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The Irish in America: ‘old’ history and the ‘new’

Books: Ulster Presbyterians and the Scots Irish Diaspora, 1750-1764
Benjamin Bankhurst
London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, ISBN: 9781137328199, 216pp, Price: £53.00
The American Irish: A History
edited by: Kevin Kenny
London, Pearson, 2000, 341pp, Price: £17.99
American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation
Elizabeth Taylor, Adam Cohen
Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2000, 614pp, Price: £25.00
The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America
edited by: Michael Glazier
Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000, 1009pp, Price: £89.95
Reviewer: Professor Donald MacRaild
University of Ulster
Citation: Professor Donald MacRaild, review of The Irish in America: ‘old’ history and the ‘new’, (review no. 215)
Date accessed: 23 July 2024
See Author's Response

Scholars continue to find new things to say about the Irish Diaspora. For many of them-especially those in Ireland and America-the term Diaspora, when applied to the Irish, has a deep, politicised meaning. We can see this point exemplified in two observations. First, the term Diaspora once was used mainly to describe the Jewish experience; only occasionally (but with increasing frequency lately) has it been applied to other groups with traumatic migration histories, such as the victims of the African slave trade or the Armenians who fled before the Turks. Secondly, the application of the term Diaspora to the Irish is (at least in part) shaped by a particular critique of British rule in Ireland and of the traumatic Great Famine. For nationalist scholars, the hunger that accompanied famine is seen to have been exacerbated unnecessarily by British callousness; the flight from Ireland thus becomes ‘exile’ not ’emigration’ and the connection with Africans or Jews becomes complete.

This increasing deployment of the term Diaspora 1 may be a good thing; the term itself may provide historians and social scientists with some of the points of reference they need to plot what was a global phenomenon. It certainly makes scholars think in comparative terms-and this is no bad thing. However, there is a potential downside. By allowing a broader usage of the term Diaspora and by deploying the term for an increasing number of groups, there is a sense in which all migrant groups suddenly seem to be locked into a competition of relative victimhood. Whether or not this might affect the utility of the term, depends very much on the reader’s political viewpoint. Whatever that viewpoint, though, there is a sense in which Diaspora studies represents a return to the ’emigration as trauma’ school which dominated American writing on migration from Thomas and Znaniecki in the aftermath of World War 1 to Oscar Handlin in the Fifties.2 This is despite the important work of scholars of migration such as Frank Thistlethwaite and John Bodnar who have stressed the more constructive (and complicated) nature of migration in the Atlantic world.3

What is perhaps most worrying, however, is the fact that most writers do not actually attempt to define the term Diaspora even though they use it with abandon. This is certainly true of Andy Bielenberg’s collection of essays, The Irish Diaspora, which is the end product of a conference held at University College Cork in the summer of 1997. It should perhaps be pointed out at this stage that the introduction is actually written by Piaras Mac Éinrí, Director of the Centre for Migration Studies, Cork, rather than by the editor himself. Nevertheless, no attempt is made to explain how the contributors use the term. When we read the book, in fact, we find that most of the authors don’t use it all. As with so many studies, then, an opportunity is lost and the term simply becomes a collective noun rather than an element of social theory.

That this is the case does not diminish the value of individual contributions. While very few authors seek to place what they are writing into the wider context of this book, there is some very good work on offer. Certainly, one cannot help but note the variety and breadth of research that is currently being conducted under the banner of the Irish Diaspora. The editor has been assiduous in putting together essays that range broadly over both chronology and area. Britain, America and the former colonies all receive considerable coverage. Indeed, the inclusion of the latter enables interesting papers from Bielenberg himself and Michael Holmes to provide coverage of aspects of the Irish Diaspora that most scholars will not be familiar with. Similarly, Bielenberg has also conjured up essays that are historical and sociological; some which are (near) contemporary; and others covering the pre-famine period. Breda Gray’s study of 1980s London is an interesting example of how our growing interest in the more recent Irish migration is formulating new research questions. The inclusion of work demonstrating new methodologies and important new research findings also adds to the important parts of the volume. Ruth-Ann Harris’s discussion of her missing friends research, using The Boston Pilot column which for years sought to bring separate migrants back together, is a very good example of this.

When thinking ‘Diaspora’, we surely must think in comparative terms. Yet few of the essays in this volume address the Irish in more than one polity. The exceptions are Malcolm Campbell’s study of migrants in rural Minnesota and New South Wales and Enda Delaney’s wide-ranging attempt to place post-war Irish migration to Britain into European perspective. Both writers succeed well. Campbell’s piece is doubly stimulating for, in addition to considerable the comparative aspects, he draws upon the rural world. In so doing, he demonstrates that (as Donald Akenson has been saying for years)4 there is more to the Irish than slum-dwelling and machine politics. The Irish could make a fist of agricultural work in foreign countries, irrespective of the fact that a majority ended up in towns and cities. Delaney, by considering the Irish alongside migrants from comparable economies, particularly in Mediterranean countries, brings fresh new ways of thinking to bear to the problems of language and the issue of return migration. While Mac Éinrí makes the point about Irish migration being unique in the period between the Great Famine and the mid-20th century, Delaney clearly asserts that this was anything but the case in the later period.. The implications of Delaney’s and Campbell’s work is that one of the last great barriers to our understanding of the Irish Diaspora (and indeed of any Diaspora) is our weakness with the comparative method. More research of this type is needed.

