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Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910by David M. Emmons
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Convention has it that Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century confined themselves mainly to industrial cities of the East and Midwest. The truth is that Irish Catholics went everywhere in America and often had as much of a presence in the West as in the East. In Beyond the American Pale, David M. Emmons examines this multifaceted experience of westering Irish and, in doing so, offers a fresh and discerning account of America's westward expansion.
"Irish in the West" is not a historical contradiction, but it is — and was — a historical problem. Irish Catholics were not supposed to be in the West—that was where Protestant Americans went to reinvent themselves. For many of the same reasons that the spread of southern slavery was thought to profane the West, a Catholic presence there was thought to contradict it — to contradict America's Protestant individualism and freedom. The Catholic Irish were condemned as the clannish, backward remnants of an old cultural world that Americans self-consciously sought to leave behind. The sons and daughters of Erin were not assimilated, and because they were not assimilable, they should be kept beyond the American pale.
As Emmons amply demonstrates, however, western reality was far more complicated. Irish Catholicism may have outraged Protestant-inspired American republicanism, but Irish Catholics were a necessary component of America's equally Protestant-inspired foray into industrial capitalism. They were also necessary to the successive conquests of the "frontier," wherever it might be found. It was the Irish who helped build the railroads, dig the hard rocks, man the army posts, and do the other arduous, dangerous, and unattractive toiling required by an industrializing society.
With vigor and panache, Emmons describes how the West was not so much won as continually contested and reshaped. He probes the self-fulfilling mythology of the American West, along with the far different mythology of the Irish pioneers. The product of three decades of research and thought, Beyond the American Pale is a masterful yet accessible recasting of American history, the culminating work of a singular thinker willing to take a wholly new perspective on the past.
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Beyond the American Pale
The Irish in the West, 1845â"1910
By David M. Emmons
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
From Ireland to America's Mythic West
William L. O'Brien's Working-Class Grand Tour
In early August 1914, four members of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, recently formed by Congress and charged with "seek[ing] to discover the underlying causes" of industrial unrest nationwide, conducted hearings in the copper-mining town of Butte, Montana. The commissioners were in Butte for three days. They called a number of witnesses, including the governor of the state; the vice president, chief counsel, and director of mines of the city's largest mining company; doctors and other experts in occupational health issues; a representative sample of the city's many radical industrial unionists; and a wide variety of what in Butte were known simply as "practical miners," men who had spent many demanding years underground.
One of those the commissioners called was an Irish-born miner by the name of William L. O'Brien. He was one of many Irishmen who would be asked to testify, something anyone who knew Butte could have predicted. The Irish dominated western hard-rock mining generally, but Butte was their capital city. It was the largest mining town in the world, had the largest local union in the world, and was the most Irish town in America. That was not all. In most of industrial America, immigrant and ethnic Catholics worked for Protestant Yankees; social class relations were based on ethnicity and culture as well as economics. That was not the pattern in Butte. The stable and established Irish ran the city, its mines, and its miners' union, often behaving as if Butte somehow belonged to them by proprietary right. By 1914 new immigrants—the Irish called them all "Bohunks" —were beginning to challenge those claims, creating the "industrial unrest" bordering on industrial anarchy that the commission had come to investigate.
It would have been useful to the work of the commission if O'Brien had been asked to explain the situation in Butte and to comment on the larger lessons to be learned from it. That cannot, however, have been the reason the commissioners wanted to hear from him. They kept him only a short time and asked him no important or searching questions. His testimony takes up a bare two pages in the transcript, and one is left to wonder why he was called at all. He was not an officer of the old Butte Miners Union (BMU), but he had been nominated for the presidency of the recently formed and considerably more militant Butte Mine Workers' Union (BMWU), losing to another Irishman, Michael (Muckie) McDonald. O'Brien admitted not only to leadership in the BMWU but to personal involvement in the destruction of the Butte Miners Union Hall, the act that precipitated the crisis in industrial relations in Butte and brought the commission to town. He was not asked if he was a member of the militant Industrial Workers of the World and would probably not have revealed his membership if he had been.
At that, there was no doubting his radicalism. He was an avowed "industrial unionist" and accused the BMU of "corruption" and class collaborationism. He did not repeat the charge that the union's Irish leaders colluded with capital to advance strictly Irish interests, but it is certain that he knew of the allegation and likely that he believed it. When asked how long he had been in Butte, he answered "ten months and seven days," the response of someone counting down the days of a prison sentence, and his general comments were those of a man who clearly saw himself as a casualty of the class wars. By 1914, however, if radicalism alone had been enough to be invited to testify, the commissioners would have had to call thousands of miners. O'Brien, moreover, had not been in Butte long (although his nomination for the presidency of the BMWU is strong evidence that he had lived there earlier), had worked in only one of its scores of mines, and had not worked at all for the previous six months. As he put it, "I took pneumonia." He may have, but in Butte respiratory illness in a miner was no more a distinguishing characteristic than militancy had become.
