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In the century between the Napoleonic Wars and the Irish Civil War, more than seven million Irish men and women left their homeland to begin new lives abroad. While the majority settled in the United States, Irish emigrants dispersed across the globe, many of them finding their way to another “New World,” Australia.
Ireland’s New Worlds is the first book to compare Irish immigrants in the United States and Australia. In a profound challenge to the national histories that frame most accounts of the Irish diaspora, Malcolm Campbell highlights the ways that economic, social, and cultural conditions shaped distinct experiences for Irish immigrants in each country, and sometimes in different parts of the same country. From differences in the level of hostility that Irish immigrants faced to the contrasting economies of the United States and Australia, Campbell finds that there was much more to the experiences of Irish immigrants than their essential “Irishness.” America’s Irish, for example, were primarily drawn into the population of unskilled laborers congregating in cities, while Australia’s Irish, like their fellow colonialists, were more likely to engage in farming. Campbell shows how local conditions intersected with immigrants’ Irish backgrounds and traditions to create surprisingly varied experiences in Ireland’s new worlds.
Outstanding Book, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the Public Library Association
“Well conceived and thoroughly researched . . . . This clearly written, thought-provoking work fulfills the considerable ambitions of comparative migration studies.”—Choice
In their broad designs, immigrants' lives are molded by the prevailing economic conditions and social patterns of their new host society. For this reason, Irish emigrants embarking in 1815 upon the transoceanic journey to the United States had strong grounds to feel optimistic about their futures. Notwithstanding doubts and emotional anxieties elicited by their abandonment of the Old World, and the fears and uncertainties aroused by the prospect of life in the New World, emigrants in 1815 were making conscious choices to better their lives. Their decisions, based upon hopes for greater material prosperity or desires for superior political and religious liberties, were considered, calculated, and deliberate. They invested their hopes in a new nation, where Irish men and women had already made their mark, where opportunity was believed to be abundant, where economic liberalism and republican idealism were secular creeds, and where the battle against the oppressions of the old order seemed to have been resolved.
In contrast, the Irish dispatched to the Australian penal colonies in the decade after 1815 had no such grounds for optimism. Their lives were desolate prospects. The antipodes, at the time remote and little known, proffered no dream but servitude, no reward except continued life itself. Australia held out no grand visions of abundant wealth or political or religious liberty, for to its English architects, its colonies were merely bureaucratic blueprints, the most expedient solutions to criminal overcrowding. And perhaps worst of all, transportation to Australia involved no expression of liberty or desire, no exercise of choice or initiative, and held out only the remotest prospect of ever returning to Ireland's shores again.
In the course of the next three decades, these positions were nearly reversed. By the onset of the Great Famine, the prospects for Irish immigrants' futures in the two societies had altered beyond expectation, almost beyond reason. By the 1840s convict transportation to New South Wales had been abandoned and the major Australian colonies were on the path to responsible government and the introduction of universal male suffrage. The Irish-born constituted nearly one-fifth of the colonial population and were spread across all strata of society, if unevenly so. Religious liberty had been secured, at least as far as most people considered necessary in what was a not-very-religious society. The Irish constituted a visible minority but were in tone and demeanor a mainly contented group, even a complacent one. In contrast, in the United States, by the eve of the famine the optimism that had prevailed in 1815 was nowhere near as strong as it had been. The immigrants' prior mood of confidence had been supplanted by defensiveness, the bright future vision of economic abundance and political liberty now overshadowed by a much harsher reality. The Irish stakes in American society, previously secure and well positioned for the future, seemed by the mid- 1840s to be less bold, more marginalized.
This chapter examines the major currents in Irish American and Irish Australian life in the period from 1815 to the famine and seeks to account for the remarkable reversal in the fortunes of the Irish in both societies. In doing so, it charts the decline of America's Irish from a position of fair strength and assurance in their new society to a much more tenuous one, a movement well under way even before the arrival of the first famine immigrants in the late 1840s. In contrast, in the period from 1815 to the famine's eve, Australia's Irish moved from margin to mainstream, from poverty to promise. In fact, from this prefamine period emerged much of the tone and character that would shape the immigrants' experience in each of the settler societies for the remainder of the century: attitudes toward Ireland, responses to the host society, and their place in each nation's future. These three decades were therefore of profound importance; indeed, they constituted arguably the pivotal phase in the casting of Irish America and Irish Australia. Yet this prefamine period remains frequently overlooked in favor of the postfamine years in analyses of the Irish immigrant experience.
