Irish and Irish-American Nationalism: An Interview with Dr. David Brundage

Aleja Allen's picture

Aleja Allen, a graduate student in European History at the University of New Mexico, conducted the following interview with Dr. David Brundage, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in November of 2017. Dr. Brundage’s recent publications include Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798–1998 (Oxford University Press, 2016), “Remembering 1916 in America: The Easter Rising’s Many Faces, 1919–1962,” in Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme, and the Politics of Memory, ed. Richard Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and “Allegiance, Dual Citizenship, and the Ethnic Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Immigration and Ethnicity, ed. Ronald H. Bayor (Oxford University Press, 2016). He is currently conducting research for a new book, tentatively entitled New York Against Empire: W. E. B. Du Bois, Lala Lajpat Rai, Agnes Smedley, and Frank P. Walsh in a Time of War and Revolution, 1910–1925.

 

AA: Your recent book, Irish Nationalists in America, wonderfully constructs a narrative of Irish American nationalism, and is the first of its kind to address the long arc of Irish American identity formation. What were the major interpretative divisions in the Irish Studies field when you began the project? What were the biggest intellectual challenges you faced while constructing your narrative?

DB: I’ll start with the second part of your question. When I began my research on this book, I was focused mainly on the period from about 1890 to 1923, the years leading up to and including the Irish revolution (1916–23). This was the same period that had been covered in the excellent books, American Opinion and the Irish Question, 1910–23 (1978) by Francis Carroll and Ireland and Anglo-American Relations, 1899–1921 (1969) by Alan Ward. My intention, though, was to delve more deeply into the social history of the movement in these years, and to probe the dimensions of race, class, and gender that were, and still are, the hallmarks of a social historical approach. As I read more deeply into the secondary works on Irish American nationalism, however, I began to appreciate the need for a more expansive narrative account—one that integrated the findings of, for example, historians writing about the United Irish exiles in the early American republic, about Daniel O’Connell and his relationship to abolitionism in the 1840s, and about Irish Americans and the Northern Irish conflict in the 1970s and 1980s. Integrating some of the insights from this rich and varied historiography into my own understanding of “the long arc of Irish American identity formation” (as you nicely phrase it) was the biggest challenge that I faced. 

A second challenge for me (since I was trained as an American, not an Irish, historian) was developing as deep an understanding as I could of the complex social and political history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland. This brings me to the first part of your question, the interpretative divisions in my area of the Irish Studies field. When I began my project, the major works on Irish American nationalism approached it mainly as an American story. This included not only Thomas Brown’s classic work, Irish-American Nationalism, 1870–1890 (1966), which explained the phenomenon as the manifestation of a powerful hunger on the part of Irish immigrants and their descendants for social acceptance and upward mobility in the United States, but also Eric Foner’s influential analysis of the Land League, which took Brown to task for ignoring the class conflict and Irish American working-class radicalism that marked these decades. Kerby Miller’s 1985 book, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, however, was a game changer. Appearing two decades before scholars started talking about the “transnational turn” in U.S. history, Miller’s monumental work made it absolutely clear that you simply could not write a history of Irish America without a full understanding of its ongoing interaction with Ireland. Kevin Kenny’s stimulating 2003 article, “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study,” built on this, and drew our attention to the differences between transnational and comparative approaches in thinking about the Irish world-wide. These were some of the interpretative themes and questions that were in the air by the time I began writing my book. What remained a big challenge for me was blending a transnational approach with the issues of class, race, and gender that I remained committed to exploring.  

AA: Irish Americans leading up Ireland’s War of Independence possessed a highly radicalized nationalism, mostly due to the experiences of the Famine immigrants, which was then passed on through successive generations. Would you argue that Irish American nationalism is fundamentally different from mainland Ireland’s because of this experience?

DB: This is a great question. Yes, I would argue that Irish American nationalism was very different from that in Ireland, and that this was so, at least in part, because of the Great Famine (1845–1852). As Miller argued most forcefully, the Famine really seared the idea of “exile” into Irish American nationalism. But it wasn’t only the Famine that made the U.S.-based movement so distinctive. In the United States, there was also the presence of actual—not metaphorical—political exiles, beginning with Wolfe and Matilda Tone in the 1790s, and continuing on right up through the 1920s, who repeatedly rejuvenated the most radical forms of Irish nationalism in this country. And finally, there was the ongoing interaction of Irish activists with American society and political culture: a kind of synthesis of Irish and American political republicanism seems to me to be a recurring theme in this history, giving the U.S. version a much more radical edge.

