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The Big Picture

Sara Goek

Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, edited by Niall Whelehan, Routledge Studies in Modern History, 256 pp, £85, ISBN: 978-0415719803

In a 1916 article titled “Trans-National America” Randolph Bourne espoused the promise of multiculturalism and concluded: “We cannot Americanize America worthily by sentimentalizing and moralizing history… The inflections of other voices have been drowned. They must be heard … It is the vague historic idealisms which have provided the fuel for the European flame. Our American ideal can make no progress until we do away with this romantic gilding of the past.”

Heralding the demise of the “melting pot” in favour of a new cosmopolitanism and (though he does not use the word) multiculturalism, he argued that immigrants could contribute to American society; their dual allegiances presented no obstacle. He saw in myopic nationalism a destructive force that had led to the First World War. Bourne took a stance in a debate that extended not only over the present and future, but also over the past. Far from denying the value of history in creating a national identity, he argued for recognition of its diversity.

In Dublin, a few months before Bourne’s essay appeared in Atlantic Monthly, a group of men and women rose up against the might of the British empire. About half the revolutionary leaders were born or lived outside Ireland and their ideological treatises included works on Hungary, the Congo, socialism, and English poetry. While their story has rightly entered the national story, it also belongs to a transnational one.

At stake in our view of the past is the consciousness of the nation and the inclusiveness of its borders. Local and national perspectives dominate modern Irish historiography, while the history of the diaspora is written largely from the outside. Meanwhile, successive governments have seen no apparent contradiction in canvassing the diaspora for money while emigration continues and those who leave are denied a vote. Ongoing public debates over the “decade of commemorations” have raised questions about the continuance of this insularity and exclusivity: how do we understand the Easter Rising in the context of the First World War or European nationalism? What influence did ideas from abroad have on Irish social and political movements? How did emigrants and foreigners interpret events in Ireland?

A growing number of Irish historians insist on our need to consider these questions and others like them. The term for this trend is transnationalism. It is broadly characterised by focus on the movement and circulation of people, goods and ideas across national boundaries and the effects of those movements. From this perspective we can examine how connections beyond borders influenced the development of national identities, diasporic communities, individuals, and ideologies. Though a relative newcomer to the field of Irish history (it gained currency in American and European scholarship in the 1990s), it has antecedents in studies of the Atlantic world, the Irish diaspora, imperial history, labour history, and religious history. As Niall Whelehan argues in this edited volume, a transnational perspective can “complement national history” and “breathe new life into insular debates”. It has the potential to both open new research areas and expand our understanding of topics that otherwise seem tired and overwrought.

Based on a conference held at NUI Galway in April 2012 and the work of the Transnational Ireland Network, Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History exemplifies these scholarly trends. It joins other recent works including Whelehan’s own The Dynamiters, Ciaran O’Neill’s Catholics of Consequence and Enda Delaney’s The Curse of Reason. The chapters cover the mid-eighteenth century to the twentieth. Geographically they span Ireland, the West Indies, Australia, America, Poland and beyond. The subjects addressed include labour, religion, commerce, migration, outside views of Ireland and Irish views of events elsewhere. Their scales of analysis vary from quantitative assessment of large groups to close biographical reading of a single individual. Despite the sheer variety, what ties the chapters together is a firm emphasis on how examination of transnational movements, connections, and comparisons can lead us to see Ireland, her diaspora, and her history in fresh ways.

Of all the topics suited to transnational study, migration is perhaps the most obvious. It has touched everyone on this island over generations. While the word diaspora tends to homogenise experiences of departure – bringing to mind tour buses in the summer and green beer on St Patrick’s Day – transnationalism highlights their variability. A group of merchants in the Danish West Indies in the mid-eighteenth century (the subject of Orla Power’s chapter) belonged to very different Irish diasporas, based on their social and commercial networks and religious affiliations. Likewise, they would hardly have seen eye-to-eye with Irish working class radicals in industrial Britain (Kyle Hughes and Donald MacRaild) or convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Hamis Maxwell-Stewart). Irial Glynn’s chapter extends the discussion to return migration and immigration into Ireland, often neglected components of migration studies. Both emigrants and immigrants had ambiguous relationships to Ireland.

Questioning identity and belonging mattered to all – emigrants, exiles, diasporans, and immigrants – but in different ways. A Nigerian boy who grew up in Athy calls it home because “this is where I experienced a lot of things, tried a lot of things. Most of my values were made by me being in Ireland – by an Irish society”. Compare that with the words of Irish-American priest John Burke who asserted during the First World War that “we have a country – America, which is the land of our first and greatest love. Its interests are for us supreme.” Neither renounced the land of his birth or ancestry. Both acknowledged their origins and expressed loyalty to their new homelands, even as those homelands called their right to belong into question. The case studies in this volume highlight the fact that Irish migrations have created less a unified entity – a diaspora – than a series of overlapping networks that connect migrants and their descendants to each other and to their roots.