The part of the Irish Diaspora which we know best is America. New books on this aspect of Irish migration and settlement continue to flow apace. Kevin Kenny’s new book, The American Irish: a History, therefore, stands out as an important contribution, offering a compelling narrative for the specialist and the general reader alike, as well as being a must for students. In offering such a volume, he demonstrates a formidable ability to synthesis a vast body of monographs and articles. But Kenny deserves far more credit than the mere implication that he is a bag carrier for someone else’s scholarship. As author of one of the best books on an Irish-American theme, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998), Kenny is well placed to make sense of a literature running to thousands of titles. The American Irish provides vital context for understanding the breadth and depth of issues underpinning Irish American society as it has emerged, changed and developed over the past three hundred years. This is the route map through Irish America we have long needed.

There is something distinctly un-American about Kenny’s book, which might be explained by his Irish, rather than American-Irish, nativity. This book is not a celebratory anthology in the style of some of the old classics: populist works like some of those written in the era of the Kennedys or before.5 Nor is it a collection of quirky anecdotes about boozers and boxers, priests and politicos, womanisers and gangsters. Kenny’s study is underpinned by a solid theoretical strength. It moves forward with a sense of period that is much stronger than readers will find in some of the more eclectic early general studies, such as Carl Wittke’s Irish in America (1956), or the unashamedly one-sided approach of Lawrence McCaffrey’s The Irish Diaspora in America. Too many books on Irish America in the past have written in black and white terms about the Irish experience of migration, stressing the Catholicism, poverty and oppression of what was in fact a much more variegated transatlantic population movement. English colonial evil (a viewpoint undoubtedly endorsed by some degree of truth) has dominated so many books on the subject that they cannot be recounted here. On the other side, too many American ethnic histories have celebrated the achievements immigrants in the new Republic in a rather teleological way, the aim seemingly being to recount how this or that group made good in America, land of opportunity, before contributing uniquely to whatever it was that came out of the melting pot. All too often such books ignored the complexities of the migrants’ experiences, successful or otherwise (and here I refer to more than just American Irish writers and histories).

The thirty years or so after 1914 saw an gradual closing of the ‘Golden Door’ and, as a counterweight, came a great outpouring of books offering near-biblical tales of a variety of immigrants groups as they strove to imprint their signature on American life.6 The story being told in those days was of the migrants’ value-added contribution: the Scandinavian contribution in the mid-West; what the German did for brewing; how the Irish ran the church, etc. Of course, in the new nation the struggle for recognition was, in a sense, even more important than in the Old World: political and civic fluidity meant there was more to play for, with potentially higher rewards round the corner. The notion of American sidewalks being paved with gold grew from a sense of hope far more apparent, far more locked into working-class folk-lore, than was ever the case with the Irish (or any other incoming group) in Britain. Yet the common logic of these early immigrant histories was the fact that American society was beginning to reject the very people who were being written about. Immigrant histories in those days were, in some respects, an attempt to re-impose the notion that a cosmopolitan culture was a central strength of the American self-image.

The immigrants’ story in America is as much a part of American passions as class is in Britain. Yet, there has long been (in this reviewer’s opinion) a need for more books which emphasises a traditional socio-economic approach to the Irish in America, of the type shown (admittedly in case-study form) in Burchell’s excellent monograph on the San Francisco Irish, or in some of Donald Akenson’s works on the Irish in Canada.7 It is his attempt to quantify, objectify and to assess in the round, which prompts praise for Kenny’s marking out of the terrain in general terms.

Kenny’s book takes a chronological approach, starting with the eighteenth century (and therefore, importantly, with Protestants), moving through the period of the Great Famine and beyond, beyond World War II. In assessing each of these periods, Kenny’s relegates celebrations of ethnic achievement in favour of a multi-dimensional approach to the way in which immigrant and indigenous cultures feed off each other. This is not simply a book about how the Irish made America; it is also very much a study of how America re-made the Irish. Perhaps most striking of all is Kenny’s presentation of important historical context on Ireland itself. Again, an observation can me made to the effect that far too many scholars embark on studies on immigrants in particular places (America, Britain, Australia) without knowing very much about the land from which they were sent forth. This has resulted in some curiously naïve and myth-laden writings on the Irish dimension of the American immigrant story. A rather simplistic paradigm of cruel landlordism, British colonial brutality, and the much-bandied concept of ‘anti-Irish racism’ are too often used as the backdrop to the migration story. Elements of truth, of course, underpin such conceptualisations, for no one could begin to imagine Irish history in this period without some sense of Britain’s (or England’s) wrongs. But too often there has been a tendency to caricature the true complexity of social relations and economic fortunes in Ireland.8 Expressions of chagrin about the fact that Irish ‘peasants’ ‘had no vote and no stake in government’ may strike an American of the 1950s as odd and unfair.9 But it would have been of no surprise whatsoever to the Chartist, Samuel Holberry, who was walked to death on a York gaol treadmill for planning a rising in Sheffield, nor to the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were transported to Australia for forming a union bound by a secret oath. Irish ‘peasants’ or English labourers: neither group enjoyed much political power in the 1830s and 1840s.

