile, is a model that inverts the Homeric trope of wandering in relation to Ireland since equating Ireland with Ogygia paradoxically casts Ireland as a ‘home of exile’.
  • In his 1991 collection Gorse Fires, Michael Longley includes a series of poems inspired by Homer’s Odyssey: ‘Homecoming’, ‘Laertes’, ‘Anticleia’, ‘Argos’, and ‘The Butchers’. In these poems, Longley’s painful hiatus from writing is configured as exile but they also capture the romanticized notions of homecoming and how these can be shattered on actual return, and conclude by linking the homegrown violence of Northern Ireland to Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors and maids on his return.
  • The Roman poet Ovid, exiled by the emperor Augustus to Tomis on the Black Sea for obscure political reasons, has inspired both Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. In ‘Exposure’, the final poem of Heaney’s 1975 North collection, the poet now living in the Republic of Ireland identifies with Ovid as an ‘inner emigré’, while Mahon paradoxically locates exile within Ireland in ‘Ovid in Tomis’ (1982) and focuses on the avoidance of homecoming in the Odyssey-inspired poems from his collections Harbour Lights (2005), Life on Earth (2008), and Autumn Wind (2010).