Nineteenth-Century Irish Migration and ‘Four Nations’ History

Nineteenth-Century Irish Migration and ‘Four Nations’ History

Professor Don MacRaild (University of Ulster) investigates the challenges to four nations approaches presented by the history of Irish migration.

Traditionally, national differences or interregional varieties have been relatively minor considerations in the historiography of the Irish in Britain. The majority of works tended to be local or regional studies, which barely reflected on the comparative dimensions with other geographical units; otherwise, studies tended to be thematic and so ranged across the islands, but spent little time delving into explicit national cultural practical differences. Till the Seventies, social sciences methods dominated studies of the Irish in Britain (counting demographic data, for example, was a dominant vogue); otherwise, labour and social histories were influential, whereby the categories of study were class and ethnicity, rather than region and nation.

 For historians approaching the Irish experience from the political left, there were more similarities than differences between the immigrant experience in Glasgow, Cardiff and Newcastle. Factors such as poverty or low-grade occupational seemed to unify the Irish rather than separate them, regardless of where they were located. While local studies made some attempt to texture generalizations, few national studies were undertaken. Those that were tended to either to be shaped by these same philosophical or methodological considerations, or were, in effect, positional syntheses based on particular readings of the extant canon of works. J.A. Jackson’s classic ranged widely across the isles, but pre-dated notions of the ‘four nations’ approach.[1] Davis’s synthesis offered a novel reading of the existing scholarship, with some new research, that sought a more subtle and varied picture of Irish settlement, and moved away from stresses on sectarian violence, but internal comparison was not strongly featured.[2] And my own general accounts, whilst perhaps more systematic in presenting a multitude local and regional experiences, and also consciously contrasting and comparing them, did not make enough of the multiple national contexts in which these immigrations were situated.[3] We can chart the evolution of new approaches in the pioneering collections of Swift and Gilley, which consciously sought contributions from across Britain without necessarily comparing each territory.[4]

 It is fair to say, then, that none of these national surveys asked questions such as: how did the religious culture of Methodist Wales result in a different Irish experience than in Presbyterian Scotland; or how the Scottish legal system might produce different outcomes in the history of Irish crime and punishment than the English system south of the border? Perhaps our age of devolution and independence debates will foster deeper concern for this type of work.

 If the Irish in Britain still present challenges from those pursuing ‘four nations’ history, Ireland, at home, presents an even more inhibited version of such an integrated history. Delaney’s recent call for genuinely transnational approach to Ireland challenges scholars (of Irish migration and in other fields) to consider in a more sustained way, even if Irish exile has received more transnational consideration than most areas.[5] Scholars would struggle to avoid the effects of migration on the homeland, and none would eschew the role played by the Irish outside of Ireland in the creation of modern Irish identity: from O’Connell’s movements for Catholic Emancipation and home government, through Fenianism and Parnellite constitutionalism, to the modern IRA in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, Ireland abroad has contributed to, and sometimes shaped, Irish agendas. A work such as Whelehan’s study of the Fenians’ dynamite bombing campaign provides a model for considering the ‘four nations’ and those nations in exile.[6]

 If political nationalism provides a locus through which Ireland and its diaspora might be integrated into the ‘four nations’, emigration also presents challenges based on demographic facts: the Irish had the lowest returns rates (bar the Jews) in nineteenth-century European emigration history,[7] and this is why we focus so much on Ireland as provider of emigrants, rather than as a partner in comparative, demographic history. Concomitantly, there is almost no interest in the Scottish and English who settled in nineteenth-century Ireland—primarily because the Irish exodus so dwarfed them. Yet, emigration was an exchange, however uneven; people travelled in both directions. Indeed, as Lesley Robinson and Kyle Hughes have shown, English and Scottish communities were active in Ireland, with each group stressing their own ethnicity through cultural and religious organization.[8]

 This leads to a consideration of what happens to the ‘four nations’ when they all emigrate. Ireland may have topped the European league tables for the proportion of its population that emigrated, but the Scots usually were no lower than third in that table. Further, the English never topped the rankings, but still sent millions of emigrants overseas. The overall consequence of this was that the new communities we associate primarily with the Irish or the Scots (depending on our subject) actually bustled with the interactions of the emigrants from both of the islands. This provided a setting for cultural continuity and change. Irish folk, fired with anti-British feelings that nationalist currents in the US would strengthen, found ready-made English, Scots or Welsh targets for their ire. Yet the Irish usually outnumbered them. Where the balance was more even—for example in mining communities—Cornish and Welsh miners perpetuated the disregard they had developed against Irish mineworkers at home.[9] In the copper-mining districts of Upper Peninsula of Michigan from the 1850s, in the anthracite mining districts of Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 1870s (where the Molly Maguires marked the Irish fight-back),[10] and in the hard-rock mining centres of the Rockies and other ranges in the west, from New Mexico to Montana, Irish-British sectarianism was a feature of life from the 1870s to the turn of the century.

 Mining provides just one example where migrants from the ‘four nations’ took their ‘two islands’ mentality and established communities that, at times, teemed with age-old religious and national differences. Under such circumstances, the ‘four nations’ imparted a feeling of difference and division, not so much between each of the nations as between the two islands, cleaving them into majority Catholic and overwhelmingly Protestant lands. The Ulster Protestants complicate this binary somewhat; and the suggestion that they aligned relatively easily with their British counterparts, still needs to be explored more fully.

 The overarching question is, then, this: how did the ‘four nations’-‘two islands’ history play out within and without the British and Irish Isles? Two islands may be better suited to finding out, but either way we shall learn more about our island history and our ‘four nations’ if historians tackle some of the most obvious questions arising.

[1] John Archer Jackson, The Irish in Britain (London, 1963).

[2] Graham Davis, The Irish in Britain, 1815-1914 (Dublin, 1991).

[3] Donald M. MacRaild, Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750-1922 (Basingstoke, 1999), rewritten, extended, and expanded, with additional comparative material, as The Irish Diaspora in Britain, 1750-1939 (Basingstoke, 2012).

[4] R. Swift and S. Gilley (eds), Irish in the Victorian City (London, 1985); The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939 (1989); and The Irish in Victorian Britain: the Local Dimension (Dublin, 1999).

[5] Enda Delaney, ‘Our island story? Towards a transnational history of late modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, xxxvii, 148 (November 2011), pp.83-105.

[6] N. Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge, 2012).

[7] M. Wyman, Round Trip to America: the immigrants return to Europe 1880-1930 (London, 1993)

[8] Lesley C. Robinson, ‘Englishness in England and the “Near Diaspora”: Organisation, Influence and Expression, 1880s-1970s’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Ulster, 2014; Kyle Hughes, The Scots in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast: A Study in Elite Migration (Edinburgh, 2013).

[9] There remains a need for a US-wide study of Irish-Cornish/Irish-Welsh relations. For some context, see John B. Martin, Call it North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan (1944; Detroit, MI, 1986 edn) and Ronald C. Brown, Hard-Rock Miners: The Intermountain West, 1860-1920 (College Station, TX, 1979).

[10] Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York, 1998).

Don MacRaild is Professor of British and Irish History at the University of Ulster and has written or edited a dozen books. He is co-editor of Immigrants and Minorities. One of his current projects is a history of Ribbonism in Ireland and Britain, with his colleague Kyle Hughes. The resulting book will be published by Liverpool University Press in 2015/16.


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