Kenny attempts a more dispassionate analysis of the Irish side of things, and this is crucial. It is rare for a scholar of the Irish in America to demonstrate such a keen appreciation of the Irish backdrop to the emigrant saga. Each chapter contains a series of passages explaining vital aspects of Irish history, at the given point in time, as they relate to the emigrant experience of those heading to the United States. Landholding systems (cottier, runrig/rundale, etc) are outlined; the Penal Laws are indicated where relevant; the famine is explained rather than enshrined. Indeed, some of these pages on Irish history offer as succinct an insight into the socio-economic conditions of Irish life as anyone could provide in the space allowed. This material is perfect for the student reader, and not just undergraduates.

The chapters on the eighteenth century and on the post-war period must have been the most difficult to write. There is so much material on the nineteenth century, that one could not begin to imagine covering it all. By contrast, the age of the Scotch-Irish migration has attracted less scholarly interested (though a formidable body still exists), while more recent times are so crowded with contemporary images and unfinished business that they are difficult to encapsulate. What Kenny says about the eighteenth century is more than synthesis; he manages to capture some of the most important aspects of colonial America history and to see them through the prism of ethnicity. Indian fighting might have been heroic, but it was often far from gallant. Butchery and the frontier went hand-in-hand, and the Scotch-Irish group was involved in many of the major skirmishes. Kenny also captures the cultural imprint of the Scotch-Irish in way that will not be familiar to many people. Words that theScotch-Irish introduced to the dialects of Trans-Appalachia are the subject of a fascinating discussion; the Irish contribution to American country music provides another valuable source of cultural transplantation and adaptability that Kenny handles well. These are very things, in fact, that were brought to life in one of the episodes of the recent TV series, The Irish Empire, which looked at the cultural impress of the Irish abroad. The nineteenth century-that century of so many millions of poor emigrants-is detailed with an imperious control. Again, the interweaving of ethnic and indigenous cultures works well: sections on Nativism and the Know-Nothing movement; labour and gender; and the recurring theme of nationalism deliver to the reader, time and again, the duality of being ‘ethnic’ and ‘national’, ‘Irish’ and ‘American’.

One of the sections which most fascinated this reviewer is Kenny’s short but sharp discussion of the ‘wages of whiteness’, a controversy which has been brewing for quite some time in America. There is some particularly interesting work, by historians such as David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev,10 discussing the role of immigrants, particularly the Irish, in propagating American racism. The idea is that the Irish and blacks competed with each other, and therefore harboured particularly acute animosities. The hinge upon which the Irish dimension of the ‘wages of whiteness debate turns is the claim that the Irish, when they arrived as poor, starving, outcast, wretches, were accorded honorary black status. That is, they were despised, sneered at, and people felt superior to them. Their progress into a position of acceptance by white America constituted the next important phase.

Were the Irish and blacks comparable? In the past, anecdotal evidence of blacks denigrating the Irish has been used to endorse a romantic, politicised notion of the melancholy story of Irish exile and to emphasise the English colonialism which drove them from Erin’s shores. Ignatiev, for example, argues in his book, How the Irish Became White, that the life of the Irish peasant was similar to that of the black slave in the southern states of America. While this is an exaggerated and simplistic conceptualisation, it is nevertheless true that the Irish were often presented in the receiving countries as the lowest of the low. It is often said (admittedly from eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century anecdotes), that a plantation owner in the south would rather use a gang of Irish workers to clear a dangerous swamp than to risk a squad of slaves-his own personal property and therefore of real monetary value-to do the job. The ‘Condition of England’ debates about Thomas CarlJyle’s ‘Wild Milesians are not very much different from the suggestion that poor Irish Catholics were undermining ‘village green America’ and threatened the essential democracy of the young republic. This latter point, after all, was one of the things which prompted the huge ‘Know Nothing’ development of the mid-1850s, when, for a while, Nativism achieved political dominance in states such as Massachusetts.11

The idea that Irish were perhaps even lowlier than America’s blacks has provided a useful way of increasing the sorrowful image of Irish emigration and exile. More recently, this question of Irish-black relations has become an issue of more widespread scholarly study, and new light suggests a greater degree of tolerance between the pre-Famine Irish emigrant and his freeman black neighbour in the big cities of the North.12 At the heart of this debate is the invented-ness of race and the sense in which it is an ascribed, mythological label rather than an objective fact. Kenny’s contribution cuts through much of the half-truth surrounding debates about the Irish, blacks and race. He places the Irish in their correct position-that is, as whites who ‘presumably shared to some extent the general European propensity to attach negative connotations to “blackness”, even if they had not yet encountered racial oppression in its distinctively American form’. The simplistic notion that low-level social improvement might equate with a serious degree of acceptance of a whole political structure called whiteness, is rejected by Kenny in favour of a more realistic model:

Picture the case of an impoverished Irishman living with his family in an infested cellar in Manhattan’s Sixth Ward. If he took a job on the docks once held by an African American, so that he could move his family up to a tiny, windowless room on the floor above, had he really ‘opted for whiteness’ in any meaningful sense? Or had be taken an action, which because of the racial structure of the United States, had important racial consequences?

Kenny goes on to discuss the more issue of collective action, often violent, against blacks:

Those Irishmen who drove black workers from the docks [e.g. in New York] and excluded them from labour organizations knew what they were doing, and they doubtless advanced their assimilation by doing so. But the American Irish did not create the social and racial hierarchy into which they came, and to expect them to have overturned this hierarchy in the course of putting food on their tables is surely unrealistic.

The essential point, as with most history, is that the right answer does not lie on one extreme or the other. The Irish were not the wholly racist fiends that their arraigners might have us believe; nor were they every remotely as oppressed as the blacks, which will disappoint some at the other pole.

