‘Identity, of course, is never a matter of average statistics. It is a subjective state,” writes Sean Connolly in On Every Tide, a history of Irish migration from the 18th century to the present day. He’s right – identity is a flexible and often ambiguous concept, more quantum flux than solid state – but statistics and other hard facts are inevitable in most works. of history, especially of mass human movement over the decades and centuries.
titled The Formation and Remake of the Irish World, this book is filled with statistics, perhaps most surprisingly, from the 1830s to the 1950s, eight million people emigrated from Ireland. Taking into account the progeny, we will consider a present-day national population that is a multiple of five million today.
And many more, both large and small. For example, in 1891, 7.2pc of Australia’s population was born in Ireland. In 1860, there were 1.6 million Irish born in America. Net emigration was nearly half a million in the 1950s.
In the US city of Charleston, seven out of 10 priests were of Irish or Irish descent between 1820 and 1880. By 1842, a quarter of Quebec City’s population belonged to that population. Twelve years earlier, one-fifth of New South Wales’s population was born in Ireland (amazingly, all but 500 had been deported for criminal offenses, a very small number).
Connolly is professor emeritus of Irish history at Queen’s University in Belfast, and the author of several critically acclaimed histories for general audiences (including Painting Island and Kingdom divided). The latter means that his writing is smooth, easy to read, and – great – free of confusing academic details. The first means that he also suffers from the historian’s tendency to include, in a commitment to thoroughness, at times what seems to be every piece of information gathered in the course of his research. This isn’t necessarily bad – some readers will dig through the stats before asking for a few seconds – but won’t suit all tastes.
In every tide is a very readable, often fascinating account of how and why so many of our predecessors left this island, as well as how they continued when they got to where they were going.
Poverty, despair and hunger, as we know it, were the main drivers until recent times, especially in the 19th century: a period of Irish migration that we might call , whatever is in opposition to the Golden Age. An era of decline? A cursed age? The centerpiece of that century was, of course, the Famine.
But in the long run, there have been peaks and troughs, both in quantity and in the demand that force people to leave. Before and after the 19th century, migration did not take place on the same scale. And it’s an economic necessity – small farms, for example, can’t raise some of their children out of poverty, so it’s understandable that many people have left rather than put themselves at risk. dying of hunger or disease.
There are also more positive reasons to head to the New World or Australasia: vast tracts of land, sparsely populated, ripe for picking, hunger for labor. Not that that was so great for the natives, who, in Connolly’s words, were “easily and brutally” colonized by Europeans.
He is fair about this – Irish people are not always victims, how they abuse or belittle Native Americans or Aboriginal people – without regard to the matter.
He also points out, once again in all fairness, that beyond the years of the Famine, what our migrants are fleeing cannot compare, for example, to the horrors that have been inflicted on us. European Jews for millennia. And he cares enough about the Protestant experience, a large but often overlooked part of the Irish migration story.
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That said, the book doesn’t mark itself either. The Irish community left because they had to. They have faced discrimination and exploitation from indigenousists, factions and other bigotry. They have achieved so much socially and economically, within a few generations, that Ireland’s “soft power” is now one of the wonders of the political world.
I want to read more about the 20th century – JFK, second generation Irish in England and Australia, etc – and about the émigré people in other, non-English lands. Argentina is mentioned a few times, but what about France and elsewhere in mainland Europe, or visitors (often religious) to Asia, Africa, and Latin America? I’m also less fond of the 19th century, which is important in this story; it feels all too familiar by this period.
These are minor warnings. For readers with a general interest in this topic, In every tide definitely pass set. For lovers of Irish history, it is indispensable.
History: On Every Tide by Sean Connolly
Little, Brown, 432 pages, hardcover € 15.99; eBooks £14.99
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/on-every-tide-by-sean-connolly-irish-emigration-history-shows-we-were-not-always-the-victims-41990590.html On Every Tide by Sean Connolly: Irish Migration History Shows We’re Not Always Victims