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Angela Murphy’s American Slavery, Irish Freedom provides much more than the title appears to offer. It is a model of the value of an Anglo-Atlantic-World research approach; few topics, perhaps, are better suited to this approach than antislavery and Irish nationalism. The antislavery movement attracted support both in the United States and the British Isles, and the ocean was not much of an obstacle to communication, sharing publications, and meetings. Irish nationalism, in this case, the Irish Repeal Movement, also appealed to general ideas of human liberty and had supporters in Ireland but also among those Irish settled in Great Britain and North America. A central figure bringing all of these strands together was Daniel O’Connell, the “Liberator” of Catholic Ireland. O’Connell had been an outspoken opponent of slavery throughout his public career and explicitly linked Irish liberty to wider issues of human rights—such as American slavery. These views and the high regard Irish America had for him made him an attractive ally for American abolitionists, who hoped to gain the support of Irish Americans. While the time period during which these interests interacted was brief, none of this was simple or straightforward as all parties were changing dramatically and frequently.
One of the great strengths of the book is Murphy’s command of the constant flux of abolition, Irish nationalism, and the situation [End Page 111] and nature of Irish America. None were stable for any meaningful period of time and their interactions were quite complex. Murphy provides a clear, insightful narrative of this complex issue and offers a compelling explanation for the ultimate outcomes. Another strength is her familiarity with the literatures on Irish immigration to the United States and the repeal movement in Ireland. O’Connell is the central figure in the book, as in the period and regarding these issues. Murphy does a fine job of relating the changing nature of Irish immigration into the United States after 1815 as it shifted from being heavily Protestant from the north to being heavily Catholic from the south and west of Ireland some years before the Irish potato famine. This had significant implications for the acceptance of Irish immigrants who were increasingly “other” as the United States increasingly saw itself as a Protestant and Anglo-Saxon nation.
O’Connell’s call for Irish America to join with American abolitionists came to a community in flux and facing almost unprecedented challenges to its ability to become fully American as it became more Catholic. Greatly complicating this was the prominence of nativists in the abolition movement, a situation Irish America was well aware of. O’Connell’s idealism, and perhaps lack of awareness of the situation in America, created a crisis for Irish America—how to support O’Connell and repeal without appearing out of step with the majority sentiment in the United States which was still not behind abolition. This is a complicated story to sort out and understand, and Murphy offers perhaps the best discussion to date of the various challenges facing Irish Americans. Their support for repeal remained strong, although some did abandon it and O’Connell, and they began consciously to navigate between their two identities—Irish and American. The beginning of the famine in 1845 pushed relief ahead of repeal in the consciousness of Irish Americans and their next opportunity (or challenge) to demonstrate their American identity would come with the Civil War.
There is much, much more of interest and importance in this book. It is nicely written and makes complicated issues and relationships clear to a remarkable degree. The inclusion of brief biographies [End Page 112] of a number key players, many of who are obscure or unknown, is very helpful. Reading American Slavery, Irish Freedom will benefit all those interested in antebellum America.
William H. Mulligan Jr. is professor of history at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. He is the author of...