Yet there is no question that Irish workers, as with all groups of whites, at times displayed traits that we would call racist. One reading of Irish political behaviour, especially among the urban bosses, would be to say that racism, and racially motivated policy enactment, played at least some part in the developing political culture. The problem is that evidence to the contrary can always be found for a subject as vexing as racism across something as complicated as two hundred years. The balance between racism, on the one hand, and doing deals, on the other, is captured a thousand times over by the realities of city life in America over the past two centuries. Those who would lionise Irish American politicos for their remarkable ability to grab and make use of the Democratic political machine, fundamentally underestimate the sense in which both the achievement of that power and its maintenance was the product of clever negotiation as well as strong-arm tactics. Irish political power was interrupted by defeats as well as cemented by victories. Some Irish politicians did deals with blacks and non-Irish ethnic groups at the same time as others worsted them very badly. Irish politics, as Cohen and Taylor’s stimulating biography of the Mayor Daley of Chicago demonstrates, was as subtle or as tough as conditions dictated.

If New York’s Tammany Hall is the symbol of American Irish political power, we should look to Chicago, and to Mayor Richard J. Daley, for the greatest wielding of power by any single individual of Irish parentage. As with other Irish leaders (Al Smith or Robert F. Wagner in New York), Daley’s power spread beyond his city, county or state; his power, like theirs was national, but perhaps more so. Daley used circumstances, the mass media and a certain personal talent to become a man whose name was associated, in the minds of millions of Americans beyond Illinois, with a particular brand of conservative political behaviour. But his background, and his early-life show of talents, were unlikely markers for what was ultimately to be an astounding achievement: a vice-like grip on power.

The story of the Daley ethos and of his rise is revealing of an acute collective consciousness among Irish immigrants in America. In this sense, too, Daley was a typical Irishman from a typical community. There were, though, differences. First, his family was small (he was an only child) and his mother and father were quiet. Daley was noted for not being a drinker in his youth, and he worked incredibly hard to make the most of his modest talents (even in his youth he uttered the malapropism that would draw much comment later). He went to night school to study law, following a solid Catholic education, which included a spell at De La Salle College. He fell into the Irish political machine at its lowest level, working for Big Joe McDonough at a time, in the 1930s), when a Czech American, Anton Cermak-the man who died taking a bullet aimed at Franklin D. Roosevelt-was running the show, albeit briefly.

By the end of his twenty-odd year, six-term hold on the mayoral office, Chicago had been transformed. University campuses, O’Hare international airport, a rejuvenated central business district (including what was then the world’s largest building, the Sears Tower)-these were just some of his achievements. There were others, some of them controversial. The creation of housing projects such as Cabrini Green helped to staunch the flow of whites out of the city by containing the extent of black Chicago, but the cost was in the creation of black-only neighbourhoods. The Dan Ryan Expressway, then the world’s widest, acted as a border between working-class black and white districts of Chicago’s south side, including the neighbourhood where Daley grew up. Daley’s Chicago was just about as segregated as some of the southern cities which, in the mid-1960s, were feeling the heat from Martin Luther King Jnr. Indeed, Cohen and Taylor make the point forcibly that ‘Daley’s modern Chicago was built . on an unstated foundation: commitment to racial segregation.’ This is why King made Chicago his focus and temporary home when, in 1966, he took the campaign against racism north.

Daley’s battle against King was conducted in a way that typified his political abilities. He refused to allow himself to become a fall guy for the black freedom struggle; this, and his other acts of conservatism, cast him into the public eye across America. As well as opposing King, Daley also stood against President Johnson’s Great Society programme, and he loathed and fought against the Hippie tendency and the anti-war movement. Daley was a classic product of the ethnic ghetto, yet the English would understand him equally as a nineteenth-century Gladstonian Liberal: he believed in a religious morality that underpinned good social behaviour, and welcomed the social role of churches as a boon. He also stressed loyalty and bootstrap-tugging self-help. He was considered ‘dollar honest’, although he ignored the corruption of those around him. Daley was faithful to his wife. Long days and nights in Springfield, in the execution of duties for the state legislature, turned many men to gambling and prostitutes: but not Daley. While others were making hot money, sleeping around and getting drunk, Daley was demonstrating a remarkable aptitude for the tedious actuarial side of politics. Moreover, while he did not trouser millions in ill-gotten gains, he earned enough legitimate money from his numerous political jobs to raise a large family, to build a big house and to school his children well.

Daley bore all the hallmarks of a nineteenth-century boss politician displaced into the wrong century. His patch was the neighbourhood into which he was born and where his first political allegiances had been forged. His team was the White Sox. Chicago was his city. But, perhaps by being a man who seemed out of his time, he was able to be more effective than if this had not been the case. The Chicago he inherited needed to find itself a new role: it was no longer the boom-time city standing at the crossroads of American civilisation; this image was giving way, as with most Mid-West towns, to the appeal of the rejuvenated south and the wider Sun Belt. But Daley set about revitalising Chicago by rebuilding it. Government took a lead and the physical map of Chicago was changed massively under his tutelage. Despite the negative racial connotations of so much of what he masterminded, there is no doubt that the revitalised Chicago of the post-war epoch is a far cry from other decaying Mid-West cities, such as Detroit and St Louis, which atrophied consistently in the generation after 1945. As boss politicians fell by the wayside in the post-war years, the old-fashioned Daley machine lived on.