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Though the peoples of Ireland had for centuries been on the move in Europe and the Atlantic world, Ireland's "new worlds" were ultimately born of the century of mass migration that commenced with the economic and social crises of 1815. A sharp decline in prices for agricultural exports after the Napoleonic wars triggered a severe downturn across the Irish countryside. In Drimoleague, County Cork, for example, the parish priest observed a decline in laborers' wages and the lesser availability of constant work. Potato plots previously worked by women and children "were now attended by themselves, for the want of general employment." The hardship was felt most sharply in Munster, where the price rises before Waterloo had been among the strongest of any region. Falling prices also contributed to a financial crisis that occurred in the province, where half of the banks were forced to close. However, the signs of less favorable economic conditions were clearly visible elsewhere, especially in the midlands.
It was not only the agricultural sector that was troubled. Manufacturing, too, was affected, though with significant regional variations. Particularly hard hit was Cork, the second-largest urban center. The termination of lucrative army contracts was a heavy blow to the local woolen industry, where levels of employment fell to a third of those two decades before. Domestic demand was unable to compensate for the loss of wartime orders: declining commodity prices ensured farmers had no spare income with which to boost the demand for manufactures. There were other hardships too. Repatriations of discharged soldiers, a run of poor harvests, and a typhus epidemic all exacerbated the severity of the postwar crisis and contributed to the distress among the rural population. Moreover, the rate of population growth, now close to its peak, ensured no respite from the disturbing signs of rural impoverishment. Across large parts of Ireland protests mounted against the worsening state of affairs, violence escalating to an intensity not seen since the 1790s.
In the face of this crisis Irish emigration assumed a scale and momentum that differed markedly from the outflows of the previous century. Shipping agents specializing in the passenger trade now emerged as some thirty-five thousand emigrants departed for North America in the years 1815-18. However, despite the intensification in their rate of departure, these emigrants shared many of the characteristics of the eighteenth-century waves of Irish migration to North America. Drawn predominantly from Ulster, the majority who ventured across the Atlantic were Protestants of mixed denominations. Well-to-do farmers, traders, and artisans were to the forefront, while over half the emigrants traveled to North America in family groups.
Emigration leveled off after this initial upsurge, the slowdown attributable not so much to any dramatic improvement in conditions in Ireland but to the temporarily troubled state of the United States economy. The depressed level of economic activity in America in the years 1818-21 greatly reduced the demand for immigrant labor, and as this news was communicated across the Atlantic, the rate of departures from Ireland slowed. However, the post-1815 outflow had by then been of profound importance in eroding resistance to emigration in parts of the Irish countryside, widening the provincial base of the movement. Now, William Forbes Adams asserted, there were "in many districts discontented groups who looked to America for the ultimate solution of their difficulties." Consequently, when in the mid-1820s Ireland suffered under the effects of a severe British financial crisis, inhibitions toward emigration had diminished considerably, and the Irish were primed to resume their movement abroad.
From its resumption in the mid-1820s, emigration from Ireland to North America maintained its upward momentum until the mid-1830s when a severe economic downturn in the northeastern United States caused a short-term decline. Ulster continued to be at the forefront as Irish men and women chose to forsake their homeland and risk their chances abroad. As a result of the operation of the Passenger Acts, most emigrants in these years sailed first to Canada, though many subsequently traversed the border to the United States. William Bowman Felton, a legislative councilor in Lower Canada, was of the opinion that 80 percent of emigrants arriving in Quebec who were not part of organized migration schemes moved on to the United States: "The wages of labor being higher in the adjoining states of the Union, in consequence of public works being carried out there, there is a greater demand for the services of those people." This pattern of on-migration was not confined to the Catholic Irish. The emigration agent Alexander Buchanan reported, "Many of the emigrants I am acquainted with go from the north of Ireland; their feelings would induce them to settle under the British government but, hearing so much of the prosperity of the United States, and great demand for labor, they are never satisfied until they have taken a general range."
Overall, in excess of one million emigrants departed from Ireland for North America in the three decades after 1815, the majority settling finally in the United States. Details on the Irish origins of these prefamine North American immigrants are patchy, with the best general guide being David Fitzpatrick's calculation of cohort depletion in the four Irish provinces during the years from 1821 to 1841. This confirms Ulster's position as the leading source of emigrants, with Leinster and Connacht ranked together some distance behind. Munster experienced the lowest rate of emigration in this period. During these decades families constituted a greater proportion of the emigrants than would be the case later on, and greater numbers of men traveled abroad than women. Emigrants were drawn from all classes and occupations, but with artisans and farmers especially prominent among the earlier departures to the United States.
The outflow was dynamic, though, and reflective of regional transitions occurring in prefamine Irish society. Consequently, from the 1830s the origins of the emigrants became gradually more diverse, and the occupational profile of those departing Ireland broadened to include increasing numbers of agricultural laborers and lowly skilled workers. Hence, in the mid-1830s the numbers of Roman Catholics leaving Ireland first exceeded Protestants, and from 1837/38 more Irish men and women were sailing from Cork than from Belfast. A fundamental shift was at work at this time: emigration was more and more coming to permeate all regions and sectors of Irish life. As one historian observed, "Many contemporaries believed that the desire to leave home was so widespread that only a lack of means prevented a tidal wave of eager emigrants from deluging American shores."