I also want to comment on your point about a radicalized nationalism being “passed on through successive generations.” That is exactly right, but I try to show in the book that this was not an automatic or inevitable process. It rather required the active intervention of numerous journalists, intellectuals, and political activists over many decades. Geoff Eley and Ronald Suny have used the term “imaginative ideological labor” to describe this dimension of nationalist movements more generally, and it’s an idea I found quite helpful in thinking about this point.

AA: Regarding the interwar period, much of the scholarship of the Irish Studies field argues that Irish American nationalism took a downturn in 1922, once Ireland gained independence with the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. (Although Ireland had to accept dominion status and Northern Ireland remained united with Great Britain.) This seems at odds with their historically radical nationalism. Why do you think Irish Americans were so quick to accept the Treaty, if that is the case?

DB: I think part of it was actually sheer exhaustion. From the founding of the Friends of Irish Freedom in the spring of 1916 to the truce that went into effect in the summer of 1921, Irish nationalism in the United States took on the character of a mass movement, unlike anything seen before. It drew in hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women—perhaps as many as a million. (At a conference that I spoke at some years ago, a member of the audience told me that he owed his very existence to the Friends of Irish Freedom, since it was at one of their meetings that his mother and father had first met.) This level of mass activism would have been very difficult to sustain under any conditions, but it was especially so when highly respected Irish leaders like Michael Collins assured Irish Americans that the Anglo-Irish Treaty would be a stepping stone to complete independence. In my book, I quoted a comment from a New York activist on this point: if the Treaty satisfied Collins, he wrote, then “it ought to satisfy those [of us] in America, who were 3,000 miles away when the real fighting was being done.” Then there was also the onslaught of editorial comment in support of the Treaty coming from American newspapers and the U.S. Catholic press; that surely played a role as well.

There continued to be U.S.-based Irish revolutionaries, of course (most notably the Philadelphia businessman Joseph McGarrity), but their numbers now shrank drastically, and would remain quite small until the emergence of the Northern Irish conflict, which triggered new growth in the late 1960s and 1970s.

AA: Irish delegates who came to the U.S. during the interwar period to campaign for Irish independence rarely saw eye to eye with their American counterparts, with tensions often surfacing in highly publicized arguments. Did such bickering affect Irish American lay nationalism?

DB: No question it did. The most famous conflict, between Ireland’s Éamon de Valera and the U.S. leaders of the Friends of Irish Freedom, emerged from a relationship that could at best be described as toxic. In the short run, that particular split may not have hurt the grassroots support for Irish nationalism too severely, as the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, which de Valera founded, quickly surpassed the Friends of Irish Freedom in its number of members. But tension between Irish nationalists and their American counterparts was a recurring theme from the 1820s when O’Connell denounced some of the American supporters of his Catholic Emancipation campaign because of their alleged violent Anglophobia, to the 1980s and 1990s, when the Northern Irish constitutional nationalist John Hume criticized widespread Irish American support for the so-called MacBride Principles (a campaign against Northern Irish anti-Catholic employment discrimination that Hume believed could hinder economic investment in the region).

AA: In Irish America and the Ulster Conflict, 1968–1995 (1995) Andrew Wilson argues that Irish Americans constructed a memory of Ireland that was highly romanticized and inaccurate. He states that this memory was one of the main reasons why Irish and Irish American nationalism split in its ideology, and why visiting Irish representatives and their Irish American hosts so often failed to get along. To what extent does this romanticized version of Ireland’s past influence the split that came to a head during Ireland’s War of Independence?

DB: Wilson is absolutely correct that many Irish Americans had—and still have—a romanticized and inaccurate understanding of the Irish past, which is why, as he so effectively shows, the more moderate Northern Irish figures like John Hume made it their goal to educate and reorient Irish American opinion. But I wonder if romanticism is really a unique characteristic of the diaspora. Ernest Renan famously said that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” and I think you can find many examples of romanticized versions of history among nationalists in Ireland. According to Padraig O’Malley’s book on the 1981 Hunger Strike, Biting at the Grave (1990), Bobby Sands loved Leon Uris’s novel, Trinity (1976), and would regularly recite parts of it to his fellow prisoners. Trinity (albeit written by an American!) is about as romanticized a version of the Irish independence struggle as you can imagine.

