Remembering “The Forgotten Irish”

I’ve been reading “The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America,” by Damian Shiels. I strongly recommend this book.

“Forgotten Irish” is a collection of 35 stories about Irish families during the American Civil War and the following decades. It is based largely on U.S. government widow and dependent pension records: personal letters and other documentation related to the survivors of men killed in America’s bloodiest conflict. As such, there is an ample whiff of desperation and heartbreak in these stories, like opening a heavily perfumed letter or standing downwind from a volley of cannon blasts.

Shiels’ new book follows his 2014 title, “The Irish in the American Civil War,” about the “gallantry, sacrifice, and bravery” of the Irish men on the American battle field.  Both books build on the excellent work of his similarly named website.

There, Shiels writes:

In 1860 there were 1.6 million Irish-born people living in the United States, with many hundreds of thousands more first generation Irish-Americans. In New York, one in four of the population were Irish-born. During the war, c. 180,000 Irish-born fought for the Union, 20,000 for the Confederacy. The majority of Irish who fought and suffered through the conflict had endured the Great Famine– the American Civil War represented the second great trauma of their lives. Although the Irish experience of the conflict receives significant attention in the United States, in Ireland it receives little. There are few books published on the topic in Ireland, and the 150th anniversary passed with relatively little recognition. This is symptomatic of a wider issue regarding how the history of the Irish diaspora is dealt with– little time is devoted to the story of Irish people once they leave these shores. Though we frequently discuss the Famine, we rarely follow its emigrant victims beyond the port to examine what further horrors lay in store for many.

The emphasis above is mine own, but it is a point that Shiels repeated in a 16 March presentation at the U.S. National Archives, where it was amplified by David T. Gleeson, professor of American History at Northumbria University and author of “The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America.”

With 200,000 Irish-born soldiers participating in the war, it’s easy to extrapolate the large number of Irish lives touched by the conflict: wives, children, parents, siblings, relations, friends, employers and business associates, both in the U.S. and back in Ireland. These stories are the focus of “Forgotten Irish,” not the famous military and political leaders.

The pension files and other records Shiels has mined provide many vivid details, but the stores are more sketches than full portraits. Savvy readers will bring other historical knowledge and a little imagination to each turn of the page. All but one of the 35 stories is less than 10 pages, and the use of an italic script for extended passages of the letters is a nice touch.

As I quoted “Historical Research” author Bill McDowell in an earlier post about my own work, such stories “humanize and enrich history by reminding us that the study of the past should include the study of the lives of ordinary people, their attitudes, beliefs, motives, experiences and actions.”  The National Archive’s Jackie Budell made a similar point in her introduction to the evening with Shiels and Gleeson (full video below). Every box of the 15 million records held by the Archives (plus similar institutions in the U.S. and Ireland) is filled with forgotten stories, she said. “We just need a few more story tellers.”

Watch the video. Read the book. Remember the forgotten.

Irish republican leader Martin McGuinness dies at 66

Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in January, forcing the Northern Ireland Assembly to shut down for a new election, held at the beginning of March. It was already clear the former IRA commander was ill, and he said as much in announcing his decision not to seek to re-election. Now, his death stirs further remembrances of The Troubles, and raises more questions about the future of the province as Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists face the uncertainties of Brexit.

Here is a sample of the first wave of international coverage:

“This election is about equality and respect for all our people and integrity in the institutions. Vote SF for the politics of hope not fear.”

–Last tweet of Martin McGuinness, 1 March 2017, just before Sinn Féin‘s historic success in Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

McGuinness and the Queen shake hands in Belfast, July 2012. Probably no other photo says as much about the arc of the former IRA leader’s life.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, 2017

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll be updating this post through the day with news of the Irish and Irish America on this special day.

Reading Devoy’s “Recollections” at the library, and online

Recollections Of An Irish Rebel, John Devoy’s “personal narrative” of his life as an Irish nationalist from the 1850s to the 1920s, was first published in 1929, a year after his death. “A few days before his death,” however, Devoy signed 100 copies of the book’s dedication page.

