- A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism in Gilded Age America by Ely M. Janis
During the past fifty years, historians have debated the form and function of Irish-American nationalism. Was it, as Thomas N. Brown claimed in 1966, a path to middle-class respectability in a lonely—and often hostile—environment? Or was it better understood, per Eric Foner’s argument, as another dimension of American working-class radicalism? Perhaps Irish-American nationalism was, as David Emmons believed, an “ethnic-occupational” identity rooted in the everyday lives of the immigrants and the work they did. But what about Ireland and the Irish experience? Such historians as Kerby Miller and Victor Walsh made forceful arguments in the 1980s regarding the role played by cultural antecedents in Irish-American identity. How could these be taken into account? Still others pointed out the need to recognize the great diversity of a community of several millions. And what about women? How did their experiences and activities shape Irish-American nationalism?
In this carefully researched, well-written book, Ely M. Janis offers a brave new synthesis of this heavily debated subject. In fact, he argues convincingly, the various historiographical interpretations of Irish-American nationalism need not be mutually exclusive. Using the transatlantic Land League of the early 1880s as his case study, Janis demonstrates that “Irish-American nationalism was malleable and flexible enough to exist along a broad spectrum of ideological, political, and social opinion.” The Land League appealed to both middle-class and working-class immigrants, albeit for different reasons, and although it was a national (indeed, an international) organization, its members often used it to voice local concerns. Critically, however, Janis does not simply stitch the previous interpretations together. This book is based on his Boston College dissertation and rests on a solid foundation of primary research in manuscript and printed primary sources.
This is an ambitious, exciting book, which brings new perspectives on Irish-American history. A Greater Ireland goes beyond previous studies of Irish-American nationalism in two significant ways. First, Janis’s study shows time and time again the ways in which events in Ireland provided opportunities for previously sidelined sub-groups, such as working-class radicals, to be heard. Second, Janis [End Page 151] demonstrates the oft-ignored roles played by women in the Land League. “Women were,” Janis argues, “front and center in supporting Irish-American nationalism, and any examination of the Land League must also focus on their important contributions to the movement.”
Janis divides the monograph into three parts. In Part One, he analyzes the birth and early development of the Land League in Ireland and in the United States. After briefly recounting the outbreak of the Land War and the concomitant rise of the Land League in Ireland in 1879, Chapter One revolves around Charles Stewart Parnell’s 1880 tour of the United States. By crafting his message around a multifaceted set of themes—from humanitarian relief for struggling Irish farmers to criticism of British policy in Ireland—Parnell was able, Janis writes, “to overcome the dissension and disunity that had plagued earlier Irish-American nationalist movements.” Parnell’s success culminated in the founding of the Irish National Land League of America, which managed to bring “together under one banner the various elements of Gilded Age Irish-American society.” Despite the hope and excitement that surrounded the growth of this movement, it soon ran into troubles with leadership and stagnation. Chapter Two shows how Michael Davitt used his visit to the United States in the second half of 1880 to reorganize the organization. “A close confidant of the various factions within the League,” Janis explains, “Davitt helped to hold the disparate elements together and greatly expand the burgeoning movement in the United States.” Davitt’s greatest impact came after his return to Ireland, however, when he was arrested by the British authorities. His imprisonment, combined with British coercion of recalcitrant farmers, “were the...