AA: Do you think Irish American nationalism was adversely affected by the Irish Civil War (1922–1923)? Did Irish Americans view the scale of the civil war’s brutality, which seemed to confirm that Ireland was incapable of governing itself, as an embarrassment?

DB: Yes, without question. The brutality of the Civil War, with well-reported atrocities on both sides, was deeply upsetting to many Irish Americans, even to some of those who opposed the Treaty. I myself was moved when I read a 1922 poem by Peter Golden (a key figure in New York Irish republican circles), lamenting the loss of life on both sides and the “shame of civil woe.” The Civil War seemed, just as you say, to validate the position of those who had opposed Irish independence to begin with.

AA: Some scholars have suggested that Irish American nationalism in the interwar period weakened due to the effects of the Great Depression. Irish Americans had a long tradition of sending remittances to family members in Ireland, yet the Depression interrupted this practice. Do you see the Depression as being a factor in nationalism’s decline among the diaspora? Or were Irish Americans simply losing interest in their identities as the twentieth century wore on?

DB: I think it’s a bit of both. The Depression not only interrupted the flow of remittances, but also had the effect of sharply curtailing Irish immigration—why go to America if there were no jobs? When emigration from Ireland commenced again after World War II, the main destination was Britain, not the United States. Since Irish nationalism in America had for so long depended on political exiles (or politicized immigrants) as its very life blood, it was bound to be negatively affected.

The relative decline of immigration is also related to the question of identity, as Irish Americans continued the long and halting process of cultural assimilation and upward occupational mobility. The memoir of the late political activist Tom Hayden, Irish on the Inside (2003), while itself quite romanticized in its treatment of Irish history, is very effective in reflecting on the processes of assimilation and post-war suburbanization for Irish identity in America. This is a complicated issue and one that could still use more research—and it relates directly to the two following questions that you pose.

AA: Would you consider the possibility that Irish American nationalism split between cultural nationalism and political nationalism during and after the interwar period? Irish Americans did not seem as interested in Irish delegates when they toured America in the late 1920s—William Cosgrave’s visit in 1928 did not seem to be the event that Éamon de Valera’s was in 1919—yet Irish American’s participation in events like the 1933–1934 Chicago World Fair, or visiting Ireland via Aer Lingus, seems to suggest they were still interested culturally in their ethnic roots.

DB: Yes, I think you make this point very well. I would just add that the cultural side of the story itself has a complicated history, with many ups and downs. There is a big uptick in the 1970s with what some have called the “roots” phenomenon. The historian Mathew Frye Jacobson wrote an interesting book on this phenomenon a few years ago, but there is much more to be done, and the Irish in America would seem like a perfect case study.

AA: Where do you see the Irish Studies field going with regards to the interwar period and the twentieth century more generally? What major events do you think are still in need of greater research? Do you hope that your history will encourage other scholars to conduct deeper research on Irish American nationalism?

DB: The twentieth century is without a doubt the frontier for scholarship on Irish American history and there is still a great deal to do, including on Irish American nationalism. And, yes, I certainly hope that my book will encourage greater research on this topic. I am personally looking forward to the new books by Damien Murray (a forthcoming study of Irish nationalism in Boston) and Michael Doorley (a forthcoming biography of the Friends of Irish Freedom leader, Daniel F. Cohalan, which will follow him into the 1930s). But going beyond nationalism, I think that twentieth-century Irish American everyday life could still use much more study: the new Irish immigrants of the post-World War II era (a world so beautifully evoked in Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn, 2009) were entering a very different America from that experienced by previous immigrants and could be the focus of much more historical scholarship. Finally, the complex relationship of both Irish immigrants and settled Irish Americans to a variety of other ethnic and racial groups in what James Barrett called in his fine book, The Irish Way (2012), the “multiethnic city” could still use much more work.

 

Bibliography

Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.

Brown, Thomas N. Irish-American Nationalism, 1870–1890. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.

Carroll, Francis M. American Opinion and the Irish Question, 1910–23. Dublin, Ire.: Gill and MacMillan, 1978.

Hayden, Tom. Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America. New York: Verso, 2003.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

O’Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1990.

Tóibín, Colm. Brooklyn. New York: Scribner, 2009.

Uris, Leon. Trinity. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.

Ward, Alan J. Ireland and Anglo-American Relations, 1899–1921. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969.

Wilson, Andrew J. Irish-America and the Ulster Conflict, 1968–1995. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of American Press, 1995.