A Discussion on Irish Immigrants in America with Timothy Meagher





Ms. O'Neill is an HNN intern.

Timothy Meagher is associate professor of history and curator of the American Catholic History Collections at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  He earned his Ph.D. in 1982 at Brown University, and is the author of several works, including The New York Irish and Inventing Irish America: Generation, Class, and Ethnic Identity in a New England City, 1880 to 1928, winners of the James Donnelly prize for the Best Book in Irish American history. 

Your roots as a Worcester native help to shed some light on what may have led you to become a scholar on Irish-American history, but are there any other specific reasons for why you were drawn towards history, and particularly the immigrant history of the Irish?

Well, the main reason was to explain my own situation, most notably why ethnicity persists but changes over so many generations.  My father was third generation, the grandson of a Famine immigrant.  He graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, but he firmly believed he was Irish or Irish American.  So I wanted to know how that could happen.  He obviously was totally different from his grandfather, a convinced American patriot but ethnic identity was important to him, very important.

But I also just loved history.  I read Landmark books, knew all about the Civil War, loved historic sites like Concord.

And I love history generally, Chinese, East Indian, whatever.

And, perhaps most important now, I love the intellectual issues in history, the conceptualizing, the solving of problems, and thinking about the big issues like the meaning of democracy or making of political cultures.

What do you see as your most noteworthy finding in your research on Irish Americans? What is the one piece of insight from your research about Irish heritage that you would tell other Irish Americans about?

I think the most noteworthy finding is that ethnicity is invented and reinvented over time.  There is not some essential piece of Irishness built into the DNA that persists, but an Irish-Americanness that is made and remade.

Equally as important is that this change is not necessarily assimilation as it is often understood.  I don't like the term assimilation, not that immigrants and their ancestors don't change, not that they don't become Americans, not even that some groups don't disappear into an American mainstream.  But the term assimilation, I think, narrows and foreshortens our vision.  We begin to look only at change that somehow leads to what we call assimilation and miss the many and various ways that groups change but don't move on some linear track to assimilation.  Irish-Americans were still a very distinct people as late as the 1950s, despite being adamant in their American patriotism, middle class and suburbanized.  I also think the term seems so loaded with political meanings that we can't escape whenever we use it.

As a fourth-generation Worcester native, have you found that your historical research of the Irish in America has allowed you to connect with your Irish heritage on a different level?  What advice would you give to Americans who are looking to establish a bond with their past and understand their culture and its place within America?

Well the advice would be accept it all as human, part of the human experience and try to understand it as complex.  Don't try to fit it into some stereotyped potted narrative.  Learn what you can about not just the family but the place they come from and how that place fits into the broader patterns.  Ireland has just great work being done on local history.  There is local history program at NUI Maynooth that is just terrific.  But in the end what is so moving is that each such stories unique and thus moving, no matter how much they reflect broader patterns.  I took groups of school teachers to Ireland twice in 2002 and 2004 and had each one do research on a Famine immigrant to America.  Some found nothing.  But for those who found information each story was so singular, so much its own story, that though they fit into all our broader trends, it was the specifics of each story that struck home.  Some just guessing from where they came, some remote part of Ireland like the Dingle peninsula, or where they landed and settled, in Boston, where the Irish seemed fated to be on the bottom, you would have expected to do terribly - and they prospered.  Others came from eastern Ireland, had skills, went west to where there were opportunities and ended life in hardship, broken families on farms in the plains.

I have learned a lot about my own history.  Both my father and my mother's paternal families trace back to Famine immigrants, and I have seen the documents, rent and tax rolls, that reveal how they gradually lost land and eventually their farms and fell into poverty from the early nineteenth century through the Famine.  I have profited a lot from some great local histories of the parts of Ireland, Moyne in Tipperary and Bellurgan in Louth, where the Meaghers and McDermotts (my mother's grandfather) came from.

What have been some of the latest historical  approaches to understanding Irish-American immigrant history, and what have been some of the latest findings in your research that incorporate these new approaches? 

I really am sold on the notion that ethnicity is constructed and invented, as noted above.  This may not be the latest approach but it is still the best and I think still underappreciated.

I am interested in some of the work Steve Erie did on machines but even more work by Jim Connolly.  We need to rethink Irish American politics beyond conventional machine models though not ignoring machines.

I love the transnational, although I think it can lead sometimes to a new kind of essentialism – that is, that the Irish in America, Australia, or Canada are just really pieces of Ireland dumped around the world.  But I am very interested in chain migration, very understudied for Irish immigration.  I have done a lot of work with parish records tracing the Irish in Newton, Massachusetts or Mission Hill in Boston to their Galway or Roscommon roots.  I also am very intrigued by comparative history in the Irish diaspora, what makes the Australian Irish different from Canadian Irish or American Irish.