Irish University Press published a facsimile of the original in 1969. That’s the edition I sat down with recently at Catholic University of America’s Mullen Library. Here is the dedication page, followed below by one of my favorite quotes from Devoy:

“The strong individuality of the Irishman is his best quality, but it often turns out to be his most dangerous one. He is always inclined to ‘butt in,’ convinced that he could do things better than those entrusted with the task. Old members of the Clan-na- Gael were mostly free from this defect of a fine national quality. They were like soldiers, trained in habits of discipline and respect for authority, and they had confidence that the Executive would properly take care of the interests of the organization and the Cause. There were some exceptions, but these were mostly comparatively new members. But the Clan-na-Gael was only a very small part of the Irish population of the United States, and large numbers who belonged to no organization were keenly alive to the opportunity presented to Ireland by the war and were anxious to ‘do something.’ ”

Here is a digital version of Devoy’s Recollections.

Devoy’s grave at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

 

“Coolatully,” a play about rural Ireland, makes U.S. debut

“Coolatully,” a fictional village in rural Ireland and the title of a 2014 one-act play by Fiona Doyle, is making its U.S. debut in Washington, D.C. Solas Nua (new light), a contemporary Irish arts organization, is presenting the play at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint through 26 March.

The play is set in post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland, where jobs are tough to find and the fictional town can no longer field a hurling team because too many players have left for Canada, New Zealand and Australia. (If there’s any mention of America, I missed it, reminding U.S. audiences that we aren’t the only option for emigrants.) Kilian, the hero of a long-past teen league championship match, is torn between staying or leaving.

More in this short Solas Nua video featuring members of the D.C. cast:

In a review of an earlier London production, The Guardian said the play “paints a plausible picture of the modern Celtic twilight … [and] tells us, very touchingly, what it is like to be young in rural Ireland today and pins down vividly the tendency to romanticize the past and future to make up for the disquieting present.”

Doyle has written nearly a dozen plays, according to her literary agency bio. She studied in Berlin and London, and lives in County Kerry.

 

 

U.S. media plays sectarian card in N.I. election coverage

News of Sinn Féin‘s big gains in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is reaching American media outlets, and with it the usual sectarian shorthand that has virtually disappeared from Irish and British coverage.

While Jewish-Muslim tension remains fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Catholic-Protestant animosity has a shrinking role in today’s Northern Ireland political narrative. But the storyline remains catnip to many U.S. news outlets.

Here’s the top of The New York Times‘ Assembly election coverage, which appeared at the bottom of page 10 of the 5 March print issue:

Sinn Féin, the main Catholic nationalist party in Northern Ireland, won its greatest number of legislative seats ever after a snap election this weekend, creating a virtual tie with its Protestant rivals and throwing nearly two decades of peaceful power sharing into turmoil.

This is an improvement over the 16 January Times’ story reporting the pending election:

Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls on March 2 in a snap election that was forced by the main Catholic party, Sinn Féin, after the collapse of a regional government in which Catholics and Protestants shared power.

The newer story introduces the concept of a nationalist party — instead of simply Catholic –in the first sentence. In the January story, the word nationalist isn’t used at all. The fourth paragraph does explain: “Sinn Féin wants Northern Ireland to stay in the European Union and eventually reunite with Ireland.” The word unionism is introduced in the same graph. Both stories were written by Sinead O’Shea.

The Washington Post published an Associated Press story on its website, though none has appeared in print as of 5 March. Here’s the lede:

Northern Ireland’s snap election has left the rival extremes of politics virtually neck and neck for the first time — and facing a bruising battle to put their Catholic-Protestant government back together again in an increasingly polarized landscape. The big winner from Saturday’s final results to fill the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Irish nationalist party that triggered the vote, Sinn Féin.

“Unionist” doesn’t appear until the fifth paragraph, in the formal name Democratic Unionist Party, then a graph later as lowercase “unionists committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.”

The descriptions could benefit from modifiers such as “predominantly Catholic nationalists” or “historically Protestant unionists,” leaving room for those who do not fit the easy stereotype. We are a long way from the days of “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” Northern Ireland is increasingly diverse in its religious (or non-religious), racial and political make up. Winners of 13 of 90 seats in this election are from parties or independents that eschew traditional Catholic or Protestant affiliation. Their 14.4 percent share is up from 12.9 percent in the May 2016 election.

Think it’s impossible for U.S. media to avoid this sectarian shorthand? NPR’s coverage, by Colin Dwyer, shows how the basic political divide can be explained without using religious identifiers.

When the dust finally settled Saturday on Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election, it became clear a new political reality now awaits voters there. After an exceedingly strong showing by Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s government is split all but down the middle between Irish nationalists and their pro-British counterparts.

The story does not use the words Catholic or Protestant.  Only an online photo caption describes “the Catholic Falls Road” in Belfast. The word nationalist appears three times in this story, lowercase unionist four times, plus an additional reference to the Democratic Unionists.

