- Leaving the North: Migration and Memory, Northern Ireland 1921–2011 by Johanne Devlin Trew
Following the recent Brexit vote and the ensuing controversy over the Irish border, it seems timely to read a book that discusses the [End Page 242] fluidity of borders, both international and political, in the context of twentieth century Northern Irish emigration. In her engrossing account of Northern Irish emigration since 1921, Leaving the North: Migration and Memory, Northern Ireland 1921–2011, Professor Johanne Devlin Trew combines a mastery of the quantitative and the qualitative approaches to her subject as she endeavors to put "migration back into history" (p. 7).
Trew addresses a gap in the Irish migration historiography that has allowed the specific experience of Northern Irish migrants within the overall Irish migration story to fall between the cracks. With their unique political and social identity, Northern Irish emigrants have been difficult to track, especially in the context of emigration to Britain, where they are categorized as "internal migrants." Study of the topic has not been helped by the awkward handling by Northern authorities of voluntary emigration during the Troubles. Before the 1960s, emigration, which was mostly to the Empire, was portrayed as active local engagement in a great British global project. However, in the postcolonial and Troubles era, emigrants were difficult to paint as anything but dissatisfied locals packing their bags.
The book is divided into two parts. The first offers an overview of the broad academic research conducted on demography, memory, and the temporal ebb and flow of migration, and it is not limited to the Irish experience. Clearly, the stricter controls on immigration into North America during the Great Depression and the official encouragement of emigration within the dominions during the twilight years of the British Empire were major influences on the flow of Irish emigration in the twentieth century. This part is clearly targeting a more "expert" audience and the author openly invites the lay reader to skip this part if they are just interested in the oral history, found in part 2.
The second part is focused on the real-life stories of emigrants and their conflicted and complex relationship with their homeland, its political identity and its sectarian divide. These very personal stories will strike a marked emotional cord with any emigrant or family with an emigrant abroad, exploring the first-hand experience of the trauma of separation, loss, and alienation. It is here in particular that Trew delivers on her goal of challenging the monolithic "exile" emigration stereotype of the Northern Irish, and indeed the Irish more generally. In these oral history chapters, the author achieves a fine balance of combining real-life emigrant accounts with relevant analysis of census data and official records from both Northern Ireland and the main destinations for emigrants, principally Canada and Britain, to highlight the demographic impact of generations of exodus. [End Page 243]
The individual stories featured emphasize the book's opening quote by Native American author Thomas King, "the truth about stories is that's all we are" (p. 1), as they reveal the often-underestimated complexity of emigrants' motivations, including economic hardship, family issues, the drive for self-improvement, or escape from sectarian tensions. These same stories also unmask the incredibly complex nature of modern migration, involving immigration, migration, emigration, return migration, transnationalism, and multi-generational migration. In this respect, the book makes a welcome contribution to the dismantling of an over-simplified interpretation of the nature of emigration. The author herself is a prime example of a multi-generational migration story. Her granduncle and grandmother set off willingly to America in the 1920s, only her grandmother came back to Ireland. Then her own parents left for Canada in the 1950s, somewhat less willingly, their marriage having awkwardly crossed the sectarian divide, before the Canadian-born author "return migrated" to settle in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s.
One of the unique features of this book is that the emigrant interviews are conducted both in Northern Ireland and...