Miller’s crossing

Published in Features, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13

(Paddy Fitzgerald)

(Paddy Fitzgerald)

PF: To what extent was a sense of Irish ethnicity a factor drawing you towards an academic interest in Irish Studies and particularly Irish migration?

KM: Only in retrospect. Being born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, one primarily thought of oneself as being white as against others who were not. There was a much less developed sense of people’s ethnic or religious background than in the mid-western or eastern US. I heard stories about my mother’s remote Irish ancestors but had no sense of Irish (or Scots-Irish) identity.

PF: So what was your route into the study of the history of Irish immigration?

KM: Having graduated in history at the University of California-Berkeley, I was planning a comparative study of slavery and race relations in the US and Latin America. My supervisor, Kenneth Stampp, was less keen on the idea, and as I debated alternative subjects I was drawn towards the New York Draft Riots, in which the Irish played a large role. In seeking to understand how Irish immigrants felt about African Americans, the Civil War and related issues, I was drawn towards sources such as letters, diaries and memoirs. That really was the start of my exploration of Irish migration to North America.

PF: The last decade has seen a growing usage of the term ‘Irish Diaspora’. I was interested in how you view this.

KM: I’ve never written anything about the use of the term and I’m not sure that I’ve ever used it myself. In Emigrants and exiles I used the term ‘Irish Exodus’, which seemed to connect with specific analogies drawn by Irish poets and nationalists between the Irish experience and that of the Jews and their notion of banishment from a Promised Land. In the sense that diaspora communicates the notion that emigration is more than the process of moving from Ireland to one specific place, that migration embraced and connected movements to Britain, America, Australia, and included return to Ireland, the term can be very useful. It helps us to think about Irish migration in a global rather than just a transatlantic sense. However, the popularity of the term surprises me in that it’s often used by revisionists who wish to portray Irish emigration as a process that was voluntary and beneficial, and yet the original usage of the term diaspora, and its application to the Jewish and African cases, implies compulsion and exile, which revisionists would reject for the Irish. I’m curious about that; it almost seems as if Donald Akenson and others have grasped a poisoned chalice, poison for their neo-liberal interpretation of Irish migration.

An emigrant ship, Dublin Bay, sunset (1853) by Edwin Hayes. ‘An increasingly affluent Irish-American community wish to see their immigrant ancestors portrayed in more respectable ways and are thus an eager audience for those who presented those immigrants as eager, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, rather than as desperately poor, bewildered Irish-speaking peasants thrown onto the docks of New York’. (National Gallery of Ireland)

An emigrant ship, Dublin Bay, sunset (1853) by Edwin Hayes. ‘An increasingly affluent Irish-American community wish to see their immigrant ancestors portrayed in more respectable ways and are thus an eager audience for those who presented those immigrants as eager, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, rather than as desperately poor, bewildered Irish-speaking peasants thrown onto the docks of New York’. (National Gallery of Ireland)

PF: Irish immigrants in the Land of Canaan (2003) brought together and analysed a huge collection of personal testimonies from immigrants from Ireland to North America. Can you tell us something about the evolution of that project?

KM: It began back in the late 1980s in the wake of Emigrants and exiles, when it seemed that the next logical step was to publish an edited collection of a representative sample of the letters and memoirs that had been collected. We wanted to publish the full texts and try as best we could to set them in their appropriate locational and historical contexts. Having identified something like 350-odd documents in total, ranging from the 1660s to the 1960s, the enormity of the task became apparent. In the early 1990s we decided to focus our attention on the earlier period—the ‘long’ eighteenth century. There was a great deal of fascinating material there, and because that period remained under-studied we felt we should concentrate on it and hope to deal with the later material in the future. Doing the contextual research was an enormous job, involving the quantity of research one would do for a major journal article multiplied by sixty or seventy. The four of us realised this was a huge commitment and we tried to coordinate our labours. As far as the follow-up project goes, all I can say is we all recognise that we’re not getting younger!

PF: For those with a particular interest in migration studies it was interesting to note the name of Arnold Schrier on the book’s cover as one of your editing and writing partners. Can you tell us a little about how the four of you came together?

Miller’s crossing 3KM: Arnold was really the great pioneer scholar of Irish emigration to America. In the 1950s he gathered a small but great collection of letters for his own work, and when I was setting out twenty years later he was very helpful. I drove to Cincinnati to meet him, and he allowed me to photocopy everything he had. He was a model of generosity I’ve tried to emulate. Arnold then first floated the idea of an edited collection, and so it seemed obvious to contact him at the outset of the Canaan project, even though most of his collection relates to the late nineteenth century. Bruce Boling I had met many years before in Dublin and been deeply impressed by his brilliance generally but particularly his ability to analyse the English language as written by Irish people. His contribution was crucial to understanding the cultural backgrounds of the letters’ authors. David Doyle I met much later, and the hope was that we could focus on the historical context. David came to the US in the early 1990s and plunged into the contextual research. He wasn’t able to finish, but by the time he returned to Dublin we had many more data and insights about the eighteenth-century material.

