Ireland's New Worlds: Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815-1922.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Kenny, Kevin
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Ireland's New Worlds: Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815-1922 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Campbell, Malcolm
Accession Number: 209577970
Full Text: Ireland's New Worlds: Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815-1922. By Malcolm Campbell (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. xiii plus 249 pp. Cloth $65. Paper $29.95).

More than seven million men, women, and children left Ireland for overseas destinations in the century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. The great majority settled in North America, especially the United States, with a significant minority going to Australia and New Zealand. Malcolm Campbell's book is the first to attempt a comparison of Irish-America, the most intensively studied of the Irish overseas communities, with Irish-Australia, the subject of much innovative scholarship in recent decades. His purpose is to challenge the widely held assumption that a transplanted pre-migration culture determined Irish behavior abroad. Instead, he persuasively argues that immigrant adaptation to the particular social, economic, and political realities in the host countries was the key determinant.

This book poses a timely challenge for historians of the Irish overseas, especially in the United States. Campbell questions what he sees as an entrenched tradition among Americanists, stretching from Oscar Handlin through Kerby Miller, which attributes the various pathologies of the Irish abroad to pre-migration legacies, whether the impact of the potato famine or a cultural predisposition to see emigration as exile rather than opportunity. In laying down this challenge, Campbell surely goes too far in the opposite direction, all but excluding pre-migration culture from consideration, but his central point about adaptation to nationally specific circumstances offers a strong and flexible explanation for the variations in Irishness abroad.

The first two chapters synthesize the historiography on Irish-America and Irish-Australia for the prefamine and famine eras respectively. Based on secondary sources, these chapters produce original insights by juxtaposing and comparing the two national histories. The American Irish in 1815 were in a strong position politically, economically, and culturally. By 1845, however, their condition had deteriorated markedly, due to the early onset of the market revolution and intense anti-Catholic bigotry. The massive influx of famine migrants over the next decade made things considerably worse. In Australia, by contrast, the Irish started in a miserable position (as convicts) but moved steadily toward prosperity and respectability. The economy developed at a slower, more favorable pace in Australia, religious tolerance was greater, and relatively few immigrants arrived from Ireland during the famine. The greater adversity experienced by the American Irish, however, produced a more robust sense of ethnic identity, based on affiliation with the Democratic party, control of the Catholic Church, and an intense ethnic nationalism directed toward the liberation of Ireland.

The two best chapters in the book compare, respectively, the lives of rural Irish settlers in Minnesota and New South Wales and the lives of the Irish in California and Eastern Australia. These chapters exemplify in concrete, tangible detail the merits of the comparative approach developed at macro level in the opening chapters. Campbell chose Minnesota in part to demonstrate, contrary to most recent historiography, that some Irish Americans settled on the land and prospered as farmers. Using tightly-focused trans-regional comparative analysis, Campbell shows how the Irish communities in Minnesota and New South Wales emerged out of common experiences of chain migration, rural settlement, and relative prosperity compared to Irish communities in the Northeast. The Irish in California and eastern Australia, likewise, generally did much better than their counterparts in the American Northeast, which Campbell attributes to their early arrival, the fluid and dynamic character of the host societies, a high degree of religious toleration, and the presence of Chinese immigrants. Continuous exchanges of people, information, and goods between California, Australia, and New Zealand allow Campbell to posit a Pacific Irish culture in which transnational interaction as well as cross-regional comparisons can be studied.

Because four of the seven chapters were published previously as articles, the book is somewhat uneven in tone and approach. The transition from the two broad opening chapters, which are new, to the two already published micro-historical comparative chapters is a bit jarring. The remaining three chapters, one of which is new, fall somewhere between the two extremes of macro-description and micro-analysis, comparing cross-national developments over discrete blocs of time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with some reference to newspapers and other printed sources, but largely on the basis of the secondary literature. Their purpose in the book is not quite clear, as they range from general history to a more enlightening analysis of variations in the history of ethnic nationalism. The overall result is less a sustained historical interpretation than a series of discrete chapters that challenge historians of the Irish diaspora in rich and engaging ways.

Ironically, Campbell's approach--in this book at least--cannot address, let alone answer, some of the perennial questions in Irish-American historiography. Although rural and western Irish-Americans emerge from the book in a valuable new transnational light, the analysis rests on an explicit and necessary acceptance that they differed significantly from the great majority of Irish-Americans. To demonstrate how the Irish fared in California or Minnesota, and how their lives resembled those of Irish-Australians, tells us little about the Irish in Boston or New York--including the cultural legacies with which they arrived in America. The great majority of Irish-Americans lived in the towns and cities of the Northeast and Midwest, endured considerable poverty for several generations, faced prejudice and even discrimination, and built a powerful ethnic identity in response. In this respect they seem to have differed markedly from the Irish in the rest of the diaspora, including the western United States as well as the antipodes; the Irish in Britain may have resembled them most. To find out why this was so, the nationally distinctive aspects of American history, nicely sketched in Campbell's opening chapters, require sustained attention. No meaningful judgments can be made about national histories without cross-national comparison--and that form of comparison, as Campbell's early articles demonstrate, works exceptionally well at a highly specific trans-regional level.

Kevin Kenny

Boston College
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