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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 339
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The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. By David T. Gleeson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 278. $45.00 hardcover, $19.95 paperback.)
Hoping to recover the story of "the forgotten people of the Old South," David Gleeson helps reintroduce ethnicity into the way we look at the region's white population, too often thought homogeneous. The Irish are a good case with which to complicate that picture, even though their percentage of the South's population was never very large. Concentrated in cities like their Northern cousins, they faced a more complicated assimilation, having to become American and Southern at the same time. They largely succeeded, though to call this an example of "integration" is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words in this context. Through detailed research in an impressive array of archival sources, however, Gleeson has done more than any previous historian to track down Irish immigrants and what became of them. His discussion is orderly, framed by such obvious subjects as occupational patterns, family and community life, religion, and Irish participation in the war and its aftermath. The writing is clear enough, with only occasional bits of left-over dissertationese. He does not engage the "whiteness" studies of the recent literature (though they appear in footnotes), and his treatment of slavery, that elephant in the room of the antebellum South, is curiously confined to a single chapter, as if that were just one more topic among many. Still, as a work of compensatory history, this book makes a contribution to the scholarly discussion.
Any book on the Irish in the South, however, faces two conceptual questions: who are the Irish, and what is the South? Gleeson never answers either one directly, but he has working definitions. As to the first, he adopts Kerby Miller's "exiles" model, and he considers emigrants from Ulster as well as the other provinces. Their inclusion assists in the ongoing deconstruction of that hoary category beloved of textbooks, the "Scots Irish," but Ulster immigrants largely disappear from this story after about 1825. At times, his discussion seems to devolve into a matter of "Look, there's another person with an Irish surname," thereby giving the book the feel of a catalogue. His treatment of community organizations and churches (Protestant as well as Catholic) sharpens this picture a bit and adds the stuff of real life. The definition of the South—the states which became the Confederacy—is perhaps understandable but less than wholly satisfying. There is not much interest in the fuzzy edges: Georgia merits eighteen index entries, for example, and Alabama nine; Maryland and Missouri get four each. Moreover, most of the discussion focuses on just four cities: Mobile, Natchez, New Orleans, and Richmond, though there is also a little Memphis thrown in for good measure. This is driven by the availability of usable data, no doubt, but even a reviewer from Boston knows that Richmond and New Orleans are very different places indeed, and neither one is the South. Further work by Gleeson and others will have to fill in the gaps of this picture and build on the foundation that is here.
James M. O'Toole