PF: Over the years you have been a prodigious collector of source material. How do you view this role as a collector?

KM: I didn’t set out with an archival frame of mind—intending to create a personal archive of Irish immigrant letters. Nearly all the material I gathered in the first phase of my doctoral research came from Irish, American and Canadian archives. Then in 1976–7, when I had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s, Belfast, I made a major public appeal to try to locate letters and memoirs still in private hands. The wonderful Rodney Green and Ambassador Shannon, in Dublin, were tremendously helpful there. What I got I photocopied, and I sent copies to the Public Records Office, NI, and the National Library of Ireland—working with Trevor Parkhill at PRONI and Kevin Whelan at the NLI to ensure that I would not be the only person to benefit from this new material. As I said earlier, I’ve tried to make what I had accessible and I’ve also encouraged historians who want to research the letters to visit Columbia and use them within the boundaries imposed by the donors or archives that hold the original copies. I’d estimate that two dozen or more have done so.

PF: Reflecting upon a decade of intensive fresh research and writing about the Great Famine, I wondered how you felt about the strong association between famine and emigration, perhaps, particularly in the minds of Americans of Irish ancestry?

KM: To a great extent that popular association still prevails. Many of my students of Irish background, in the absence of specific information, tend to make the Famine connection to explain their families’ movement to America. Among historians, however, there is now a much greater appreciation of the scale and significance of Irish immigration outside the context of the Famine period than was once the case. I think this has been part of the impact of revisionism, in the United States and worldwide, and also of a desire to create a more respectable past.

PF: There has been a traditional tendency for historians of Irish immigration to North America to deal with migration and settlement in discrete US and Canadian contexts. Is the 49th parallel still as significant a divide as it once was?

KM: When I began the research for Emigrants and exiles I was thinking a lot less about that issue than I would now. Earlier historians such as Marcus Hanson and W.F. Adams effectively ignored the 49th parallel, tracing migration back and forth across the border, and it seemed to me that I too should deal with North America. In preparing that book, though, I became increasingly conscious of how daunting it was to encompass the scholarship on Canadian as well as American history; hence I did focus primarily on the US. Nonetheless we should not lose sight of the fact that close to three-quarters of Irish overseas migrants (leaving aside Britain) settled in the US. I admit to being a bit taken aback when, in the last few years, I and other historians were suddenly accused of being myopic and chauvinistic because we allegedly ‘ignored’ the Irish outside the US. First, we should humbly acknowledge that there are certain human and financial limitations facing most scholars. I think comparative Irish migration studies are absolutely fascinating and have enormous potential but they offer little if engaged in only at a very superficial level. Having taught a course in 2002, when I was at New York University, on comparative Irish migration, I was struck by the magnitude of the task. Mastering the legal, political, governmental and administrative, as well as the socio-economic and cultural contexts of the different states or colonies in which Irish migrants settled is a mind-boggling proposition for any individual. Yet unless one recognises and addresses both the deep structural and the subtle socio-cultural differences among those different societies, I fear there is little important or profound that can be said about comparative Irish migration.

PF: Some of your work over more recent years has focused upon the historical experience and migration experience of Protestants from the north of Ireland, particularly during the nineteenth century. Would it be an overstatement to say that you consider this still a kind of ‘hidden history’?

KM: Yes, I think it’s still relatively unknown. The work I have done on Irish religious demography, often with Liam Kennedy, gives me most pride—trying to make sense of the scattered fragmentary evidence from the pre-census era and trying to correlate that with the nineteenth-century census returns. I think that work sheds much light on migration patterns and much else besides. It has enormous potential for increasing our understanding of the development of Unionism and Nationalism, particularly in Ulster. For example, the fact that the checking of mass emigration during the 1870s did not occur among Ulster Protestants, as it did among Southern Catholics (in fact, emigration from Protestant Ulster seems to have soared in the 1870s), perhaps had very important implications in the 1880s, when it may help to explain the non-receptivity of Ulster Protestants to the Land League and even Home Rule—a pattern opposite, in other words, to that described by Sam Clark and Don Jordan among Catholics in the south and west. Also fascinating are the dynamics of demographic change among Presbyterians and Anglicans in places like mid-Ulster, and the likely connections between those dynamics and the development of places like north Armagh as cockpits of Orangeism and Loyalism.  If you look at mid-Ulster demographic data between the 1760s and the early 1830s, and even through the Famine era to the early 1860s, the local Anglican and Presbyterian experiences were dramatically different: for whatever reasons, the Anglicans generally didn’t have to migrate, whereas the Presbyterians left at similar or even greater rates than did Ulster Catholics.

