Thursday, December 22, 2022

Q&A with Sean Connolly




Sean Connolly is the author of the new book On Every Tide: The Making and Remaking of the Irish World. His other books include Contested Island. He is professor of Irish history emeritus and visiting research fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast. He lives in Belfast.


Q: What inspired you to write On Every Tide, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: I’ve spent my whole career studying different forms of Irish identity, from the point of view of culture, politics, religion, and gender. So it made sense at some stage to ask what happened to those identities when they were transplanted to new, very different environments. 


Also, a few years ago, I had the chance to spend three months at the European University in Florence, where I sat in on their seminars on world history. So when the idea of a book on the Irish diaspora came up, I jumped at the chance to look at the topic, not just as a part of the Irish experience, but as an episode in world history.


The title is from Yeats: “Was it for this the Wild Geese spread/Their grey wing upon every tide?” (“Wild Geese” was a name for those who left Ireland in the 18th century to serve in the armies of various continental European powers.)


Q: The New York Times review of the book, by Fintan O’Toole, says, “Connolly does show how, over time, Irish immigration became a gigantic live experiment, testing the validity of anti-immigrant bigotry.” What do you think of that description?


A: It is, with all due respect to O’Toole, a rather obscure sentence. I think what he means is that the emigration to new lands of so many Irish Catholics put to the test claims that these were people inherently incapable of becoming civilised. 


And of course he is right. Starting off with very few advantages (other than their command of the English language), Irish immigrants were very successful in overcoming sectarian and ethnic prejudice and establishing themselves in their new homelands. So in this sense they proved their critics completely wrong.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Irish immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries?


A: That all Irish emigrants were refugees from Famine. The Famine years, 1846-51, were a major part of the story of Irish emigration. But it is only a part. The million or so men and women who had already left before 1845, and the 6 million or so who left in the hundred years after 1855, were like most other European emigrants in wanting to escape from poverty and lack of opportunity. But they were not fleeing the threat of starvation.


That the Irish emigrant population were all committed supporters of militant Irish nationalism. See number 4 below.


That Irish emigrants were all Catholic. In fact Protestants made up more than half the Irish in Canada, two-fifths in New Zealand, and just under a third in Australia. In the present-day United States more than half of all those who classify themselves as having Irish ancestry are Protestant.

Q: What are some of the similarities and differences in the Irish immigrant experience in the countries you studied?


A: The big difference is between the United States and Great Britain, on the one hand, and Canada, Australia and New Zealand on the other.


Britain and the US were mature industrial societies, with a well-established social hierarchy and a native working class determined to protect its privileges against newcomers. So the Irish had no choice but to become the lowest level of the urban working class, doing the jobs others did not want to do, and only slowly moving up the social scale. 


In Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, on the other hand, the Irish arrived in lands that were still in the early stages of European settlement. This meant that the social structure was much looser.


In contrast to the United States, where the Irish crowded into the cities of the East Coast and Midwest, Irish immigrants to these destinations were more easily able to settle on the land, as independent farmers. Outside agriculture they had the same opportunity as others to become skilled workers or shopkeepers, or to establish themselves in business and the professions. 


And over time, as these colonial societies matured and prospered, their Irish inhabitants could see themselves as equal partners in their success. 


There was also a political contrast. The harsh experience of the Irish in the United States encouraged them to see themselves as victims and their emigration from British-ruled Ireland as a form of exile. This in turn led many to give support to militant nationalist movements, from the Fenians in the 1860s to the Provisional IRA in more recent decades. 


The Irish elsewhere were more moderate in their nationalism, and more positive in their attitude to the British empire.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: On Every Tide opens with the beginnings of emigration from all parts of Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. But there was an earlier, more limited, movement from Ulster to the American colonies, beginning in the early 18th century. 


These mainly Presbyterian Irish settlers played an important part in the American Revolution, and in the often turbulent politics of the early Republic. Many also supported campaigns for political reform back in Ireland. But that vigorous commitment to popular political rights coexisted with a leading role, as frontier settlers, in the ruthless expropriation of native Americans, and in many cases with active participation in slavery. 


So I am thinking about a book along the lines of Atlantic Freedoms: Ireland, the Irish and the Dubious Origins of American Democracy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The book is about the Irish who emigrated in the 19th and early 20th century. But it tries to suggest some ways in which that experience can help us to think about – though not necessarily to solve – the complex problems created by mass migration in our own day.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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