Zooming in to look at individuals provides direction and focus to stories whose global reach might otherwise make them unwieldy. Sir James Emerson Tennent (1804-69) wore many hats: Ulster Protestant, colonial administrator, liberal, supporter of Catholic emancipation, and overall “enlightened gentleman”. Yet while he appreciated the art and theatre of continental Catholicism, he still viewed it as a backward, ignorant religion. Wright demonstrates that Emerson Tennent’s anti-Catholic rhetoric, while influenced by his Belfast roots, was also shaped by his time in Ceylon and Belgium. Individuals looking at Ireland from outside provide an interesting counterpoint. Italian aristocrat Count Camillo Cavour wrote an 1844 essay titled Thoughts on Ireland: Its Present and Its Future. He never visited the country and instead based his work upon his readings and two visits to England, where he witnessed House of Commons debates and encountered Daniel O’Connell. He saw the nation’s sufferings as a product of an ineffective agrarian system and proposed solutions that show much in common with the views of progressive landed elites across Europe in the 1840s. Where sources are available, this type of analysis can be extended to non-elites, though the content of this volume focuses on men who made their voices heard as leaders; the “masses” appear primarily as anonymous numbers or members of “shadowy” organisations and women rarely appear at all. Nonetheless, the model presented demonstrates that biographical approaches allow us to follow people across space and time, to reconstruct “the complexities of lived experience” and the multiple strands of influence upon their ideas.

As Emerson Tennent’s anti-Catholicism and Cavour’s agrarian reformism suggest, ideologies provide another window into the past. Given transnationalism’s definition, nationalism may seem a surprising theme in this book. While based on defined borders, nationalism can spread beyond them and activists mobilise populations elsewhere: it takes on a transnational form. In his monograph The Dynamiters, Whelehan demonstrated the efficacy of this approach as applied to the Fenians, arguing that they employed new technologies and tactics of the era in their cause. Irish nationalists, to an extent, recognised similar struggles taking place elsewhere. In late nineteenth century Ireland the causes of Poland and Hungary enjoyed popular support, despite the lack of any significant émigré community. Instead, Róisín Healy argues in her chapter, Irish nationalists saw parallels and “moulded the Polish cause to their particular needs, while retaining a genuine, albeit often rather passive, spirit of solidarity”. Irish-American support for Irish nationalism shows the same variable tendencies. While they “rallied to the cause” during the Land War and War of Independence, Timothy Meagher suggests that this “was a blip, an anomaly” and a product of specific circumstances. As Irish-American identities evolved over the course of the twentieth century, they placed greater weight on the latter side of the hyphen and made increasingly little reference to Ireland.

Ideologies are as important to events as they are to people. Reassessment of two seminal moments in modern Irish history, the Famine and the Easter Rising, demonstrates how a transnational approach can revitalise familiar topics. The global diffusion of news of the Famine triggered a humanitarian response across national and ethnic boundaries. Relief funds came from as far afield as the Seychelles Islands, Calcutta, and the American Choctaw Nation. In the short term, the exodus of Ireland’s poor made the crisis more immediate in the places where they landed, leading to fears for public health as well as awareness of the cause of the mass movement. In the long term, the migrants left a legacy in their descendants and continuing connections to Ireland. In light of this evidence, Enda Delaney concludes, “it becomes less convincing to argue for the Famine as an exclusively Irish event. It was a global event.” In relative terms, the Easter Rising was a smaller-scale affair, and yet it too has a wider context. Fearghal McGarry examines the people and ideas that moved across borders and impacted Irish nationalism, as well as reactions to the rebellion outside Ireland. Of particular interest is his assessment of how Irish participation in the machinery of the British Empire shaped their views and how their actions became a model for anti-imperialism elsewhere. McGarry also highlights how local diasporic contexts determined public reactions to the Rising. Neither author trivialises the wide-ranging scholarship on these key events in Ireland. Instead, they affirm that “transnational perspectives supplement rather than replace national history”.

If these themes seem so naturally suited to a transnational approach, why then is it a new trend? The answer lies in the fact that how we see the past relates to how we see the present and the future. The reading and teaching of history has always been intimately tied to the project of nation-building, which in Ireland remains heavily invested in ideas of exceptionalism. However, technology has made the world feel smaller. Globalisation is now a visible and immediate part of our everyday lives, but that does not mean it is new. Irish people have left this island for centuries; some have returned and others have not, they and their children instead joining the diaspora. Those who stayed knew the world through the letters they received and newspapers they read. This circulation of people and ideas shaped the nation’s history. While at times let down by its stilted academic prose, this volume presents thoughtful and varied research that will provide a model for future scholars. Its impressive scope demonstrates that to adopt a transnational perspective is not to deny the importance of national history but to broaden its prospect. Looking beyond the island we see that history, far from being restricted to a gilt-framed painting in a museum, is a panorama of a living landscape.


Sara Goek is completing a PhD in History / Digital Arts & Humanities at University College Cork. Her research focuses on oral histories of musicians who migrated from Ireland to Britain and America in the postwar era. She blogs occasionally (https://saragoek.wordpress.com/) and published a chapter in Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life (2013).



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