Miller’s crossing 4PF: Having already briefly mentioned the ‘R’ word, how do you view the whole debate about revisionism in Irish history?

KM: When I began my research at Berkeley the only person working on Irish history was Perry Curtis. He wasn’t there long, but he pointed me to the new Irish historiography and the infinite complexities that lurked therein. I dived in and tried to read as much as I possibly could, and—this may sound incredibly naïve—for a long time, working in relative isolation, I had little inkling of the political or ideological implications of what I was reading. In a sense I took it all at face value. I remember that David Fitzpatrick wrote in a review of Emigrants and exiles for Reviews in American History that he found it difficult to place me on the contemporary landscape of Irish historiography because I had tried to synthesise across the full spectrum of historical writing. I’ve become somewhat wiser, and in the last decade I’ve become somewhat cynical about revisionism. I’m all in favour of striving for ‘objectivity’ and trying to cut through all of the mythologies to ascertain as accurately as we possibly can what really took place. However, intentionally or unintentionally, what has largely happened is that Nationalist mythologies have been systematically discredited whilst Unionist or British mythologies have been left largely intact. Now with post-revisionists preoccupied with refuting revisionists there is a real danger of it becoming a circular debate that feeds off itself and largely continues to ignore what revisionists preferred not to examine critically.

PF: And the extent to which that debate reverberated out around the Irish Diaspora?

KM: I think there are many strands to trying to answer that question. I’d say there has been a rejection of the Irish Nationalist or Irish-American Nationalist emphases on the Famine experience and on the notion of emigration as exile. Why? I’d see it as a convergence of various things. First, the general omnipresence since the 1970s of globalism and neo-liberalism that generated a need to reinterpret positively the history of commercialisation, the triumph of global capitalism, and the migrations caused thereby. Hence a desire to see Irish emigration in essentially individualistic, ‘rational-economic’ terms, dismissing perspectives that emphasise political power and political choices that determined outcomes. Second, within Ireland itself a new perspective on emigration, epitomised by the late Brian Lenihan’s portrayal of emigration as a positive necessity—good for all parties—to ensure ‘social stability’ for what Joe Lee calls the ‘possessing classes’. Third, the troubles in Northern Ireland fed a desire to undermine Nationalist ‘mythologies’ in Ireland and North America which were seen to promote political violence and the perpetuation of the conflict. Fourth, an increasingly affluent Irish-American community wished to see their immigrant ancestors portrayed in more respectable ways and were thus an eager audience for those who presented those immigrants as eager, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, rather than as desperately poor, bewildered Irish-speaking peasants thrown onto the docks of New York. Fifth, the multi-faceted, diasporic dimension. This, as I said earlier, has much of value to offer but has been employed somewhat cynically—especially the notion that, irrespective of the relative sizes of the various migration streams, the Irish in New Zealand (rather than the Irish in the US) represent some kind of norm, and therefore the factors of Nationalism, Famine and poverty can be diminished so that the story becomes less unpleasant and embarrassing. I am sure it’s flattering for people in Australia, Canada or New Zealand to be told they are not peripheral to the Irish Diaspora or its scholarship but instead represent the new model to be celebrated. But sometimes when you read Irish Diaspora scholarship you sense a barely hidden anti-Americanism designed to feed both conservative and liberal sensibilities overseas.
Revisionists’ writings about the Irish and Empire are also interesting and closely related to their reinterpretation of emigration. Normally revisionists insist that the ‘two traditions’ be sharply delineated, but in their presentations of the so-called Irish Empire the Irish-born members of British colonial administrations, colonial armies, police forces, etc., are usually just defined as ‘Irish’ (although the upper echelons, the decision-makers at least, were overwhelmingly Unionists). In this way, all the ‘Irish’ (implying the Catholics) can be branded as imperial collaborators, which in turn is useful for discrediting Nationalists and any affinities they claim with anti-colonial struggles overseas.

PF: One interesting strand of the migratory relationship between Ireland and America which has begun to receive a bit more attention recently relates to the issue of return to Ireland, the ‘returned Yanks’ as they became known here. What seems clear is that the Irish came back less frequently than most other European ethnic groups. Any thoughts on that issue?

KM: It’s an interesting issue. There are hard data only for a few years in the early 1900s and these suggest very low return rates. But during the American depressions of the 1870s and 1890s the US consuls in Ireland described small floods of returnees. Even earlier, after the US financial panic of 1837, W.F. Adams described a significant movement of Irish migrants out of the US, mostly but not entirely to Canada. So most return migration may have been quite variable, and sensitive to economic conditions. On the other hand, during the Land of Canaan project, I was struck by how many early letters, mostly penned by Protestants, catalogued in some detail the movements of other immigrants, including many who were headed home for familial or economic reasons, and this suggests in turn that some ‘hidden’ degree of return or circular migration may have been relatively constant.

Paddy Fitzgerald is Lecturer and Development Officer at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh.

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