The opening of The Irish Timeselection wrap-up is representative of how Northern politics is reported on the island of Ireland, and in Britain. Note the use of the word republican instead of nationalist:

Sinn Féin has emerged as the biggest winner in the North’s Assembly election after the party came to within one seat of matching the Democratic Unionist return of 28 seats. In a dramatic shake-up, unionists lost their long-enduring and highly symbolic overall majority in Stormont as the republican party came very close to securing more first preference votes than the DUP.

Peace walls, right, gated roads , center, and boarded windows are reminders of the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in Belfast. Mark Holan photo, July 2016.

I’m not saying sectarian labels are never used in Irish and British media coverage, but they are becoming as sparse as people in Northern Ireland church pews. I wonder if these newsrooms have made conscious decisions to keep religious affiliation out of their political coverage.

To be sure, the “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast are a stark reminder that sectarianism still exists in Northern Ireland. And the U.S. media coverage does include the important contemporary context of Brexit and the Northern Ireland renewable energy scandal.

Alan Bairner wrote a chapter about international and local media coverage of the Troubles in the 1996 book, Northern Ireland Politics, edited by Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow. Remember, this was more than 20 years ago, and two years before the Good Friday Agreement.

Certainly the people of Northern Ireland could have no grounds for complaint about the levels of interest shown by the international media, although they were frequently uneasy about the quality of the analysis which resulted from that media interest. … There is little evidence, for example, that British or, indeed, international coverage of the Troubles had a significant impact on the views of people in Northern Ireland itself. Most Northern Irish people formulate political views on the basis of numerous factors and their reaction to media output, regardless of its aim, is more or less predetermined.

And the local press coverage?

It would be preposterous to suggest that the owners and editors of Northern Ireland’s local newspapers are responsible for the divisions in their society. It is undeniable, however, that their papers, through the choice of stories which are published and even the use of language to tell these stories, give voice to the rival perspectives of the two communities and, as a consequence, give added strength to these perspectives in the eyes of those who hold them. Therefore, local papers as well as the [Protestant] News Letter and the [Catholic] Irish News have helped to reproduce sectarian attitudes and in so doing they have become complicit in the maintenance of the politics of division.

(I added the paragraph beginning “Such descriptions … ” and made other minor revisions from the original post. MH)

Polling closed in Northern Ireland Assembly elections

UPDATES:

  • The election is set to deliver a significant boost to Irish nationalism at the expense of unionists, RTE reports. Sinn Féin could come within a seat or two of the DUP, which held a 10 seat advantage in the previous Stormont government.
  • The nearly 65 percent turnout was higher than first anticipated and the strongest since the vote that followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
  • Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced his resignation.

ORIGINAL POST:

Polling stations have closed across the six counties of Northern Ireland, and counting will take place throughout the day 3 March. Results should be completed by the following day.

The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has told media outlets that the turnout was higher than last May’s 55 percent participation rate. The BBC reported 80 percent turnout in new Sinn Féin leader Michelle O”Neill’s Mid Ulster constituency, and more than 75 percent in DUP leader Arlene Foster’s district of Fermanagh South Tyrone.

Could these two women share power at Stormont? Or will there be a return to direct rule from London? Check back for updates, and I’ll wrap up the results by 5 March.

BBC photo

Detailing Irish prisoners in Western Pennsylvania

In 1917, 220 Irish immigrants were incarcerated for minor offenses at the Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum near Blawnox, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh.

The Irish were 4.5 percent of the 4,826 people taken to the workhouse throughout the year as the United States entered World War I. They probably emigrated from most of the 32 counties of pre-partition Ireland under British rule.

I came across these details while researching a long-deceased Irish-Catholic relation from Kerry who I thought might have spent time in the workhouse. The prisoner turned out to be a black Baptist from Ohio with the same first and last name.

Old postcard image of the Allegheny County Workhouse.

The Irish incarcerated during 1917 were third behind U.S. citizens (74.32 percent) and Austrians (7.56 percent). Strong Irish immigration to Western Pennsylvania in the 19th and early 20th century probably means the U.S. total included a significant number of first generation Irish Americans. Assuming just 10 percent of the U.S.-born prisoners had such heritage, the Irish total would increase to 14 percent of the workhouse population.

That’s more in line with the 12.32 percent of Irish natives incarcerated at the workhouse from the time it opened in 1869, according to the institution’s 1917 annual report.

