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Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration 1815–1914 by Donald Harman Akenson (review)
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Reviewed by
Donald Harman Akenson. Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration 1815–1914. McGill-Queen’s University Press. viii, 296. $65.00

This is a very unusual and original book, as one would expect from the author who has a distinguished history of producing monographs tackling new topics from unexpected angles. It combines extraordinary erudition with a chatty writing style which may grate with some academics – to be told that migrants did not leave because they were ‘pissed off’ may appear to trivialize serious historical events. However, it soon becomes clear that this is a creative and thoughtful reworking of a huge range of existing data and that the colloquial language signals a lively questioning of accepted truths.

The content provides a breath of fresh air. Akenson sets out to challenge the current focus of historians, and especially social scientists, on nationally bounded studies of migration. Instead he argues persuasively for a broader comparative approach to the Great European Migration of the long nineteenth century. This fits well with current academic interest in the transatlantic world. The choice of Ireland and Sweden as samples may appear somewhat arbitrary, but Akenson lists the parallels in economic and cultural experiences which make them useful for comparison. He identifies three periods which made these societies distinct from other European states. Both were subject to a high degree of agricultural risk in [End Page 511] the earlier nineteenth century but their populations showed a remarkably low propensity to emigrate. For example, in 1841 sixty percent of the Irish population was at risk from a single year’s crop failure, but less than one percent emigrated. At mid century each nation then experienced a massive ‘axial stress’ – the Great Irish Famine of 1845–49 and the Great Deprivation of 1867–69 in Sweden, the latter neglected by academics although clearly defined in folk memory. These break points were followed with ‘breathtaking swiftness’ by a huge rise in emigration which became an ‘everyday integral part of the way each nation functioned.’

But there are also strong contrasts between the two societies, not least the unique and brutal ‘system of biological repression’ in Ireland after the Great Famine, which marked it out from all other European nations. This analysis vividly illustrates Akenson’s concern to integrate culture into economic-demographic explanations of migration. He argues that academics of all disciplines have avoided identifying the central role of the Catholic Church in enforcing a ‘monumental’ collective decision that ‘only about half of the population must be permitted to reproduce’ (his emphasis) which underlay the much greater rates of emigration from Ireland. In the same period Sweden followed a classic pattern of demographic transition to universal smaller family size by choice.

Migration is synonymous here with the process of emigration rather than subsequent immigrant experiences in the ‘New World.’ However, Akenson observes that the same time period – 1815 to 1914 – is also ‘the greatest single period of land theft, cultural pillage and casual genocide in world history.’ At intervals during the book he makes piercingly critical comments on our failure so far to acknowledge ‘the disjuncture in each European nation’s history between the pain so many migrants experienced at home and the pain they inflicted, however indirectly, in their new land.’

In addition to the use of striking language, complex arguments are presented clearly in a variety of unusual ways. Lists of analytical points are numbered within paragraphs, simple numerical tables cut to key data, and each chapter is divided into short subsections to focus on specific steps in the construction of the larger case. These simplifications are balanced by extensive endnotes which both document the sources and pursue more detailed commentaries. Akenson is generous in his appreciation of academics whose work he respects and trenchant in his criticism of those found wanting. For example he castigates Cecil Woodham-Smith, author of The Great Hunger (1962), claiming that her ‘apparent sympathy for the starving Irish was a bit of sackcloth around her distaste for the wrong sort of Irish.’

Akenson acknowledges the impossibility of seeing the world through the eyes of contemporaries, since everyday knowledge went unrecorded. In its place we must employ ‘intelligent...