Recent Readings on the Irish Diaspora

April 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I continue to read, deepening my knowledge of the Irish diaspora in the United States and Canada, I find I’m struck by the changing trends in the historiography, in particular the fact that this literature IS diasporic and transnational in nature.  Ever since Kerby Miller published his landmark Emigrants and Exiles in 1985, historians of the Irish in North America have been encouraged to keep an eye on the Irish context.  But, for a long time, this was no more than a cursory glance across the Atlantic Ocean, briefly acknowledging what it was that lead the Irish to leave Ireland in the first place.

But, in the past decade or so, a much deeper understanding of the Irish context has taken root in the literature.  Diasporic Irish historians have been caught up in the debates in Irish historiography, the revisionists v. the post-revisionists, but even the older discussion between revisionists and nationalists.  And what I’m finding interesting is the influence of these Irish historiographical debates on scholars studying the diaspora.  It also seems that it is social scientists, rather than historians, who seem to be caught up in these debates.  I suppose for historians, historiographical debates are so internalised in our work, to openly comment on them seems redundant, at least for some of us.

Take, for example, Reginald Byron’s 1999 study, Irish America, an overly ambitious title for a case study approach to the diasporic Irish of Albany, NY.  Indeed, part of the chip on Byron’s shoulder is that studies of the Irish in the US have focused on the ethnic enclaves of major cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, to the detriment of smaller centres, such as Albany.  But then the problem is that Albany itself isn’t all that representative of the larger American context, in that it was a predominately Catholic city, and it, too, is a northeastern city.  Anyway.  Byron is a cynic of the Irish, which is fine, he argues, ultimately, that symbols of Irishness, most notably St. Patrick’s Day, are no longer Irish in nature, they are American, as the Irish have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of American life.  To an extent, I agree.  He bases his conclusion on 500 oral interviews with “Albanians,” most of whom were people who are of Irish descent, amongst others (German, English, French Canadian, Italian, so on).  What he found is that most of the informants had no special knowledge of Ireland and Irish affairs, and did not live their quotidian lives in the Irish fashion, whatever that is.  Fair enough, but when you read into the Irish context he covers, in discussing the historical background as to how Albany became so Irish in the first place, one begins to see the connections.

Byron spends a lot of time attempting to portray Ireland as un nation comme les autres, to borrow from the revisionists of Québec historiography.  Indeed, this is the very goal of the Irish revisionists, who seek to downplay many of the more traumatic events in Irish history as a means to normalise its history within the mainstream of Western Europe.  The problem with this is that there are things that make Ireland exceptional: it was colonised by its neighbour, its Catholic population was oppressed and disenfranchised by the colonising power.  Byron scoffs at the common misconception that the Irish were in permanent rebellion in the 19th century.  Again, to some extent, I do agree.  However, this ignores the fact that the Irish did rebel in 1798, 1847, 1867, and that there were revolutionary, physical force nationalists operated on Irish soil for most of the 19th century leading up to Irish independence and Partition in 1921.  Indeed, the response to the 1798 and 1916 rebellions were particularly draconian on the part of the British colonisers.

Indeed, it was this on-going pattern of rebellion that galvanised the Irish diaspora, especially in Canada and the United States, as nationalist circles were strong in both countries.  Indeed, it was the Irish in North America who raised funds for the independence struggle “back home,” even if Ireland was a country many diasporic Irish never saw, and only knew through stories and memories of their ancestors and more recent immigrants.

But this also leads to problems, as evidenced in Paul Darby’s Gaelic Games, Nationalism, and the Irish Diaspora in the United States.  Darby, who plays Irish football, occasionally comes off more as a fanboy than a scholar in discussing the trials and tribulations of the Gaelic Athletic Association’s American branches, praising their dedication, hard work, and so on, and not acknowledging the American GAA’s biggest problem: an inability to make itself relevant to the diasporic Irish.  The GAA, according to Darby, was incredibly successful within circles of Irish immigrants in the cities he studies: New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.  But the American GAA faded when immigration from Ireland dried up.

At any rate, the larger issue I have with Darby’s work is that he seems to equate the Irish in North America with Irish nationalism, in that the Irish here were all nationalists.  No doubt this stems from studying a particularly nationalist organisation as the GAA.  But the GAA didn’t speak for all the Irish in North America, even within the contexts of Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Thus, Darby leaves us with a problem that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Byron.  Whereas Byron wishes to downplay the ruptures of Irish history and identity in Albany, NY, Darby seeks to keep those ruptures in his readers’ minds, in order to explain this strong Irish identity amongst his case studies in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.  Surely there is a common ground between Byron and Darby.

Indeed, my own work, as well as that of many others (Rosalyn Trigger and David Wilson, for example) explore the ambivalences and ambiguities of the Irish in North America.  It is too simplistic to say, as Byron does, that they became assimilated into the mainstream of North American culture and politics (if they did, JFK wouldn’t have been identified as an Irish-Catholic American), or to say that the Irish in North America = Irish nationalists, as Darby does.


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