The Great Irish Emigration

DiasporaAccording to historian Kevin Kenny, “one in every two American immigrants in the 1840s was Irish, and one in every three in the 1850s.”  Check out his recent Aeon piece on the Irish diaspora.

Here is a taste:

From 1700 to the present, fully ten million Irish men, women and children left Ireland and settled abroad. Remarkably, this figure is more than twice the population of the Republic of Ireland today (4.8 million). It exceeds the population of the island of Ireland, north and south (6.6 million). And it is greater than the population of Ireland at its peak in 1845, on the eve of the Famine (8.5 million). Some 70 million people worldwide claim Irish descent, more than half of them in the United States, where Irish is the second most common ancestry after German.

In the United States, the Irish found a kind of mirror, or complement: a nation of immigrants for a nation of emigrants. Most people know about America’s distinctive claims to be a nation composed of immigrants. Ireland’s status as the nation of emigrants to the modern world is less well-known but perhaps as unique and historic. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ireland had the highest emigration rate in Europe.

How are we to explain a historical phenomenon of this scale and impact? Irish emigration unfolded within two overlapping contexts: empire and diaspora. The imperial context helps to explain why people left Ireland and where they settled abroad. But only when empire is combined with the idea of diaspora do the full dimensions of Irish emigration emerge.

Read the rest here.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I recently reread Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  It is a wonderful introduction to the Paxton Boys story and I highly recommend it.  While Peter Silver interprets the Paxton saga through the lens of race, and Patrick Griffin interprets it through the lens of British liberties, Kenny argues that the Paxton Boys were motivated largely by a desire for land, personal security, and vengeance.  As he writes on p. 231: “Their concerns remained, as ever, resolutely local.”

Kenny spends more time than Griffin and Silver exploring the Paxton Riots in the context of Presbyterianism, but religion is not his primary interpretive lens.  After reading Peaceable Kingdom Lost I think I can put together a pretty good narrative chapter on the riots as a Presbyterian event so I decided to submit a proposal to this conference.  I typed it up in a hotel room in Indiana, PA the night before one of my daughter’s volleyball tournaments and submitted it with an hour to spare before February 1 (the deadline for submissions) came to an end.  (The next morning my daughter told me she was mad at me for not getting this done sooner as she needed her rest for the tournament.  I felt much better after they won the tournament!). 

I am still trying to figure out how and if to explain the Paxton Riots in the context of the American Revolution.  Contrary to many nineteenth and twentieth-century historians, Kenny makes it clear that the Paxton Boys were not harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that they fought for “liberty and equality for all.”  While they fought against propriety privilege in colonial Pennsylvania, they were more concerned with self and local interests.

For Kenny, the Paxton Boys were harbingers of the American Revolution in the sense that their harsh treatment of native Americans reached “fruition during the American Revolution, when exterminating the Indians became an act of patriotism.”

From reading Silver, Griffin, and Kenny I have collected a nice list of primary sources that I need to read.  I am putting together a comprehensive list of Paxton-related pamphlets and will soon be making the ten mile trip to the Dauphin County Historical Society to read the papers of John Elder.

Stay tuned.