What set O'Brien's comments apart was his response to a question posed by John R. Commons, the distinguished economist who was the commission's acting chair. Commons asked O'Brien where "had you worked in the mining business before you came here?" His response gave new meaning to the phrase "Irish rover." "All over the world," said O'Brien. "Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, this country, and South America." The transcript gives no indication of whether O'Brien inflected his comment in any way or offered it up as offhandedly as it would appear. Neither does the transcript indicate the response of the commissioners. Commons's follow-up was routine: "And your birthplace is where?" "Ireland," O'Brien answered, "County Cork."
I wish the commissioners had found O'Brien as interesting as I do and had been willing to listen to him for more than twenty minutes. This is a book about the Irish in the American West as well as about Irish ideas about the West; O'Brien's career is of more than passing interest to any such account. He was one of those who had moved through two middle passages, the first from Ireland to New Worlds, the second to the newest parts of those New Worlds. William O'Brien's entire working life was a series of middle passages. He had literally been all over the world and had memories from every part of it. He would have had many stories to tell; and, given the incredible and increasing ethnic diversity in the Butte mine workforce, those stories would have had a particular relevance. The commissioners, however, were not interested in O'Brien's past; their questions were all in the present tense. They wanted to know what O'Brien was at that moment in 1914, namely, a firsthand witness to the industrial and ethnic tensions in Butte. I grant that he was that. But I want to know what he had been, what had happened to him, and how he remembered what had happened to him as he wandered from continent to continent digging rocks. He derived his values and his politics from his history and his memory, and values and politics are historical facts. My questions are in the past tense.
I cannot know what O'Brien's memories were, in large part because the commissioners did not share my interest in them. Like Commons, they asked no follow-up questions, leaving me to make what I hope are informed guesses. Guessing is risky, but O'Brien's past justifies the risk. Here was an Irish immigrant who had lived and worked in six of what historians once called frontiers and now call settler societies, contested regions where the "Strangers" met the "Natives" and the two determined their responses to one another. O'Brien had lived and worked only in old New Worlds, where established indigenous societies were displaced—frequently with great cruelty—by Europeans with conquest on their minds.
Clearly, more than mere wandering is at issue in O'Brien's case. He was a "frontiersman," though it is unlikely that he or anyone else would have classified him as such. It is also unimportant. By 1914 Americans and Britons—the other of O'Brien's imperial "employers"—had constructed an entire master narrative whose chief themes included taming wild lands and wild people and expanding national borders. Frontiersmen were conquerors. I grant that O'Brien had conquered nothing. He dug rocks; and by the time we meet him, he was doing his digging for wages. That notwithstanding, he was a participant in an expansionist enterprise as brutal as the one that had ransacked Ireland and set its people to wandering. O'Brien was a frontiersman because he had lived on the borders. It is a generic label for those like him. The historical record is incomplete, but it is sufficient to allow us to wonder whether he ever understood that he was participating in a series of imperial conquests of Native peoples not unlike the one that had made a wreckage of Ireland.
And what a range of peoples O'Brien had known. He had lived and worked with Asians, Maoris, Aborigines, Hispanics, American Indians, East Indians, Latin Americans, Africans, and African Americans—all people of color—as well as a wild assortment of ethnic and racial Others from every part of Europe. O'Brien's was an astonishing list of work companions. I know of no other working-class American, regardless of birthplace, who compiled anything like it. Of all the Irish who allegedly "became white," William L. O'Brien had the widest possible range of nonwhites from whom to choose to distance himself. If, as one historian has recently written, "the 'savage' resides at the borders of [the American] imagined national community," O'Brien would have qualified as a member of that community; he was intimately familiar with "the savage." The problem was that many in America would have considered him one.
Whether a savage or not, William O'Brien was an outlander. The western America he knew was nothing like the carefully constructed mythic frontier, but clearly the fortifications of that imagined West were designed to keep those like him out and beyond. Westward, according to their national epic, Americans went free. They were border warriors, or at least pioneers pushing out the pale. Going west was a kind of culture test. When administered to immigrants, it indicated the extent of their assimilation. O'Brien would seem to have passed the test. He had blazed a trail of sorts. It did not lead to the West as promised land, however, and his assimilation was not to American values conventionally defined. As his testimony and his life made clear, he had assimilated from the bottom up. He understood and embraced American ideals, but they were the ideals of a sullen and vaguely menacing working class. The commissioners were uninterested.
I cannot be so nonchalant, and not just on the question of social class discord. O'Brien was a lot more peripatetic than most of the diasporic Irish, but at that he was one of an identifiable type, part of a vast, hungry, and mobile army of Irish workers. Like the others, he was responding to America's "voracious appetite for cheap labor," immigrating to America and then joining in the equally vast internal migration within America. It is in this context of worker mobility that O'Brien's too brief testimony before the Industrial Commission deserves to be read. But more important, it deserves to be read into, to be teased out and made to reveal something more than it says and more than the commissioners made of it. This exercise will necessarily involve some speculative leaps, some "constructions" and inventions, both by me and by readers. But this is true of most historical interpretations. What else, then, can be said about the life of William L. O'Brien?
