Yearning for Land

Can sentimental attachment to land persist without religion? My ancestors were driven off their land in Ireland by the Brits in the 1840s. They emigrated to the US, and now we’re American. I don’t yearn to reclaim my ancestral land in Ireland. Does, say, CIA Chief Leon Panetta dream of reclaiming his great grandfather’s olive groves in Sicily? How many African Americans actively seek to regain a piece of the Ivory Coast?

I’m not sure yearning for the ancestral land lasts more than a generation without the force of religion to inflame it. Am I wrong about that?

History seems to be good at perpetuating a sense of grievance—witness in the US the undying fetish of the Confederacy and the “lost cause.” But history alone doesn’t seem to fetishize the land in the same way. West Virginia was formed because the western part of Virginia refused to join the Confederacy. But in WV today, you find native West Virginians flying confederate flags. Clearly this version of history involves nurturing a grievance, but it isn’t grounded in reclaiming a specific piece of land.

It’s true that in the history of emigration/immigration there are many examples of long term ties between the old country and the new: letters money sent home, continuing business ties. Often this connection has a political charge: many Irish Americans supported the IRA, for example, often with money: history perpetuates a sense of grievance. How many of them moved or plan to move back to Ireland? Close to zero.

There’s lots of sentimental self-identification among American immigrants, as in St. Patrick’s day parades. There are movies like The Quiet Man or The Godfather, which recall the old country fondly. Afrocentric pan-African movements have always had their vogue, and generally failed.

The most powerful and long lasting visions of pan-African identity—for example, Bob Marley’s—have a strong religious base. So even though the history of immigration to the US is largely a history of people being dispossessed, in the US the rage at being stripped of the land seems to have faded.

It’s not just the US. Are there Mexicans who long to reclaim some specific acres of Spanish soil? Do Englishmen in Australia dream of returning to the land that sent them away as convicts? Do Argentine Germans yearn for the fatherland? I know of no bossa novas that express a longing for the old fazenda in Portugal.

Obviously “dispossession” could have different forms and meanings. Watching them destroy your house is different from choosing to leave because there aren’t any jobs.

I’m not trying to suggest any particular people’s sense of grievance is not legitimate: what I’m wondering about here is the reason for the persistance of land attachment.

The illustration above appeared in Matt Yglesias’ blog. Would this claim, phrased in legal-eze, ever appear without the force of religion? Both Jews and Palestinians are dispossessed: Palestinians from land they occupied in living memory, land they now live on as refugees: Jews mostly from land they occupied in ancient times. Few things could be worse than being forcibly dispossessed of land. To have land and property you worked stripped away is brutal.

But in the US, immigrants mostly forgot about it. Realistically, how many Palestinian American citizens want to return to Palestine? Before the holocaust foregrounded the necessity of political refuge, how many American Jews wanted to live in the Middle East, even though the Seder makes the idea of a return to the middle east symbolically central? How many Armenian-Americans want to return to the slopes of Mt. Ararat?

I suppose the key point is the intensity/security of one’s sense of membership in the new country. It’s hard for me to imagine the return of widespread anti-irish sentiment, and no person from Ireland would see my family as anything other than “American.” The US has mostly been pretty good for white ethnics, and as bad as it’s been for black people, repatriation to African has nearly always been a marginal idea.

Which leads me back to religion as the ground for land attachment. Muslims, Jews and Christians all claim the “Holy Land:” it’s the religious piece that gives the land fetish its force. As a religious agnostic, the whole business makes me nervous. It’s obviously in the interests of the guy who takes the land that the dispossessed just “forget about it.” But it’s also true that at a certain point it is in the interest of the dispossessed to in fact forget about, and make a different life. This seems to have happened in many places all over the world. Except where religion requires believers to venerate specific acreage.




  • How did you manage to write about land dispossession without mentioning American Indian peoples? Their efforts to reclaim land have not (with the notable exception of the Ghost Dance) been about religion.

  • How did I manage it? Why, in the usual way, by ignoring it!

    I did think about it, and I think it probably proves my case, but I’m not confident enough to assert so. I know there are native American movements to reclaim land, but are they larger and more generally compelling than, say, african repatriation movements in the African American community? Are there large numbers of Cherokee actively pursuing land in NW Georgia? I simply don’t know, and wrote the post hoping to be educated.

  • Lord Byron wrote:

    Nationalism and Romanticism as well as religion… the homeland, the fatherland, as well as my own Pastoralism my good fellow.

    Of course Nationalism is/was the religion in a non religious society.

  • Ok, but a nation’s claims to territory seem different to me than a person’s desire for specific land. Maybe Mexico wants California back–that would make sense in a territorial, resource wealth kind of way, and Mexico would have some degree of legitimate claim. But there aren’t mexican terrorists aiming to reclaim Bakersfield because grandpa lived there. And as mentioned, history can certainly nurture and perpetuate a sense of grievance, but I’m not sure France’s desire for Alsace is the same thing.

  • I don’t know about terrorists, but you might look into El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. See, e.g.,

  • Dennis Connor wrote:

    I found this blog while researching the issue of old land claims.

    My grandmother, born in Ireland, spoke of a castle that belonged to our family until the British hit it with cannon fire in 1580 (Carrigafoyle castle). It stands today as an Irish national heritage site.

    We reclaimed it for a while until the British (Sir Carew)came and retook it in 1600. It was eventually titled to favored English settlers.

    It was simply stolen from us as part of a generations long ethnic cleansing operation. Now’s the time to return it.

    I’m considering a legal challenge to the status quo and having the title transferred to a permanent Connor clan trust. I’d share the title equally with all others in the clan. I may consider personally financing the full restoration of the property.

    Would I live there?…yes but only for a short time since other clan members may want to stay for a while as well. We’d be expected to help in day to day maintenance during the visit.

    I’d pay for a serious long and hard legal challenge including overturning what I consider bogus Acts of Settlement and the rest of the sham. My clan can claim we are due over 4000 months lost rent, land payments and a list of other grievances.

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