Daley rescued his Chicago and rebuilt it. Daley was the last big city boss. At the end of his life, it is said, he was recognising the frailty of his old-style political machine. He was losing ground, but not enough for any opponent to reap the ultimate reward, not in Chicago at least. Daley managed to win his sixth term in the year of his death, 1976, but at the same time he lost out in a race to work closely with Jimmy Carter. Big city bossism had a limited utility beyond its bedrock; bosses such as Al Smith of New York had realised this in the 1920s. As a rule, machine politics does not go down well in the rural expanses of other parts of America. Some would argue Daley got lucky in not being able to get closer to Carter, but it is an irrelevance to say so because death intervened anyway. While this failure struck him hard, changing times enabled one of Daley’s sons to realise his father’s dream-but twenty years later and with a very different presidential candidate. The son is Richard M. Daley and the presidential hopeful was Al Gore. Yet something else that brings us full circle, and what proves the limitations of any attempt to render Richard Daley Snr as a dinosaur, is the proof, found in Chicago, that political dynasties are stronger in America than almost anywhere. In 1999, Richard M. Daley was elected to his fourth term as Mayor of Chicago, an office he has held since his father’s death in 1976. Two Daleys, both named Richard, have held the city’s top job for ten terms and nearly half-a-century.

Not even the Daley lineage in Chicago is as telling an indictment of the power of Irish America as the very existence of the fourth item under review, Michael Glazier’s Encyclopaedia of the Irish in America. Advance praise from a variety of notable scholars adorns the back cover: Glazier’s is, we cannot doubt, the book Irish America has been waiting for. Given the success of Bayor and Meagher’s collection of essays, The New York Irish, it is not surprising to lean that Irish America is confident in its ability to do itself justice. And Glazier’s is an impressive effort. It looks beautiful and is good value for money. Moreover, the coverage is catholic, not just Catholic. The range and quality of each of the essays are very good. There is also a remarkable consistency to the text, for which both Glazier and Notre Dame University Press deserve our thanks. The choice of subject matter is largely uncontroversial, although one could quibble with certain inclusions. I am not sure that some of the Irish-born contemporary figures are necessarily ‘Irish in America’ in quite the way we are asked to believe. It is impossible to imagine that, if this volume had been produced in 1865, John Mitchel would have been excluded: even though he was born and died in Ireland, he spent important years in America developing, among other things, a sympathy with slavery. The thematic entries really are excellent: for example, short histories of the Irish in each major city and every state is provides a resource of unparalleled utility for scholars trying to come to terms with the huge variety of Irish communities in America. Readers will not be surprised to learn that New York, Boston and Chicago get large entries. The historical characters, each with a short contextual biography, are very well rendered. Helpful lists of further reading come with each entry. Reading this book enforces the view that the Irish Diaspora is alive and well-and that most members seem to be writing books! In future, however, one would imagine that projects such as Glazier’s will appear on CD-Rom.

These four books demonstrate the old and new traits of Irish studies in America. Glazier’s Encyclopaedia captures the balance of styles most dramatically: hero-worship, as mode of writing, has itself passed into history, yet the sense of communal pride remains. Alongside biographies of the great and the good of Irish America are some wonderful ‘new’ historical approaches to the key themes-nationalism, Catholicism, urban history, city politics, and so on. Cohen and Taylor’s biography of Mayor Daley demonstrates both the utility and the limitations of bossism; it is a warts and all study that might serve as an emblem of for that period of American history when Irishmen ran the great cities. The nature of urban politics; the fragility of real democracy in a world of such corruption, and the role of grace and favour, are all perfectly balanced against the degree to which the big city boss could, and could not, extend himself beyond the home turf. Not many Irish bosses became President of the United States; yet no president had the degree of control over his political turf that Mayor Daley had in Chicago.

But it is Kenny’s book that points the way forward for American Irish history. His is an inclusive history. It does no disservice to the grand Catholic narrative of so many other studies. Yet it manages to introduce a much less fleeting image of the Scots-Irish than is portrayed via the usual long list of Irishmen of Scots descent who made America (from Daniel Boone-who was in fact part Devon Quaker-through Andrew Jackson to Neal Armstrong and any other Scots-Irish on the moon we might mention). Irish history in America grew out of sectarian competition in the nineteenth century, something that was taken to America in the cultural baggage of the emigrants. The Scots-Irish myth was developed in the second-half of the nineteenth century as some sort of antidote to the hugely important nationalist tradition focusing on St Patrick’s Day and the various movements for home rule and independence. It is this sense of connection to the old country’s unfinished business, more than anything else, which has made Irish American history so important to people whose Irish roots are in the distant past. But the time has come for us really to learn about the Irish in America and to move beyond a prosopography of Irish success. Kenny has provided an important marker.


1. Kurds, Italians and South Asians are just two of the groups recently to have received treatment in books bearing the word ‘Diaspora’ in the titles. See Crispin Bates (ed.), Community, Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora (Palgrave, 2001).

2. William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20); Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The epic study of the Great Migrations that made the America People (1951).

3. F. Thistlethwaite, `Migration from Europe overseas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ in H. Moller (ed.), Population Movements in Modern European History (New York, 1964) and J. Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, 1985).

4. Donald Akenson, The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History 2nd edn (2000).

5. The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (Boston, 1963; 2nd edn 1989).

6. Many of the early studies were sociological in their orientations, with studies such as Henry P, Fairchild, Greek Immigration to the United States (1911), Thomas Burgess, Greeks in America (1913), Kenneth Babcock, The Scandinavian Element in the United States (1914),) and Robert E. Foerster, Italian Emigrants of Our Times (1919) offering a variety of perspectives of the way in which people left Europe and established themselves in America.