I have written about whiteness and find it very useful, but I think it has been vastly simplistic when used for Irish-Americans.  I have been trying to show its complications.

What do you see as the crucial differentiation in terms of obstacles and assimilation between Irish American immigrants and other immigrants in the United States?

Irish immigrants had advantages of being white in a white dominated society, speaking English, knowing something about how the Anglo-Atlantic political world worked.  Irish immigrants after 1880 had advantages of literacy as well.

They had disadvantages in that they were Catholic in a Protestant dominated America that took religion very seriously.  The Famine era immigrants were horribly impoverished.  But all Irish immigrants after the 1820s, despite being literate, had no useful industrial skills.  They also were not entrepreneurial or individualistic, coming from very risk adverse communal backgrounds.  I am less sure of this, but I think they may have also been more vulnerable to disease than other immigrants, particularly to TB.  Mortality rates for Irish immigrants into the twentieth century were much higher than even Italians, Jews or Poles.

In your book, Inventing Irish America: Generation, Class and Ethnic Identity in a New England City, 1880 to 1928, you analyze the experiences of both famine and post-famine Irish immigrants.  What are the major differences between these immigrants, and what specific contributions did each make to maintain their ethnic identity within the American culture?

Well, the differences were there.  The later generation immigrants were not as desperate.  They were much more likely to be literate (but about the same proportions in the late nineteenth century as the middle spoke Irish, though probably more likely for those to be bilingual) and because their families were less likely to be broken and disorganized, fewer became prostitutes.

But the similarities are probably as important.  Irish immigrants at the turn of the century were not very upwardly mobile.  The women became domestic servants; the men unskilled workers.  So in that sense they are much like the Famine era immigrants.

You may be making a mistake here talking about two groups of "immigrants."  There is not much of a difference there.  But there are huge differences between the immigrants and the second generation or the American-born children of immigrants.  That does not mean that the second generation have merged into a Yankee mainstream – far from it - but they were very different people than the immigrants.  They were more upwardly mobile, more likely to live in mixed areas, but more religious or more institutionally disciplined Catholics, more likely to marry later than the immigrants, but have children at about the same rate, or at a higher rate than the Yankees.  They also are key people in inventing American popular culture.

What are some of the areas that students pursuing PhDs in Irish American history seem to be gravitating towards the most?  For students who are looking to pursue a PhD in an area that has been lacking in attention, what would you tell them to focus on?

I think there is a lot of attention to whiteness, some of it very good, some not so good.  There is some attention to chains here and in Ireland but much more can be done there, on specific streams of Irish from specific places in Ireland to here.  There has been a ton of work on the Civil War but oddly almost no one has taken advantage of the great social history sources available in the National Archives' muster rolls and pension records.  We can learn where the soldiers came from in Ireland, what they did here before service, after service.  There is lots of work done in Ireland on heights of prisoners, army recruits and so on as an index of standard of living and heights are also recorded on the muster rolls of Irish-American Civil War soldiers.  So the social history of the Irish-American soldier in the war is still wide open.  I think there could be work on Irish-American politicians and progressivism and liberalism in the twentieth century. No one really followed up on John Buenker's work on Irish-Americans and progressivism in the 1910s and the kind of odd, but effective partnerships in reform that Irish-Americans forged with women reformers, among others. There have been Al Smith biographies but this was bigger than Smith. Irish-American mortality, in particular suffering from the ravages of TB, is a wide open topic.  What does it mean when people die so early?  How does that affect how people live?  Comparisons of the Church in Canada and Australia and the United States.  Comparisons of Irish "ethnics" in the labor parties of Britain and Australia with the American Federation of Labor and the Democrats.  Irish-American congressmen and Civil Rights - they give strong support to it from the 1930s - even the 1920s - on, despite hostility in Irish neighborhoods to blacks.  So how do we resolve that paradox?  More on the complicated relation between Irish-Americans and the New Deal.  Work on the roots of Irish-American d

Timothy Meagher is associate professor of history and curator of the American Catholic History Collections at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  He earned his Ph.D. in 1982 at Brown University, and is the author of several works, including The New York Irish and Inventing Irish America: Generation, Class, and Ethnic Identity in a New England City, 1880 to 1928, winners of the James Donnelly prize for the Best Book in Irish American history. 

Your roots as a Worcester native help to shed some light on what may have led you to become a scholar on Irish American history, but are there any other specific reasons for why you were drawn towards history, and particularly the immigrant history of the Irish?

Well, the main reason was to explain my own situation, most notably why ethnicity persists but changes over so many generations.  My father was third generation, the grandson of a Famine immigrant.  He graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, but he firmly believed he was Irish or Irish American.  So I wanted to know how that could happen.  He obviously was totally different from his grandfather, a convinced American patriot but ethnic identity was important to him, very important.

