The Irish Diaspora

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

The Irish Diaspora: A Primer, Donald Harman Akenson (Meany & Co., Toronto; Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, £22.50)

‘The Irish Diaspora’ L.M Cullen in Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration 1500-1800 Nicholas Canny (ed.) (Clarendon Press, £35)

Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia, David Fitzpatrick (Cork University Press, £37.50)

At one level, the three volumes under review are a timely reminder, in the midst of sesquicentenary commemorations, that emigration from Ireland, so often automatically associated with the Famine, did not begin in the 1840s and was not directed only at North America. Equally, the combined attentions of three of the most pre-eminent historians writing on Irish history today will go some way towards presenting a more balanced historical perspective to the emotive subject of contemporary emigration than the recent ‘light in the window’ treatment it has been receiving. Indeed, Louis Cullen makes the point that ‘Irish out-migration of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represents a higher proportion of the total movement of peoples who crossed natural boundaries…than did the nineteenth century outflow’.
Donald Akenson’s The Irish Diaspora: a Primer is a (literally) far-reaching and nearly comprehensive survey of the patterns of Irish migration to most of the well-known destinations: the fleeting reference to Argentina and South America generally does less than justice to a significant strand in the migration network. Although he sets out to speak primarily (but not solely) to those whose family members have migrated overseas and to persons of Irish descent world-wide, the book is in effect a synthesis of the research of leading emigration historians—most notably Cormac Ó Gráda, David Fitzpatrick and Patrick O’Farrell, in whose company Akenson is equally regarded. The outcome is, possibly, a more academic account than may have been the original intention. As a summary, however, of the recent advances that have been made in research, liberally laced as it is with the author’s own informed opinions, it is compellingly effective. This is most evident in the assessment of the Irish movement to and settlement in the nineteenth century New World—Australia, New Zealand and South Africa—an area in which Akenson’s own published work has been influential. The outcome is to refocus attention away from emigration to North America and to develop a more holistic and broadly based ‘emigrant type’. Among the challenges which this important work issues are the contentions that ‘the USA and Canada are the big anomalies in the history of the Irish diaspora’; ‘the Irish Catholic emigrants from Ireland did not leave the homeland with any inherent cultural disadvantages’; and that it is a ‘universally ignored fact’ that ‘the bulk of the Irish ethnic group is and probably always will be…Protestant’. On the other hand, Akenson’s description of the crucial period of pre-Famine emigration as ‘unknowable’ avoids the albeit incomplete picture that can be construed from the work of W.F. Adams, Rodney Green, Cormac Ó Gráda and Kerby Miller. Indeed the characteristics of the Akenson ‘emigrant type’ would fit not at all uncomfortably with what is already known of the generation which emigrated before the famine.
In ‘The Irish Diaspora’, his essay in Europeans on the Move, Louis Cullen also attributes the complexity of pre-Famine emigration to the relative dearth of documentary evidence and the insights that may be found ‘by chance from documents relating to administrative or political matters’. It develops in more detail—and indeed questions—the seminal work of Bernard Bailyn (whose short essay introduces the volume) on the British dimensions of the movement of peoples. In particular, it also addresses the ‘unknowable’ by attempting to quantify with more precision ‘the estimates of Irish Presbyterian migration frequently volunteered by contemporary observers’ which, he is satisfied, ‘can rarely have exceeded 1000-2000 per year in peacetime’.
Cullen’s essay instances the work in American repositories by Marianne Wokeck (still, unfortunately, not published) in establishing a more reliable estimate of arrivals in American ports. In doing so, the need for more research, particularly on the American side, is highlighted. For Cullen, the significance of the increase in trans-Atlantic migration in the two decades immediately preceding 1775 should not be seen as a response to crisis. On the contrary, it is clearly associated with ‘a renewed pace of expansion in colonial America and of an Atlantic economy which was quite literally transformed by the great upsurge in trade and output on both sides of the ocean in the 1760s and 1770s’. His firmly stated view is that the transatlantic migrations of this epoch are ‘the greatest single watershed in the history of emigration overall’.
David Fitzpatrick’s Oceans of Consolation contains eleven series of emigrants’ letters written in Australia and sent back to Ireland, and three series of letters sent the other way. Thus far, the general approach to emigrants’ correspondence as evidence has been to ‘let the letters speak for themselves’ or, as Kerby Miller has done, to judiciously incorporate selected passages in the text. Fitzpatrick has set out to redefine the use of emigrants’ letters as evidence, seeing them—as he outlined in History Ireland (Winter 1994)—as much a repository of popular culture as of emigrants’ experiences. He has paid careful and, in many cases, scientific attention to the forms of language and expression in the letters, and has consciously tried to analyse patterns in their characteristics. Whether or not the same approach can be adapted for emigrants’ letters from America is problematic: in terms of quantity and chronological and geographical spread they are a more disparate and variable group.
In any event, Fitzpatrick’s work will justifiably be regarded as a model to follow, not only for letters to Ireland but also for ‘reverse’ emigrant letters, as Rodney Green termed them. These letters from Ireland to friends and relatives who have recently left tend, by and large, to provide a better picture of the circumstances which prompted their removal in the first place than is evident in the letters back from the emigrants themselves. And, on the question of letting the letters speak for themselves, the commercially produced cassette tape of dramatised readings from the letters in Oceans speaks volumes, as it were, for their intrinsic interest.

The simultaneous appearance of these three important works has made the same advance for the study of emigration from Ireland which marked the publication of Emigrants and Exiles ten years ago. Cullen’s emphasis on the European context of pre-1800 migration (a theme which is extended in Nicholas Canny’s concluding essay in the same volume), Akenson’s panoramic and detailed pursuit of the Irish to the ends of the earth and Fitzpatrick’s innovative interpretation of their evidence all contribute to a welcome broadening of perspective in the study of Irish emigration and its sources. They have also reinforced the view that a more comprehensive account of emigration in the fifty years before the Famine is still outstanding.

Trevor Parkhill


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