7. R.A. Burchell, The Irish in San Francisco, 1848-80 (Manchester, 1979); Akenson, Irish in Ontario.

8. We might point to the example of Shannon’s doom-laden description of Irish history in his American Irish, ch.1 or that given in D. Clark, The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience (Philadelphia, 1973).

9. Wittke, Irish in America, p.6.

10. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London and New York, 1991) and N. Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York and London, 1995).

11. It should be remembered, too, that the anti-immigrant/anti-Catholic/anti-Irish feelings of the Know Nothings were shaped as much by a fear that America democracy was under threat from immigrants who, it was argued, had no experience of upholding such cherished political traditions. That, and the sense in which the Catholic Church (and, by default, the Irish) were thought to be supporters of slavery helps to explain why such inhospitable views developed in Massachusetts, spiritual home of abolition. See Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York and Oxford, 1992).

12. G. Hodges, ‘”Desirable companions and lovers”: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830-70’, in R.H. Bayor and T.J. Meagher (eds.), The New York Irish (Baltimore Md, 1996).

October 2001

Author's response

Kevin Kenny
Posted: Fri, 03/12/2010 - 15:56

I greatly appreciate Donald MacRaild’s comprehensive and enthusiastic review of The American Irish: A History .1 Such a detailed and laudatory review needs no direct response, let alone a challenge or refutation, on my part. Instead I would like to say a few words about my general perspective on Irish-American history, about the evolution and structure of the book, and about the concept of “diaspora” as applied to Irish history. My comments on these three related questions will serve as a complement to the various lines of inquiry opened up by MacRaild’s reflective and wide-ranging review essay.

The type of history I write and teach is best called “transatlantic.” It deals with Irish history in both Ireland and North America simultaneously, examining patterns of migration, of cultural continuity and change, and of economic and political interaction. My first attempt to write this sort of history was a doctoral dissertation in U.S. history called “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires,” which eventually became a book of the same name.2 On one level, the approach was quite narrow, telling the story of a group of Irish mine workers in Pennsylvania the 1860s and 1870s, twenty of whom were hanged for sixteen murders committed, according to the authorities, as part of a conspiracy imported directly from Ireland. On another level, the approach was very broad, for the story contained at its heart the principal themes in both Irish and Irish-American history in the mid-nineteenth century: land, famine, and emigration on the Irish side and, on the American, industrialization, the Civil War, and immigration.

The actions of the “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania, it became clear, would make little sense unless they were placed in an Irish as well as an American context. In Ireland, the socio-economic structure of rural society in general, and of specific regions like the north-western and north-central counties, needed close attention, as did the long history of agrarian violence embodied by such shadowy groups as the “Ribbonmen,” the “Whiteboys”-and, indeed, the “Molly Maguires,” who first emerged in north-central Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Making sense of the American phase of the violence, in turn, required a proper understanding of patterns of immigration, labor, and religious devotion, along with the politics of anti-immigrant nativism and the origins and impact of the Civil War. The “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania were a rare transatlantic example of a form of violent protest deeply rooted in the Irish countryside. Bringing the Irish and American strands of their story together in a single narrative resulted in the form of history that I later began to call “transatlantic.” And that is the approach I have taken ever since.

While my work on the Molly Maguires examined a single dramatic episode, The American Irish applies the transatlantic approach on a much broader scale over a much longer period. The book examines Irish-American history from beginning to end, star ting with the Ulster migrations of the eighteenth century and ending with the evolution of the Northern Ireland peace process, in both Ireland and the United States, in the 1990s. And, of course, it deals not just with labor protest but with all aspects of the Irish-American past. As part of the series “Studies in Modern History,” edited by David Cannadine and John Morrill, the book offers a synthesis spanning three centuries, it is based mainly on secondary rather than primary sources, and it is intended primarily for students and general readers, while still being of considerable use to the specialist. It is the first synthesis of its field in a generation, and unlike any other previous book it covers not only the classic period from the 1820s to the 1920s but the entire eighteenth and twentieth centuries as well. Thus, while so many traditional accounts of the American Irish, and so much popular understanding of their history, begin with the Famine and end in the 1920s, my own book extends the analysis backward by more than a century and forward by three or four generations, integrating the entire 300-year period into a single history.

Putting a book of this sort together is a challenge. But the beauty of writing this particular book, especially given its intended audience, is that I was able to write it by teaching it. At the University of Texas I offered three undergraduate seminar s on the subject, which allowed me to determine the principal themes of the book: emigration, immigration, labor, religion, politics, and nationalism, with the analytical categories of race, class, and gender deployed as appropriate. After three semesters , then, I had my themes; the only problem was that I still had not written a word (or, to more precise, I had written six, one for the name of each theme). So I converted the class into a course of lectures, first at the University of Texas and then at Boston College, inviting the students to critique each week’s material as vociferously as they wished and integrating their concerns and demands into the re-worked versions of the lectures that made their way into the evolving manuscript. There is no passage in The American Irish that was not at some point discussed in a classroom. I can therefore feel quite confident that I have written the right book for my intended audience.

