Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998 review

A history of the red, white, blue and green challenges assumptions about Irish America

Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998
Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998
Author: David Brundage
ISBN-13: 9780195331776
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £22.99

The history of our national movements – long too narrow for a people so far-flung – is widening. David Brundage reveals not only how vital the Irish in United States were to the course of Irish nationalism, but also how their divisions and diversity defy the green monolith of “Irish America” often stereotyped on this side of the Atlantic.

Many Irish discovered a deeper nationalism while adapting to their new lives and identity in the diverse but often intolerant American melting pot. It was a troubled relationship from the start: Wolfe Tone hated living in America (“a churlish, unsocial race, totally absorbed in making money”), while his wife Matilda – the unsung founding mother of Irish America – warned new arrivals to not “expatriate” themselves.

Yet exile, “the nursery of nationality”, was permanent for millions, and Brundage argues that we should see Irish nationalism in the US not just as a source of practical support for the struggle at home, but also as an “imaginative” endeavour, one which created and developed identities and ideas in a transatlantic dynamic of Irish nationalism.

Brundage, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, focuses heavily on the period before 1916, with only a third of the book on the past century, but his research is fascinating and provocative.


Time spent in the US has often led to more militant Irish nationalism. The anger of exile and the insulation of distance have long made nationalists in the US comfortable with the use of “physical force” in Ireland. Many armed campaigns would never have been possible without Irish-American backing.

Yet alongside the gun money was a political community that – often in enormous numbers – backed popular movements for repeal, land reform, home rule, international recognition, the Treaty and the peace process. A community of so many millions, with people at various stages on the journey from Irish to American (which Brundage notes was far from linear), had a diverse politics.

Tied to the question of force has been the question of republicanism. Britain and the US, empire and republic, were the two poles of Ireland’s Atlantic world. The Munster Liberal Thomas Wyse was relieved that Catholic emancipation came in 1829; if it had been delayed, he believed, “the violent party would have triumphed over the moderate: the American would have gained over the British”. Thomas Francis Meagher argued that only through violence had the American “fettered colony became a daring, free Republic”.

Indeed, Daniel O’Connell’s “deeply and profoundly anti-republican” views, and his willingness to side with Britain over the US, ended up destroying his support in America. In an 1845 speech, the Liberator said that “the throne of Victoria” would be secure with a parliament in College Green, and that “the American eagle” could be brought down in the dispute over the Oregon territory.

Imperialism was the vast backdrop to Irish nationalism, and the dichotomy of Ireland’s place in the British Empire (a colony in the imperial heart) was paralleled in the US, the anti-imperial republic ruthlessly colonising a continent.

Many Irish-Americans "hated" Britain, the global "champion of oppression". Patrick Ford, radical editor of New York's Irish World, defended the native American leader Sitting Bull in Irish terms: "he stood between his people and extermination . . . John Bull is a hundred times a greater savage". The New York Fenian leader John Devoy called on Parnell to speak for the other "struggling nationalities in the British Empire" ("the brown Irishmen", in Ford's words).

Still, as Brundage notes, mainstream nationalism often remained “narrow” in focus even in a world “churning” with revolution and mass migration.

Just as Mary MacSwiney later worried that Irish-Americans would head off on visits to Ireland as staunch republicans but come back “Free Staters”, the institutionalised racism of the US greatly affected views on slavery among the huge wave of emigrants from Ireland.

Some were fervent abolitionists – United Irishman Hamilton Rowan, for example, said that he would “not kill Indians, nor keep slaves”. But, like most white Americans, many were either ambiguous about abolition (“in America, slavery is freedom, comparatively speaking,” reasoned one ex-United Irishman in Georgia) or outright defenders of slavery.

The issue became a major transatlantic divide during O’Connell’s campaigns. Irish- and African-American abolitionists appealed to Irish America to join the crusade against slavery. The “overwhelming, if not unanimous” rejection provoked O’Connell to tell pro-slavery Irish-Americans that “we will recognise you as Irishmen no longer” and will refuse their “bloodstained money”.

Race was a festering sore in Irish- American nationalism. John Mitchel’s powerful condemnations of the poverty and death in Famine Ireland were accompanied by a rabid white supremacism too often ignored. In 1969, republicans in the Philadelphia St Patrick’s Day parade only agreed to a banner for civil rights if it was clear that they meant civil rights in Northern Ireland and not the southern US.

Recent comments by the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams show that nationalism’s complex relationship with race hasn’t gone away. His references to “Irish slaves”, which feeds a racist fiction disturbingly prominent in Irish America, and equivalence between sectarianism in Northern Ireland and American racial oppression, are deeply problematic. This is not what Brundage calls “Irish nationalism at its most expansive” – an ideology of common struggle. Instead, it reflects a nationalist movement that, on both sides of the Atlantic, still too often prefers myth to history.

The author’s focus on Irish nationalism’s relationship with wider struggles for equality is a welcome shift. In 1920, Irish longshoremen in New York boycotted British shipping in support of Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike. Their action spread and gained the support of black dock workers thanks to black political leader Marcus Garvey, who telegrammed Cork that MacSwiney had the support of “400,000,000 negroes”.

These dock pickets were organised and led by Irish-American women, and Brundage recounts a long history of women’s nationalist activism in the US, often “novel and striking” for its time, and often (but not always) in contrast to gender politics in Ireland. He notes the gendered nature of Irish nationalism more broadly, an ideology often wrapped up in talk of “standing up like men”, in which gender equality was secondary to the green flag.

Economic equality was contested as well, as nationalists encountered the American dream. While Irish America was building its strong union movement during the Land War, Denver nationalist leader Joe Murray remarked that the Irish national struggle was not one of race, but a class war. “Christ himself was but an evicted peasant”, preached the controversial Manhattan priest Edward McGlynn.

Radical voices were far from unique, but often also far from typical. McGlynn was excommunicated for his socialism, an example of two powerful bedfellows of nationalism in the US: the Catholic Church and conservatism. Brundage notes the long-term tension between a nationalism of one goal – independence – and one of many.

We are now a long way from what the New York bishop John Hughes called “the scattered debris of the Irish nation”. But we remain a scattered people: more than a third of Irish-born people today live beyond the Border and shores of the Republic. Brundage challenges us to rethink the history of Irish nationalism and its far-flung supporters, and to ponder its present and future.

Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science