Cian T. McMahon’s The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity traces the journey of the leadership of the nineteenth-century Irish nationalist group known as “Young Ireland” from Ireland, to exile in the Australian colonies after their failed rebellion against British rule in Ireland, and to the final destination of many of the group’s leaders in the United States, where they joined a large community of Irish Americans and helped to nurture a sense of collective Irish identity. The book provides a general overview of the ideals and experiences of the Young Ireland leadership, but McMahon’s aim is more ambitious [End Page 252] than the provision of a simple narrative. His work uses the international journey of the Young Irelanders as a vehicle for exploring Irish notions of race and nation, and, along the way, to highlight the way they and other Irish thinkers used the transnational Irish popular press to promote a cohesive sense of what he calls “global nationalism”—a sense of national identity that transcended national borders.
McMahon’s approach is both chronological and geographical. He begins his work with a discussion of agitations for Irish parliamentary independence during the 1840s, exploring the way that various nationalist leaders in Ireland thought about race, imperialism, and slavery. His second chapter deals with the Young Ireland exiles’ experiences in Australia between 1848 and 1855 and how those experiences affected their views of race and nation. The final three chapters take place in the United States, where Irish Americans faced the challenge of American nativism while at the same time dealing with the nation’s sectional conflict over slavery and black rights. These last three chapters deal with Irish views of slavery, race, and nation during the antebellum era, the years of the Civil War, and the postwar years.
As he traces the temporal and geographical journey of the Young Irelanders, McMahon shows how their opinions on race and identity reflected their experiences of the different contexts within which they found themselves. His first chapter, set in Ireland, points out that the Young Irelanders privileged their own cause over all others and thus were reluctant to take a stand in support of African American rights in the United States because it might alienate American supporters overseas. Later, however, many leaders of the movement who were exiled in the Australian colonies expressed a loose solidarity with the indigenous peoples of that continent because their experiences of empire could be compared with their own. Finally, in the United States, Irish nationalist views of slavery reflected the chaotic conflicts of the American sectional crisis, and McMahon discusses the deep ambivalence of many Irish Americans concerning the question of black rights at a time when they were battling for their own acceptance in American society. McMahon argues that throughout this journey, [End Page 253] the Young Irelanders consistently emphasized their own identity as “Celts” in conflict with English “Saxons.”
Throughout the book, McMahon makes several discreet arguments. First, he challenges “whiteness” scholars who have emphasized the white/black dichotomy when discussing Irish views of race. Instead, McMahon convincingly argues that Irish thinkers were always more concerned with the Celt/Saxon divide emphasized by nineteenth-century Western intellectuals. Many of these intellectuals portrayed Celts as inferior to Anglo-Saxons, and Irish spokesmen sought to counter this view and lift up the Celtic race, and thus the Irish nation. Second, McMahon argues that where the Irish fell on the subject of racial justice for others was dictated by their own needs. When Irish leaders could draw comparisons between their own experiences and another oppressed minority, they showed sympathy with that minority; but when such expressions would compromise their own position in society, they wavered. Third, McMahon points out the important role of the Irish press in nurturing the global nationalism of the Irish diaspora. He discusses the way in which newspapers were exchanged between Ireland, the United States, and Australia, creating a sense of unity and...