But I also just loved history.  I read Landmark books, knew all about the Civil War, loved historic sites like Concord.

And I love history generally, Chinese, East Indian, whatever.

And, perhaps most important now, I love the intellectual issues in history, the conceptualizing, the solving of problems, and thinking about the big issues like the meaning of democracy or making of political cultures.

What do you see as your most noteworthy finding in your research on Irish Americans? What is the one piece of insight from your research about Irish heritage that you would tell other Irish Americans about?

I think the most noteworthy finding is that ethnicity is invented and reinvented over time.  There is not some essential piece of Irishness built into the DNA that persists, but an Irish Americanness that is made and remade.

Equally as important is that this change is not necessarily assimilation as it is often understood.  I don't like the term assimilation, not that immigrants and their ancestors don't change, not that they don't become Americans, not even that some groups don't disappear into an American mainstream.  But the term assimilation, I think, narrows and foreshortens our vision.  We begin to look only at change that somehow leads to what we call assimilation and miss the many and various ways that groups change but don't move on some linear track to assimilation.  Irish Americans were still a very distinct people as late as the 1950s, despite being adamant in their American patriotism, middle class and suburbanized.  I also think the term seems so loaded with political meanings that we can't escape whenever we use it.

As a fourth-generation Worcester native, have you found that your historical research of the Irish in America has allowed you to connect with your Irish heritage on a different level?  What advice would you give to Americans who are looking to establish a bond with their past and understand their culture and its place within America?

Well the advice would be accept it all as human, part of the human experience and try to understand it as complex.  Don't try to fit it into some stereotyped potted narrative.  Learn what you can about not just the family but the place they come from and how that place fits into the broader patterns.  Ireland has just great work being done on local history.  There is local history program at NUI Maynooth that is just terrific.  But in the end what is so moving is that each such stories unique and thus moving, no matter how much they reflect broader patterns.  I took groups of school teachers to Ireland twice in 2002 and 2004 and had each one do research on a Famine immigrant to America.  Some found nothing.  But for those who found information each story was so singular, so much its own story, that though they fit into all our broader trends, it was the specifics of each story that struck home.  Some just guessing from where they came, some remote part of Ireland like the Dingle peninsula, or where they landed and settled, in Boston, where the Irish seemed fated to be on the bottom, you would have expected to do terribly - and they prospered.  Others came from eastern Ireland, had skills, went west to where there were opportunities and ended life in hardship, broken families on farms in the plains.

I have learned a lot about my own history.  Both my father and my mother's paternal families trace back to Famine immigrants, and I have seen the documents, rent and tax rolls, that reveal how they gradually lost land and eventually their farms and fell into poverty from the early nineteenth century through the Famine.  I have profited a lot from some great local histories of the parts of Ireland, Moyne in Tipperary and Bellurgan in Louth, where the Meaghers and McDermotts (my mother's grandfather) came from.

What have been some of the latest historical  approaches to understanding Irish American immigrant history, and what have been some of the latest findings in your research that incorporate these new approaches? 

I really am sold on the notion that ethnicity is constructed and invented, as noted above.  This may not be the latest approach but it is still the best and I think still underappreciated.

I am interested in some of the work Steve Erie did on machines but even more work by Jim Connolly.  We need to rethink Irish American politics beyond conventional machine models though not ignoring machines.

I love the transnational, although I think it can lead sometimes to a new kind of essentialism – that is, that the Irish in America, Australia, or Canada are just really pieces of Ireland dumped around the world.  But I am very interested in chain migration, very understudied for Irish immigration.  I have done a lot of work with parish records tracing the Irish in Newton, Massachusetts or Mission Hill in Boston to their Galway or Roscommon roots.  I also am very intrigued by comparative history in the Irish diaspora, what makes the Australian Irish different from Canadian Irish or American Irish.

I have written about whiteness and find it very useful, but I think it has been vastly simplistic when used for Irish Americans.  I have been trying to show its complications.

What do you see as the crucial differentiation in terms of obstacles and assimilation between Irish American immigrants and other immigrants in the United States?

Irish immigrants had advantages of being white in a white dominated society, speaking English, knowing something about how the Anglo-Atlantic political world worked.  Irish immigrants after 1880 had advantages of literacy as well.

They had disadvantages in that they were Catholic in a Protestant dominated America that took religion very seriously.  The Famine era immigrants were horribly impoverished.  But all Irish immigrants after the 1820s, despite being literate, had no useful industrial skills.  They also were not entrepreneurial or individualistic, coming from very risk adverse communal backgrounds.  I am less sure of this, but I think they may have also been more vulnerable to disease than other immigrants, particularly to TB.  Mortality rates for Irish immigrants into the twentieth century were much higher than even Italians, Jews or Poles.

