American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 595-603
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New Voices of Irish America
The Irish are everywhere and in large numbers, and at least 45 million Americans today have Irish ancestry. Nevertheless, until recently, three major components of the diverse Irish population in the US have been overlooked by most historians: Protestants, antebellum (or pre-Famine) immigrants, and women. In fact, the history of American-Irish immigration has focused almost exclusively on the experience of Catholic post-Famine-era working-class men as representative of all the Irish who left their homeland for the New World. Generations of other Irish who journeyed across the Atlantic have been silent in the histories of the Irish in the US.
This circumscribed view of the American Irish stemmed from Irish as much as American circumstances. Beginning with Henry VIII's break with Rome, the English Crown's subsequent centuries-long struggle to impose its sovereignty made Catholicism a political and social liability in Ireland and in England's (later, Great Britain's) US colonies. Except for the short-lived attempt of the United Irishmen of the late eighteenth century to bring them together, Catholics and Protestants remained politically, culturally, and economically segregated. After the Act of Union in 1801, which subordinated Ireland to Great Britain in a United Kingdom, Protestants tied themselves even more to an Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, leaving Irish national identity to Catholics alone. In the New World, Irish Protestants likewise abandoned their ties to an Irish ethnicity that was increasingly tied to Catholicism and social pathology. Nevertheless, before the merger of Irish ethnicity and Catholic nationalism, Irish identity had been claimed by Protestants as well as Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, Presbyterians who left the Lowlands of Scotland for Ulster in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the majority of the 400,000 Irish immigrants to the New World between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Protestant-dominated tide of Irish migrants ended only when mostly Catholic refugees from famine-ridden Ireland began to flood US ports in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In [End Page 595] fact, the large numbers of Protestant Irish who had already arrived in the US before that time meant that Irish America was far more Protestant than Catholic until at least the 1840s. Furthermore, from the beginning of their migration, large numbers of Protestant Irish settled along the western and southern frontiers, well outside the northeastern seaboard cities so often associated with later Irish settlement in the US. From the colonial era on, therefore, large numbers of the Irish lived in all regions of the expanding US continent, North and South, East and West. Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century, the growing identification of Irish and Irish-American ethnicity with Catholics narrowed the range of voices in both Irish and Irish-American history to those of Catholics alone.
Women were also outside the purview of most histories of Ireland and Irish America until the recent past. When contemporaries noticed them at all, Irish women were seen as adjuncts to men, with no independent role to play in the history of their people. Equally overlooked by scholars, Irish women's voices are rarely heard in the historical records. Women, like Protestants and antebellum Catholics, have been largely lost to Irish history as a result.
Three recent books—Kerby A. Miller, Arnold Schrier, Bruce D. Boling, and David N. Doyle's Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675–1815 (2003); Robert Dunne's Antebellum Irish Immigration and Emerging Ideologies of "America" (2002); and Maureen Waters's Crossing Highbridge: A Memoir of Irish America (2001...