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On Every Tide: Missing waves of emigrants

A history of Irish emigration crops too many out of the picture and lacks local colour

On Every Tide: The making and remaking of the Irish world
Author: Sean Connolly
ISBN-13: 978-1408709511
Publisher: Little, Brown
Guideline Price: £25

In the 1730s Samuel Carsan left Tyrone for Pennsylvania. There, he acquired great wealth in transatlantic trade. Although living in Philadelphia, he regularly returned to Strabane and when he died in 1778, his will mentioned a house and “the rag-grass field” in his homeplace.

That man who sailed from the Maiden City may have absorbed tolerance in the City of Brotherly Love. In 1771, he was a founding member of Philadelphia’s nonsectarian Friendly Sons of St Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland and, strikingly, his will concluded, “I order and desire that my body may be interred with as small expense and in as private a way as possible. As I am not attached to any religious society in particular, but wish well to all men, it is a matter of great indifference in what ground I am laid.”

Between 350,000—550,000 people left Ireland for America between the battles of the Boyne (1690) and Waterloo (1815). Among them, in the mid-1700s, were neighbours of Carsan: from Strabane, John Dunlap who printed the declaration of independence and Thomas Barclay, who became US consul to France; from Convoy, Blair McClenachan, a financier of Washington’s army and Richard Montgomery, the first American general to die in combat; from Letterkenny, Redmond Conyngham, one of Philadelphia’s leading merchants; and from Derry, Walter Stewart, Washington’s favourite general. And besides these “great men”, there were rougher sorts who, through the 1700s, pushed the frontier west, shooting bears, wolves, “Redmen”, Frenchmen and each other. And in the Revolutionary War they shot the British.

The Friendly Sons last year celebrated their 250th anniversary, but 18th-century emigrants get short shrift in Sean Connolly’s On Every Tide, a history of “the making and remaking of the Irish world”— the “diaspora”. That is unfortunate for the new world made the old as surely as the old made the new. Political developments in Ireland — legislative independence and the stirring of republicanism — owed much to the economic and ideological ramifications of the war. And who knows but Carsan’s tolerance rubbed off around Strabane?

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On Every Tide crops the picture in other odd ways. One understands Connolly’s omission of 18th-century outflows to the barracks, seminaries and convents of mainland Europe: the numbers were small, stays often short. But his making lesser-spotted emigrants of the Irish in England, Scotland and Wales baffles.

Fans of the Pogues and Glasgow Celtic can look away. Here, the spotlight is on the status and politics of Irish Catholics in the US with comparative sidelights on their confreres, Catholic and Protestant, in “Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere”. Our neighbouring island is part of that “elsewhere” and the “making and remaking of the Irish world” only really begins with the Famine. It is not a unified “Irish world”. The sidelights reveal to Connolly that “there is no single Irish exile mentality”. Why would there be? Gender, class, culture and environment play variations on themes.

Connolly’s Irish worlds in the US are familiar and not. Familiar is the picture in outline. Irish people fled famine (but not on “coffin ships”; he scorns the term as mortality among passengers was only abnormally high in 1847). With ebbs and flows, they continued to come until the Depression. By then, the church, Democratic Party, and labour unions were pillars of respectable Irish neighbourhoods in the cities; thereafter, the Irish married Italians and melted into the suburbs. That much is familiar.

But the shading is odd. Connolly discusses the antisemitism of a “radio priest” in the 1930s, but not decades of joyous Irish and Jewish collaborations on Tin Pan Alley celebrated in Mick Moloney’s If it Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews. Eagerness to suggest that Poor Pat did not have it too bad produces strange claims: the Irish were victims of “widespread but informal discrimination” but not “real racism” such as African and Asian Americans experienced — the absence of “the objective marker provided by skin colour” created “fuzziness” about Pat’s “species”. In international law “racial discrimination” is discrimination on the basis of “race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin”: why differentiate “real” from “unreal” racism?

Connolly wonders if Irish-American politicos are having a “last hurrah”, one final engagement with Ireland. If they are, it is long and loud: when has the US done more for Ireland than in the last forty years? It delivered the MacBride Principles, Donnelly and Morrison visas, validation of the efforts of Gerry Adams and John Hume to initiate a peace process, help in negotiating the Belfast Agreement, and a resolute defence of it ever since.

Again, if the shading is odd, the outline is familiar. The problem is that the picture is colourless and a colourless Irish-America is decidedly unfamiliar. Time and again, ordinary people’s lives are apprehended through statistics, their voices left unheard, their experience obscure.

A total of 472,000 people left the South in 1983—93; many also left the North. None are named, none are quoted. Many reached the US, where New York rock band Black 47 lit up the early 1990s. “Livin’ in America” gives voice to the construction worker:

“Oh, it’s six o’clock and it’s time to rock

And me head is beatin’ like a drum

In the cold grey light, ah I feel like shite

And I can’t remember last night’s fun

Then the foreman says ‘C’mon now boys,

Stick your fingers down your throat and get to work’”

And then the nanny:

“Is this what I’ve been educated for

To wipe the arse of every baby in America?”

There was a “new Irish” world then, in cities across the US, that rubbed against an older one. It is gone now and Connolly does not recover it in any meaningful way. The same can be said of those Irish worlds before it: life bleaches out of them in joyless surveys that quote not a line of a single song. There is no Mamie O’Rourke tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York. And no Pete Hamill eulogising the old neighbourhoods. There is no feeling for being Irish abroad. Worlds shrink to politics — Tammany, Camelot and Joe Cahill’s visa.

In the acknowledgments, Connolly locates the book’s origins in a conversation with his agent “about the possibility of writing a book that might be read by somebody other than my fellow historians”. The agent, he writes, “suggested the Irish diaspora as a topic”.

Better had that agent encouraged him to adapt for a general audience his scholarly work on pre-Famine Ireland than to have him set sail for distant shores, where he seems an emigrant and an exile, preoccupied with arcane squabbles in the old country.