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Response to Review no. 500

Professor Ged Martin, now retired from the University of Edinburgh and an expert on British relations with settler societies, provides an encouraging review of my book, and I am grateful to him for these efforts. Martin presents two important criticisms and I would like to occupy this rejoinder by focusing upon them.

The first of these Martin presents under a heading he calls ‘Alice’s Letters’. The term refers to the correspondence Martin’s mother received from an old friend who migrated to Canada as a war bride and which sparked Martin’s curiosity about Canada. The letters were upbeat and in later years Martin had the opportunity to comment on this to Alice, provoking a revelation that her early years had been desperately unhappy. Martin has consequently ‘never trusted emigrant letters since’. Certainly the reliability or otherwise of emigrant letters is a key issue for researchers. But the same applies to any body or type of sources. Moreover, individual scholars will inevitably designate different meanings and weights to different sources, and this is certainly true with subjective personal testimonies. I was intrigued, for example, that Martin uncritically accepts Alice’s later recollections even though personal memory is often fraught with silences, evasions and embellishments. While we may never determine whether ‘correspondents were telling the whole truth’ the disjuncture between contemporary and retrospective accounts is an intriguing area of analysis that preoccupies students of history and memory. Indeed, in a recent article I explored this issue through the letters and oral testimony of Scotswoman Lorna Carter who migrated to New Zealand in the 1950s before returning to Scotland in the middle of the decade. (1) Her testimony stands in stark contrast with that of Alice. A further question can be raised here. Ged Martin indicates that Alice was bitterly unhappy during her ‘early years overseas’. Did she, in conversation with Martin, confess that later years were happier? This clearly has implications for his critique, as the bulk of letters utilised for the study under review were written many years after an emigrant’s arrival.

The second point Ged Martin makes is that of ‘Shanacoole Exceptionalism’. By focusing on a sequence of letters sent to Shanacoole migrants in New Zealand, in which family tensions are all too apparent, Martin queries whether emigrant correspondence can be ‘assessed without taking more account of the dynamics and tensions in the specific relationships that generated each batch of letters?’ Just as Martin pinpointed some occasions in which the interpretation suffered from the ‘compulsive demands of minute doctoral analysis’, so too did the monograph suffer from similar demands of publishers. The thesis upon which the book was based was structured very differently to the publication under review, divided as it was into two parts. The second part adopted a thematic approach upon which the eventual book was structured. The first part, however, contained extensive discussions of each sequence of correspondence (following the format of David Fitzpatrick’s monumental Oceans of Consolation) structured along the following lines: families in conflict, widows and orphans, and harmonious households. (2) In many ways this section of the thesis more fully addressed Martin’s critique.

In raising these suggestions Ged Martin has pinpointed critical areas of concern which historians of all sources need to be alert to. Despite their drawbacks, emigrant letters and other forms of personal testimony deployed for the study of migration provide unparalleled insight into aspects of the experience of migration that might otherwise be lost.


  1. Angela McCarthy, ‘Personal Letters, Oral Testimony, and Scottish Migration to New Zealand in the 1950s: The Case of Lorna Carter’, Immigrants and Minorities, 23:1 (2005), 59–79. Back to (1)
  2. David Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia (Cork, 1994). Back to (2)