The field of historical and contemporary migration to and from Ireland is a discordant one of multiple enquiries, meanings, discourses, and processes. This discordancy is also found in debates about the fluid and inchoate process of “migrancy” itself—the ontological state or condition of migrant mobility, constituting an ambivalent, “in-between” area of identity and enquiry.
In the first place, migration to and from Ireland is marked by a series of historical, spatial, political, and sociocultural disparities. Ireland has long been an emigration nation, with a focus since the Act of Union in 1800 (after several centuries of links with Britain, but also with France, Spain, and other parts of continental Europe) on English-speaking destinations (Québec and Argentina are notable exceptions) and on the various and scattered parts of the British Empire.
During that time, by contrast, the numbers migrating in the other direction remained extremely modest. There were already small numbers of black immigrants (usually servants) in eighteenth-century Ireland. The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw modest numbers of Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Indian, and other immigrants. Their combined numbers never challenged the formation of a dominant identity, or rather, of two competing, partly confessional and partly ethnic, identities within Ireland. The combined presence of the English, Scots, and Welsh also constituted at all times and for obvious reasons the most significant foreign migrant community in Ireland. Yet they were rarely considered “immigrants,” possibly because their largely hegemonic presence or an assumption of a shared identity of Britishness/Irishness, albeit based upon an unequal relationship, [End Page 5] was taken in some way as self-evident and therefore rendered them invisible.
More recent discourses concerning immigration placed a disproportionate emphasis on distinctions of skin color. Today, British people living in Ireland still constitute the largest ethnic minority in the country, but they are never referred to as such. In Britain itself, and for similar reasons, the twentieth-century Irish were not always recognized as a separate ethnic community, at least until Hickman and Walter’s pioneering work challenged the conventional wisdom concerning “race” and immigration.1
The same fundamental asymmetry in migratory flows, reflecting a dominant paradigm of movement from less-developed to more-developed Europe, can be observed in other peripheral European regions. In the twentieth century the Finns went to Sweden and southern Europeans from the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Spain, and Portugal went to various parts of northern Europe. The Irish, no exception to this general rule, continued to migrate to Britain irrespective of the changed political relationship between the two countries.
Irish emigrants had also gone to destinations, notably the United States but also Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in which they themselves played a central, constitutive role in the dynamics of evolving, ethnically mixed societies. In this sense, for example, it is possible to argue that the Great Famine in Ireland and its accompanying outpouring of desperate people was a formative event, not just in Irish history, but also in the transformation of urban America. Ultimately, the Irish achieved radical transitions in terms of their own social advancement and positioning. In so doing, they became insider players in a complex process of emergent societies delineated, for better or for worse, by ethnicity, class, and gender.
In the case of migration to the United States in particular, while Irish migrants were part of a broader movement of transatlantic European emigration, they had certain advantages (even while constructed as an often despised “alien other” in terms of religion, education, and class) in language and political and organizational experience, which, over time, gave them a prominent role in American [End Page 6] political life. In a society where the individual’s opportunities were often defined by ethnic identity and by its accompanying advantages or disadvantages, the Irish were ultimately accepted. To acknowledge this is not to reject the problematic elements of that inheritance. In particular, the Irish “became white,” to use Ignatiev’s phrase, and went on to play a less than glorious role, with honorable exceptions, in the construction of American racial politics.
In the period...