Armed with my six thematic categories, I did at one point deceive myself into thinking that the book would more or less write itself. All I would have to do, I told myself, was to write a chapter on each of my six themes, with every chapter beginning in 1700 and ending in 2000. Of course, I realized soon enough that this analytical framework, while very useful for research and organization, would produce a book that was at best unwieldy and repetitive. Interestingly, the same thing had happened when I wrote my first book: I began with a thematic model for purposes of research and organization but, when it came time to write, I abandoned this model in favor of a chronological approach, interweaving the analysis into a narrative history. In my own work at least, telling the story of change over time has provided the most compelling mode of historical explanation. The American Irish is unabashedly chronological in structure, its six chapters bearing the following titles: “The Eighteenth Century,” “Before the Famine,” “The Famine Generation,” “After the Famine,” “Irish America, 1900-1940,” and “Irish America Since the Second World War.” Moreover, as the titles of the middle chapters are intended to convey, the Great Famine stands at the heart of the narrative.

Within the overall chronological framework, each the six chapters examines the six basic themes of the book as a whole. Thus, as MacRaild notes, all of the chapters begin with a detailed account of the conditions in Ireland that led to mass emigration, without which the history of the Irish in America can make little sense. The remainder of each chapter examines such themes as immigrant settlement patterns, social and geographical mobility, labor and class, race and gender, and religion, politics, and nationalism, the relative weight of each theme varying by period. And every chapter (except the last) incorporates into the narrative a debate between historians, a critical point on which interpretations of history have differed. From the synthetic historian’s point of view, it can be deeply satisfying to review and adjudicate controversies of this kind. But I present these often very lively debates primarily for the reader’s pleasure, not my own, and I do so in the conviction (gleaned from teaching and repeatedly endorsed by my students) that excursions into historiography and interpretation are a strong incentive, rather than a distraction or a bore, to undergraduates and general readers studying history.

The debates integrated into the first two chapters concern questions of ethnic and racial identity in the United States. Chapter 1 examines (very briefly) and refutes the “Celtic Thesis,” whereby the population of the new United States in 1790 has been divided into so-called “Celts” and “Saxons,” the former including the Ulster Irish. According to this rather strange theory, America to the south of Philadelphia was settled largely by Celts and to the north by Saxons, deter mining in large measure the course of American history, including the Civil War, when southern Celts and Cavaliers were bested by northern Saxons and Roundheads (the innate tension between them providing a causal explanation that conveniently deflects attention away from slavery).3 Chapter 2, as MacRaild mentions, considers the recent, very influential debate over white racial formation (“how the Irish became white”), that had its origins in Irish-American and American labor history. My critique of the historiography in this case suggests that both the degree of Irish racial subjugation and the degree of Irish responsibility in altering the course of American race relations are open to considerable exaggeration. At the same time, much greater attention is needed in this area to the history of women and to the Irish culture from which the migrants came.4

The contentious historiography of the great Irish potato famine is considered in Chapter 3. Between 1846 and 1855 (“the famine decade”) an estimated 1.1 million people died in Ireland and another 2.1 million emigrated, amounting to more than one-third of the pre-famine population. The famine and its memory remain the defining moment in Irish-American history and, contrary to the efforts of a recent generation of historians, I place it very much at the heart of Irish domestic history as well. The debate presented in Chapter 3 counterpoises the now familiar “romantic nationalist” and “revisionist” interpretations of the famine, concluding that the latter, in standing the former on its head, unwittingly reproduces a slanted and extreme position of its own (protestations of dispassionate objectivity notwithstanding). Instead of choosing between these two antagonistic and perhaps outmoded interpretations, I endorse an emerging school of historiography that, for want of a better word, I call “post-revisionist.” This new interpretation concedes much of the revisionist case, for example that various demographic, socio-economic, and cultural changes (concerning population decline, language use, and patterns of landholding, marriage, and migration) actually have their origins in the early nineteenth century and beyond and not simply in the great upheaval of the 1840s. That upheaval, nonetheless, greatly magnified and accelerated these changes, such that the famine can still be seen as modern Ireland’s great watershed event. The “post-revisionist” perspective rejects all talk of deliberate genocide, but points to a pervasive providentialist belief among British officials and opinion-makers that the famine represented an opportunity for re-making Ireland. The British government, moreover, bore direct responsibility for the actions it did and did not take to avert the catastrophe. In endorsing this interpretation, I have opened myself to the charge of one recent reviewer that my approach to Irish history is not only “bleak” but “old-fashioned.” So it bears repeating here that “post-revisionism” in this case is not simply a euphemism for unreconstructed romantic nationalism. Far from being old-fashioned, it represents the latest and most sophisticated phase of Irish famine scholarship.5

The historians’ debates in the remaining chapters have to do with questions of labor and gender, nationalism, and politics. Chapter 4 yields two debates, one on the social bases of support for Irish-American nationalism and the other on the nature of domestic service, the primary occupation for Irish-American women. In the former debate I reinsert the question of social radicalism into the traditional polarity between physical force republicanism and constitutional nationalism.6 In the latter I challenge previous historians’ conception of service as a launching pad to liberation, emphasizing instead the nature of the relationship between mistress and servant.7 Although service could indeed be a training ground in American middle-class morality, it was also by definition a servile form of labor in a republican democracy whose more privileged members frowned upon servility. In Chapter 5, I examine competing theories of the rise, functions, and decline of Irish-American urban machine politics.8 Only Chapter 6, which deals with the contemporary era, lacks a historiographical controversy, reflecting the undeveloped state of the scholarship on that period.