Men and women who committed more serious crimes were usually sentenced to Western Penitentiary, about 15 miles west of the workhouse along the Allegheny/Ohio rivers. The original “Western Pen” opened in 1826. It was replaced in 1882 by the building now being closed after more than a century. (Allegheny County Workhouse closed in 1971.)

I’ve found only spotty historical records for Western Pen that detail prisoners’ nation of origin. Irish natives averaged 3.5 percent of those incarcerated in 1881, 1884, 1886, 1888, 1890, 1895 and 1896.

Of course, the workhouse and Western Pen statistical reports lack many details, and historical and social context, including the percentages of Irish living in the general population of Pittsburgh and surrounding counties. Other questions: What types of crimes did the Irish commit? How often was their arrest the direct or indirect result of anti-Irish or anti-Catholic prejudice? How many had been criminals in Ireland? What impacts did Irish penetration of law enforcement and the legal system have on criminal justice? How about other upward social mobility for the Irish?

One small detail is available. About 15 percent of all prisoners who entered the workhouse during its first 48 years of operation could not read or write. Among the Irish, illiteracy was nearly 18 percent over the same period. In 1917, however, only 20 native Irish were illiterate, less than 0.5 percent of all those incarcerated.

Here are more general details about the workhouse:

  • In 1917, the average daily population was 843. It cost an average of 74 cents per day to confine each inmate, but earnings from their labor reduced the expense to 19 cents per prisoner per day.
  • Prisoners worked on a 1,100-acre farm, which was expanded in 1917 to help feed the troops in Europe. Inmates also produced brushes, brooms, carpets, chairs, and blacksmithed goods. They provided laundry services and other hired labor.
  • Of the 4,826 people incarcerated during 1917, 92 percent were men, and about 70 percent of the prison population was white. The most common occupation of the prisoners was laborer. There were 26 butchers, 27 bakers and 19 boilermakers … five soldiers, three sailors and three police.
  • The most cited offense was “suspicious person” (1,317), followed by disorderly conduct (977) and vagrancy (736). A total of 602 offences were related to consuming and selling alcohol. The most frequent sentence was 30 days (2,721 prisoners,) while 27 received terms of two years or longer.

See the 1917 statistical report for the Allegheny County Workhouse, with annual updates through 1922. Here are Western Pen reports for 1881 to 1890. Workhouse prisoner names can be searched on Ancestry.com.

Northern Ireland voters return to the polls 2 March

Only 10 months have passed since Northern Ireland voters selected assembly representatives. Now, fresh polling takes place 2 March, prompted by the January resignation of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the former deputy first minister. His move, in protest of a troubled renewable energy scheme overseen by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Arlene Foster, collapsed the power-sharing government. McGuinness also is in poor health and will not seek re-election.

The Irish Times says:

Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin is challenged by a collapse of trust and respect. Since other parties are unlikely to get enough seats, a prolonged period of direct rule [from London] is probable. That would come just as the British government invokes Brexit, creating huge uncertainty about the border [with the Republic] and hence the peace process itself. This issue has not had the attention or debate it deserves in the campaign.

The election outcome is made more unpredictable due to a previously scheduled reduction of the assembly to 90 seats, or five members for each of the 18 constituencies, from the previous allotment of 108 seats, or six representatives per district. This could upset the final balance of power.

Votes will be counted 3 March, and full results should be known by 4 March. Here are landing pages for major media coverage of the election:

And here’s a full 16 February debate among the major party leaders:

Burns still waiting on Senate vote for Irish ambassadorship

“To think of it: my grandfather was a very poor immigrant in County Kerry in 1892 and a little over 120 years later I am being selected as a representative of 35 million or 40 million Americans of Irish heritage and this president to go to Ireland. It is astonishing; I have to pinch myself.”

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland nominee Brian Burns in The Irish Times.

“The extraordinary support provided by Brian Burns, members of the Burns family, and their associates and friends has helped make Boston College one of the world’s leading centers for the study and appreciation of Ireland and the Irish diaspora.”

Christian Dupont, head librarian at the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College (Brian Burns is a son of John J. Burns. This is a great collection, which I visited in 2013.)

“I read the Irish papers from time to time, and I see nothing but criticism for President Trump. That’s a huge error.”

Burns quoted in the Palm Beach (Fla.) Daily News

As of 20 February, a Senate vote to confirm Burns has not been scheduled.

Brian Burns at BC in 2012.