We know that he was from County Cork, but O'Brien is a surname encountered almost everywhere in Ireland; it is impossible to use name/place association to fix his origins with any greater precision. We cannot know if he was from the western parts of Cork, identified even by other Corkonians as a remote place filled with cabogues (clodhoppers and ignoramuses), willing to work anywhere at any time at and for anything. O'Brien might once have been that hopelessly unsophisticated, although the world had taught him a lot by the time he got to Butte. But West Cork was also the place where Irish—cabogues included—had been mining copper for generations. O'Brien had "worked in the mining business" on four continents. He did not mention Europe, but that may have been from neglect. It is also possible that, though he had not mined in Ireland, members of his immediate family were among the many thousands who had. I think it entirely reasonable to assume that O'Brien knew something of "practical" mining's rhythms and dangers before he left Ireland and that he carried those lessons with him around the world.
Only a few things about the name and the place can be known. "O'Brien" means descendant of Brian; for the overly romantic, the Brian in question may be imagined to have been Brian Boru or Boruma, the greatest of the Irish high kings. Whether descendant of Boru or not, William O'Brien carried a most distinguished name. I would also like to know what his parents were thinking when they named him. "William" was a fairly common Christian name in Cork, but not one associated with either Irish or Catholic fighters and martyrs. Perhaps he was the youngest son of a large family and his parents had run out of heroic names. In all events, it gives away nothing regarding the self-consciousness of the O'Briens. As for County Cork, in the language of one contemporary British observer, it was "the very capital of Irish nationality." William L. O'Brien could claim to be the legatee of the most celebrated of Ireland's kings and a product of "rebel Cork," the most passionately nationalistic and Anglophobic of its counties. It is doubtful, however, that either royal ancestry or any inherited or acquired commitment to Irish nationalism was much on O'Brien's mind when he came before the Industrial Commission.
The commissioners did not ask O'Brien about his last memories of Ireland or any of the other places he had been. They neglected even to ask his age so that we might construct a plausible account of what those memories might have been. We do know that he had been a member of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) for twelve years, and so we know that he had been in the United States and/or Canada since 1902. Aside from that, artful—and some not so artful—speculation is all we have left. Given his work history, he almost surely left Ireland as a young man, not as the dependent child of immigrant parents. He was on his own but almost surely not alone. The Irish emigrated in groups and as parts of extended chains of migration. O'Brien probably left with others of his family or friends and in response to letters from other Irish who had emigrated previously and were calling him to join them. There is no evidence that he had family with him in Butte in 1914—or many friends for that matter. But he did not begin his grand adventure that way.
We can fix O'Brien in time by dating the boom periods in African, South American, and Antipodean hard-rock mining prior to 1902, because it is likely that he leapt from continent to continent in response to ore-strikes or the promise of high wages as new mines were exploited and that his roll call of places of employment was not in order of residence. His reference to Alaska almost certainly indicates that he joined hundreds, if not thousands, of other Irishmen in the great Klondike gold hunt of 1896–97. But the major ore strikes in South Africa occurred after 1902, suggesting that he went back and forth between continents—or mined in other and less well documented parts of Africa. Dating him is difficult. Without even pretending to strict accuracy, we can surmise that William O'Brien was probably born in the mid-1850s and emigrated along with more than 70,000 others from County Cork alone in the mid-1870s.
The commissioners never asked if English was O'Brien's only language and took no notice of a revealing moment in his testimony when he closed a declarative sentence with an un-self-conscious "I don't say," a common Hiberno-English construction. This is hardly proof that he was or ever had been an Irish-speaker. The linguistic tag line indicates only that he carried some of its accents and syntax with him. We know that he was literate, but probably only in English. Certainly he was literate by the time he reached Butte; his testimony indicates that he was quite current in the literature of worker protest. It would be useful to know, however, in what language system he interpreted that literature. The Irish spoke in English, but many still thought in Irish. I prefer to think of O'Brien as one of those.
Neither were the commissioners interested in O'Brien's reasons for leaving Ireland. He may have thought of himself as an unlucky and exploited exile or a fortunate and enterprising emigrant. Given his world-girdling grand tour, I am guessing that, at the least, he boarded his boats willingly. He doubtless was consigned to steerage, but no one travels that far or that often without having some dreams of making a fair living. The commissioners were not interested in his dreams, whether for himself, his social class, or his home place. In fact, they did not ask where exactly he considered himself to be from. They asked where he had lived and worked but not where his true home was or if he thought of himself as "uprooted" and, if so, whether he had been "transplanted" and to where. One of the commissioners, James O'Connell, upon hearing that O'Brien was from Cork, commented, "You come from a pretty good county." O'Brien replied only "Yes." Whether he said it defiantly, proudly, or matter-of-factly cannot be known. But that he mentioned his home county at all attests to the "profoundly localized mentality" of the Irish. Cork made a difference. It, not some abstract idea of an Ireland, was the land of O'Brien's birth. It was from Cork, not Ireland, that he emigrated.
Excerpted from Beyond the American Pale by David M. Emmons. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
David M. Emmons is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Montana, Missoula, and the author of The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875–1925. He now lives with his wife Caroline along Rattlesnake Creek just north of downtown Missoula, Montana, and 120 miles northwest and downstream of Butte, the capital of western America's "Irish Empire."
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