Let me close, as promised, by saying a few words on “diaspora,” the critical new concept (new in the Irish case, that is) which MacRaild discusses in opening his review essay. The term “diaspora,” as he suggests, is potentially a useful one for historians of Irish migration. If a single theme dominates current historical writing, at least in the United States, it is the need to transcend the boundaries of nation-states and write global histories. The history of American immigration is no exception; indeed, it lends itself perfectly to a transnational approach. So too does the history of Irish migration, which despite the centrality of North America has always been global in scope. Given that Irish migration was a genuinely global phenomenon, moreover, it has become increasingly clear that the story of the Irish in one part of the world can no longer be told without reference to the Irish elsewhere. Historians of the American Irish, for example, clearly have much to learn from the history of the Irish in Britain, Canada, or Australia. In seeking to encompass the global dimension to their subject, historians of the Irish-like historians all over the world in the last ten years-have turned increasingly to the concept of diaspora.9

Yet, as MacRaild points out, it is striking how few historians say precisely what they mean by this term. “Diaspora” has entered academic discourse with a vengeance, but all too often as a synonym for every type of population movement, migration, or displacement, or (even more vaguely) for minority status, postcolonial identity, and the processes of globalization. Unless one makes some effort to give the term a meaning, it actually means very little; and if the term is intended simply as a loose substitute for, say, migration, then it is not clear why one would need to use the term at all. Moreover, the historian who decides to investigate the possible meanings of the term immediately confronts a wide array of theoretical literature fraught with more than its share of disagreements, contradictions, and incompatibilities. The term “diaspora” has no agreed-upon meaning. Some scholars define “diaspora” very narrowly, insisting that it be reserved for the Jews and, possibly, for African slaves and Armenian refugees.10 But where does one draw the line? A second, increasingly popular group of theorists defines the term very broadly to include “imperial,” “trade,” and “labor” diasporas as well as those based more traditionally on conquest, catastrophe, or exile.11 And a third group, avowedly “postmodern” by persuasion, objects to all typologies, seeing the “diasporic” as a state of mind and a form of discourse (which amount to the same thing).12

The point here is not to endorse one position or another, but simply to echo MacRaild’s comment that the meaning of the term “diaspora” is not self-evident and that using it unreflectively may be worse than not using it at all. The future of Irish migration historiography undoubtedly lies in the global arena, beyond the confines of individual nation states. But until the theoretical and practical possibilities of “diaspora” have been clarified, scholars could do worse than to remember that the very nation-states we are today so busily transcending were the essential building blocks of modern history. If our object of inquiry is the past rather than the present, it might be better to compare and contrast the history of migrant groups within nation states, no matter how arbitrarily they were constructed and defined, than to transcend these real national and state differences by ignoring them. Treating the global Irish as if they all belonged to a single diaspora runs the risk of impov erishing a rich and complex history.


1. Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London and New York: Longman, 2000).

2.Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

3. See, for example, Ellen Shapiro McDonald and Forrest McDonald, “The Ethnic Origins of the American People, 1790,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., XXXVII (January 1980): 179-99, with communications by Francis Jennings and Rowl and Berthoff and a reply by the McDonalds, 3rd ser., XXXVII (October 1980), 700-3; Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney, “Celtic Origins of Southern Herding Practices,” The Journal of Southern History, 51 (1985): 165-82; Grady M cWhiney, Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1988); and, for an excellent critique, Rowland Berthoff, “Celtic Mist Over the South,” Journal of Southern History, 52 (Novem ber 1986): 523-46.

4. See Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1., Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York: Verso, 1994) and Vol. II., The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (New York: Verso, 1997); David Roediger , The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1992); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Im migrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

5. As examples of the “revisionist” perspective on the famine I cite R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams, The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52 (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1956); Mary Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Historical Association, 1986) and “Revisionism and Irish History: The Great Famine,” in D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day, eds., The Making of Modern Irish History (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); and R.F. Foster, < I>Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (London: Allen Lane, 1988), 318-44. My examples of “post-revisionism” are Peter Gray, The Irish Famine (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995) and Famine, Land and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843-1850 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999), both of which are especially good on providentialism; and, on famine relief among other questions, Cormac O’Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19 94), especially Chapter 8, and Black ’47 and Beyond. The Great Irish Famine: History, Economy, and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), especially Chapter 2. Evidence of a “romantic nationalist” perspective is harder to f ind, as there was never any such school of professional history. The target of much revisionism was popular rather than academic history, as exemplified by John Mitchel’s infamous comment that “The almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the Engl ish created the Famine.”

6. See in particular Thomas N. Brown, Irish-American Nationalism, 1870-1890 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966); Eric Foner, “Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism in the Gilded Age: The Land League in Irish-America,” in Eric Foner, Politic s and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Victor A. Walsh, “‘A Fanatic Heart’: The Cause of Irish-American Nationalism in Pittsburgh During the Gilded Age,” Journal of Social History, 15 (19 81): 187-204.

7. See in particular Hasia Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Janet Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland, 1885-1920 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989).

8. By far the best account is Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).

9. I have spent much of the last year working on a historiographical review essay critically examining the concept of diaspora and its applicability to the Irish case.

10. This, indeed, was its standard meaning before the 1960s.

11. Perhaps the most influential are William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” Diaspora, 1 (Spring 1991): 83-99, and Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

12. See especially James Clifford, “Diasporas,” Cultural Anthropology, 9 (1994): 302-38.