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Men and women in Ireland were well aware of the attractions of the United States even before the surge in emigration commenced in 1815. In Ulster, the eighteenth-century waves of emigration to North America had served to establish strong familial connections through which information was conveyed back to Ireland's then most emigration-prone province. In Belfast and Dublin books on the United States, including the works of Dickinson and Crèvecoeur, were published to enthusiastic audiences. Their capstone message, one historian observed, "was the commonplace that human betterment and political improvement, preferably republican, were interdependent; and the more obvious lesson that the Americans, who had broken the connection with England, were the exemplars of that commonplace." Even among Ireland's less literate people, messages of the liberty and opportunity present in postrevolutionary America were understood, even if the finer details of New World settlement remained as yet vague.
Irish emigrants who sought to build new lives upon American shores in the last decades of the eighteenth century or in the first two decades of the nineteenth century were mostly well informed about their new host society and found much to their liking upon arrival there. They were uplifted, in the first instance, by goodwill borne of the Irish contribution to the establishment of the nation. Wider horizons for Roman Catholics and the demise of indentured labor further contributed to America's appeal for the Irish audience: "Community, livelihood and religious freedom, all were waiting in one society." This is not to suggest that the United States was a panacea for the ills and wants of Irish immigrants or that material progress was easily attained. Conditions were not always benign. Even immigrants of notable stature confronted obstacles: for example, Thomas Addis Emmet, lawyer and United Irishman, arrived in New York in 1804 and had to campaign for the right to practice at the bar while awaiting naturalization. But despite its tribulations, the tone of life in America was rather conducive to Irish achievement. Nudged along by the successful Irish mercantile communities of the mid-Atlantic states, many immigrants on the eastern seaboard established firm and, for the time being, secure niches. No lesser building than the White House itself, the work of Dublin-trained mason James Hoban, stood as a metaphor for the centrality, confidence, and vibrancy of the republic's Irish-born population.
Irish immigrants who arrived in the decade after 1815 were inheritors of this pluralistic and confident milieu. In 1826 a Limerick-born Quaker arrived in New York, "one of the first commercial cities in the world, inferior in its commerce to London & Liverpool alone." Impressed by the lively mercantile culture of the city, he recognized its beneficence to shrewd and attentive newcomers: "Here are no religious distinctions, all men of good character are eligible to every public office without exception, the laws are mild but rigorously executed, thefts not so frequent as in Ireland, perhaps because the people are not so poor." Similar confidence existed in Philadelphia, which in the years after the revolution hosted a vibrant Irish population. Baltimore presented a similar picture as to the influence of the Irish in civic affairs.
Further north in New England the situation was more volatile than in the mid-Atlantic states. The Puritan inheritance augured less well for Irish immigrants, although across the region local contacts between the new arrivals and the host society varied widely, from readily negotiated compromises to hostility and outright rebuke. For example, in Worcester, Massachusetts, where in 1718 a group of Ulster Irish immigrants had been harried for their attempt to establish a separate meeting house, a community of Irish now decamped after the construction of the Blackstone Canal. Worcester's Irish workingmen of the 1820s were more commonly enterprising contractors or master artisans than navvies, married men with families who held secure and responsible employment. Many had spent transitional time residing in Britain; most commonly their children were American-born. In Worcester they anticipated prosperous futures in a town that seemed immune from more virulent nativist sentiment. But within the space of decades, as the numbers of lowly skilled immigrants from Ireland continued to rise and the proportion of Roman Catholics within the immigrant stream increased, that early optimism would prove to be misplaced.
Along the eastern seaboard in the late 1810s and 1820s, therefore, grounds existed for at least moderate optimism, even among the lesser skilled. Economic expansion fuelled a steady demand for labor, a resource the Irish were well able to provide. The proof of this was everywhere in northeastern America in the years after 1815. Certainly, unskilled laboring was arduous, dangerous, and poorly rewarded, but for many Irish immigrants in the prefamine years employment opportunities promised in time to extend beyond the most mundane and hazardous forms of work.
Excerpted from Ireland's New Worlds by Malcolm Campbell Copyright © 2008 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations vi
Preface and Acknowledgments vii
Contrasting Fortunes: Irish Lives from 1815 to the Famine 3
Crisis and Despair: The Famine and Its Aftermath 37
Irish Rural Life: Minnesota and New South Wales Compared 65
The Pacific Irish: California and Eastern Australia 85
New Worlds Converge: Immigrants, Nationalisms, and Sectarian Cultures 104
Call of the New: Irish Worlds in the Late Nineteenth Century 132
Casting Off Ties: 1914 to the Irish Civil War 159
Select Bibliography 219