Not the nation (as family) once again

I’ve been thinking about ideas of nationhood, ancestry and belonging for quite a while. In my paper just published in Ethnic and Racial Studies I explore these ideas again, this time thinking through the models of ethnic difference and genealogical similarity that underpin the refusal of the Irish government to officially recognise Irish Travellers as an indigenous, nomadic, ethnic minority, and the implications of genetic studies of Traveller origins.

Not all politicians agree with this refusal. As I began a drive from Dublin airport to Co. Waterford a few weeks ago the first item on the RTÉ Radio 1 lunchtime news was a report that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission’s Chief Commissioner, Emily Logan, condemns the government’s failure to act on a cross parliamentary recommendation for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

The second item was the announcement of a new Irish life science start up called Genomics Medicine Ireland which aims ‘to build the largest, most comprehensive population-scale, disease-specific genomic study ever created’, an Irish genomic project effectively. This is human genomics as biomedicine rather than as the anthropological science of origins and ancestry but it still raises the question of who counts as the ‘people of Ireland’.

These two news items appearing together – one about the distinctiveness of an indigenous group within a county, the other about a genomic study of the people of country – are thus entangled strands of current ways of categorizing and measuring cultural and genetic difference. Both matter to imaginative and legal categories of identity and belonging. It is these entanglements of ethnicity, genomics and nationhood that I have been pursuing, most recently in addressing recent attempts to explore the origins of Irish Travellers as a distinctive group through genetic studies. I do this in the Ethnic and Racial Studies paper through a focus on the research that featured in the documentary Blood of the Travellers made by Liam McGrath and broadcast on RTÉ in 2011.

My paper is definitely not a critique of that documentary which it is strongly pro-Traveller and deeply critical of anti-Traveller attitudes and discrimination. But it is critical of the science within it and the wider turn to genetic models of identity and difference. Even though shared ancestry is an important dimension of group identity, interpretations of patterns of genetic variation should not override the significance of other sources of knowledge, in stories, song and folklore, for example. There are also dangers that people may feel that their sense of belonging in a group is undermined if they  found to be genetically ‘mixed’ because of intermarriage in their family. Studies of genetic variation are not helpful ways to address cultural questions of origins and belonging.

In this case it is argued that the genetic study showed that Irish Travellers are genetically distinctive but also share broader genetic similarity with the rest of the settled population and so don’t have origins outside Ireland. But this similarity can be used by those opposed to granting Travellers ethnic recognition to suggest that there is no basis to their claims to be ethnically distinctive. This seems to be based on an idea that ethnicity cannot just be cultural but also must have some genealogical and genetic basis. Saying that Irish Travellers are part of the national family tree might sound inclusive but can be used to deny of ethnic difference e.g. by saying that Travellers are just Irish rather than Irish and ethnically distinctive as Travellers.

And defining national belonging through shared ancestry can imply that others those who don’t have genealogical roots in Ireland (e.g. those of immigrant origin) have no natural place in the nation.  Discovering shared ancestry is often taken to be a positive way of understanding cultural and historical interconnections, and this can be the case in personal family histories, or in relation to adjacent countries and their national categories, English and Irish for example. But those who have more distant origins, and so aren’t seen as ‘close relatives’, can be excluded from the model of the nation as a genealogical family. These are the divisive effects of what I call the idea of genealogical incorporation.