Ciara Kenny

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Exploring Irish emigration in the 19th century

Symposium in the University of Limerick will examine the motivations and achievements of Irish migrants

'The Departure'. From the Illustrated London News, 6th July 1850

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 15:55


Christina Morin, Marguérite Corporaal

In a speech delivered at the dinner of the St Patrick’s Society in Toronto on 17th March 1860, William Halley called the Irish the “Ishmaelites of the earth—wanderers everywhere—discovered quite at home under the burning sun of the tropics—happy in the frozen regions of the globe”, referring to the 2.1 million people who fled the Emerald Isle between 1845 and 1852, during the Great Famine and its immediate aftermath.

The experiences and effects of this 19th century movement out of Ireland will form the focus of a two-day symposium hosted by the University of Limerick next week. Travelling Irishness in the Long Nineteenth Century (28th-29th August) will feature presentations from scholars working in universities across Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and North America, aiming to examine the ways in which travelling and the relocation of citizens across borders contributed to new perspectives on national identity, cultural production, and historical events.

The period between Grattan’s Parliament (1782) and the first World War (1914) was marked by an increasing mobility of Irish throughout Britain, Continental Europe, the Americas, and the Pacific. From the Romantic era, trade and tourism brought many travellers to Ireland. Many Irish artists and intellectuals in turn toured or settled elsewhere in Europe, where cultural exchanges with other writers, artists, and thinkers inspired them to introduce novel ideas and cultural forms to their Irish audiences.

The evolving nationalist movement further intensified Ireland’s cultural contacts: leaders of the United Irishmen, Young Ireland, and Land League travelled to France and North America to gain support for a liberated Ireland. Travelling became an even stronger theme in Irish culture during the Great Hunger and the following years – an era marked by a massive exodus, especially to Britain, Canada, and the Americas, which led to the emergence of transcultural Irish communities, nationalist societies, and publication networks. As migrants carried Irish values, histories, and cultural legacies with them to their host countries, “Irishness” was transported across the globe, and reconfigured in various national settings.

The experiences of 19th century Irish emigrants were not invariably positive: in areas with a predominantly Protestant population violent clashes occurred between Irish Catholic newcomers and locals. Vehement mobbing of Irish emigrées by sympathizers of the Nativist or “Know-Nothing” party in the United States took place frequently, and tensions between the newly arrived Irish Catholics and Protestants, including Irish Orangeists, were also common in British North America, in particular in New Brunswick and Ontario.

Public resentment was further fuelled by fierce competition over labour, and the Irish migrants’ willingness to work for low wages made them subject to ethnic stigmatisation. The hostility and feelings of dislocation that many of these Irish emigrants endured also found their way into art and literature: for example, Charles Cannon’s novel Bickerton (1855) describes the violence used by a group of “thugs” towards the Irish Catholic community of the fictional American city Bickerton by setting fire to their houses, and how this mob of Nativists next demolished the “beautiful church of St Mary”. The progress of the 19th century Irish in their new transatlantic or transpacific communities is, however, also one of success, as they managed to establish new settlements, as well as unique social and cultural networks, and rose to middle-class positions.

The symposium Travelling Irishness in the Long Nineteenth Century will be of great interest to anyone keen to explore the contexts, conditions, and effects of Irish emigration. Scheduled presentations include considerations of the perspective on home in Irish émigré fiction before 1820, literary representations of Irish emigration during and after the Famine, and the reconceptualisations of Irish history and nationalism in the New World. The symposium is open for all to attend. For more information or to register, see