In your book, Inventing Irish America: Generation, Class and Ethnic Identity in a New England City, 1880 to 1928, you analyze the experiences of both famine and post-famine Irish immigrants.  What are the major differences between these immigrants, and what specific contributions did each make to maintain their ethnic identity within the American culture?

Well, the differences were there.  The later generation immigrants were not as desperate.  They were much more likely to be literate (but about the same proportions in the late nineteenth century as the middle spoke Irish, though probably more likely for those to be bilingual) and because their families were less likely to be broken and disorganized, fewer became prostitutes.

But the similarities are probably as important.  Irish immigrants at the turn of the century were not very upwardly mobile.  The women became domestic servants; the men unskilled workers.  So in that sense they are much like the Famine era immigrants.

You may be making a mistake here talking about two groups of "immigrants."  There is not much of a difference there.  But there are huge differences between the immigrants and the second generation or the American-born children of immigrants.  That does not mean that the second generation have merged into a Yankee mainstream – far from it - but they were very different people than the immigrants.  They were more upwardly mobile, more likely to live in mixed areas, but more religious or more institutionally disciplined Catholics, more likely to marry later than the immigrants, but have children at about the same rate, or at a higher rate than the Yankees.  They also are key people in inventing American popular culture.

What are some of the areas that students pursuing PhDs in Irish American history seem to be gravitating towards the most?  For students who are looking to pursue a PhD in an area that has been lacking in attention, what would you tell them to focus on?

I think there is a lot of attention to whiteness, some of it very good, some not so good.  There is some attention to chains here and in Ireland but much more can be done there, on specific streams of Irish from specific places in Ireland to here.  There has been a ton of work on the Civil War but oddly almost no one has taken advantage of the great social history sources available in the National Archives' muster rolls and pension records.  We can learn where the soldiers came from in Ireland, what they did here before service, after service.  There is lots of work done in Ireland on heights of prisoners, army recruits and so on as an index of standard of living and heights are also recorded on the muster rolls of Irish American Civil War soldiers.  So the social history of the Irish American soldier in the war is still wide open.  I think there could be work on Irish American politicians and progressivism and liberalism in the twentieth century. No one really followed up on John Buenker's work on Irish Americans and progressivism in the 1910s and the kind of odd, but effective partnerships in reform that Irish Americans forged with women reformers, among others. There have been Al Smith biographies but this was bigger than Smith. Irish American mortality, in particular suffering from the ravages of TB, is a wide open topic.  What does it mean when people die so early?  How does that affect how people live?  Comparisons of the Church in Canada and Australia and the United States.  Comparisons of Irish "ethnics" in the labor parties of Britain and Australia with the American Federation of Labor and the Democrats.  Irish American congressmen and Civil Rights - they give strong support to it from the 1930s - even the 1920s - on, despite hostility in Irish neighborhoods to blacks.  So how do we resolve that paradox?  More on the complicated relation between Irish Americans and the New Deal.  Work on the roots of Irish American democracy and populism.  I am intrigued by how the Irish in Ireland reacted to an aristocracy imposed on them and how that affected their ideas about democracy in the United States.

What are some of the most prevalent myths that Americans have in regards to the Irish American immigrants and their experiences?  As a professor, how do you manage to debunk these myths for your students? 

I think some of the most prevalent myths are that it was all easy.  The Irish got off the boat, "assimilated", started making money, and so on.

There is another myth, common to some social scientists, but also reflected in the popular culture, and that is that the Irish made no progress at all, that they are still working class and stuck in dead-end worlds.  It is interesting to me that the popular culture models we have of working class people today are often Irish, Boston Irish, movies from Dennis Lehane novels, Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River. That image created a century age has been hard to shake.

What can we apply today to our current immigrant situation from what we know about the history of Irish American immigrants?  Are there certain social and political aspects that you think Americans and the United States government should be considering when dealing with the current immigrant controversy?

I am not sure there is a direct policy point to make.  But in a broad sense, think of a people practicing a religion that is anathema to all your ideals, a religion that seems the epitome of anti-democratic thinking, a people poor, disorganized, rowdy and raucous, filling up your jails and poorhouses, mucking up your politics, and apparently incorrigible.

Then think that two grandsons of these people became your presidents, Kennedy and Reagan, and untold numbers of their descendants became congressmen, senators, businessmen and so on.  These were the Famine Irish immigrants.  Immigrants today may not be perfect, but then none ever were.  Be patient, and recognize that immigration and the American faith in the common man and woman may be the best thing this country has going for it.

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