Rhoa on Brundage, 'Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998'

David Brundage
Maddison Rhoa

David Brundage. Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 312 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-005560-8.

Reviewed by Maddison Rhoa (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54696

In Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998, David Brundage contends that the formation of Irish nationalism as a political and cultural ideology was due to a concerted effort by Irish, Irish American, and American contributors that ultimately catapulted Ireland toward eventual political independence. Covering the period between the dawn of the 1798 Rebellion and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the work highlights the complex and ultimately symbiotic historical relationship between Ireland and America that informed Irish nationalist movements. A comprehensive and sweeping study, Irish Nationalists in America maintains that long-distance or diasporic nationalism—“the phenomenon of nationalist activity and enthusiasm among far-flung groups of emigrants, exiles, or refugees”—is “as old as nationalism itself” (p. 4). Extending beyond the immediate geographic confines of Ireland, Irish nationalism was a political project shaped by men and women on both sides of the Atlantic for two centuries.

Careful never to stray from his assertion that nationalism, be it localized or distant, is a built and imagined concept, Brundage draws on the ideas and theories of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) to foreground his main argument that the ideological nationalism that became the very fabric of the burgeoning Irish nation—broadly conceived—was a product not only of Irish but also American ingenuity, political action, and rhetorical support. Likewise, Irish Nationalists in America is as much about transatlantic political life as it is about the development and challenge of forming personal, local, and national identities in the face of an ever-changing and wide-reaching political sphere. Brundage explores the varied and oftentimes conflicting beliefs held, as well as identifiers assumed, by nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. This approach works to engender a portrait of Irish nationalism as a diverse and expansive, albeit not always unified, movement.

Deftly weaving individual case studies with broad historical trends, Brundage begins his narrative with Matilda Tone, her husband Wolfe Tone, and their family’s migrations from Ireland to America in the eighteenth century. Brundage effectively conceives of the Tones, often characterized as rebel spearheads, as an example of the way political engagement in Irish affairs did not abate after transatlantic migration. The Tones, though retaining staunch faith in their Irish identity above all else, used their unique geographic positions abroad to further formulate their plans to upend the suffocating class-based political system in Ireland that refused to afford Catholics, the poor, and the landless any tangible political rights. Brundage argues that these types of actions effectively formed what he considers to be the foundation of Irish nationalism—an ideology that was created through the experiences of individuals who, like the Tones, found themselves exiled to America during a time of great political upheaval in Ireland.

Brundage follows his discussion of the Tones with the stories of several other notable Irish immigrants who arrived in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Mathew Carey, an illustrious Philadelphia publisher, and Thomas Addis Emmet, a leader of the Society of United Irishmen. As the number of Irish immigrants and exiles grew in America during this time, so too did their involvement in both American and Irish political life. Early Irish immigrants flocked to what they perceived as the asylum of Pennsylvania, quickly ingratiating themselves into the literary and political spheres of northeastern cities like Philadelphia. Their increased presence in politics affected not only the course of events occurring locally in America but also those in Ireland, such as the push for Catholic Emancipation spearheaded by Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s. Irish exiles and immigrants to America provided both financial and rhetorical support for Irish causes, effectively nurturing the link between the two countries and establishing a narrative of nationalist ideology that was highly transatlantic and personal in nature.

The narrative continues chronologically into the nineteenth century, often oscillating between larger historical moments, such as the Great Famine of the 1840s, and the intimate realities of Irish nationalists both in Ireland and America. Through these brief microhistories, Brundage contends that Ireland and America have been inextricably linked politically, demographically, and culturally for hundreds of years, spurred on by the flux of emigration and exile from Ireland to America. As a result, many Irish immigrants to America wrestled with shifting conceptions of personal and national identity (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive), formed through their experiences of exile, escape, parentage, and political engagement. The idea that Irish nationalism and personal identity, much like the political alliances between individuals and societies in Ireland and America, were inherently linked and simultaneously complicated by one another is one of the strongest and most well-argued points Brundage makes, and directly interrogates how historians consider and continue to define Irish nationalism.

Reverberations of major events in Ireland were felt deeply on both sides of the Atlantic during the mid to late nineteenth century, and Brundage is careful to showcase these cause-and-effect relationships in light of the development of Irish nationalism. Not long after Ireland secured Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the detrimental and devastating effects of the Great Famine forced many poor, mostly Catholic migrants from Ireland to the eastern United States. The majority of those who arrived during and after the Famine settled in the industrial North, populating cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. These immigrants contributed to the formation of an Irish Catholic working class on American soil, effectively rendering Irish Catholics as one of the largest cultural groups in the United States. Political involvement in Irish affairs continued after Catholic Emancipation and the Great Famine in the form of transatlantic support for the repeal movement—the goal of which was to repeal the Acts of Union of 1800, which firmly tied Ireland to the United Kingdom of Great Britain. While many Irish Americans supported the movement, Brundage argues that some of the most notable were women. Already active supporters of abolitionism’s rhetoric of freedom and liberty, women perceived the repeal movement as another social cause worthy of their financial and moral involvement. In doing so, they contributed to growing Irish nationalist sentiment and displayed a keen desire to break the bond between Ireland and their British colonizers. Through their political action, Irish immigrants were represented in nearly every social class in America and were better able to support Irish nationalist causes on several different fronts.

However, as the twentieth century dawned in Ireland and brought uprising, civil war, and political division in its wake, American support of Irish nationalists transformed into simultaneous encouragement and criticism. Reflecting the political, religious, and cultural schism between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, factions for and against the Anglo-Irish Treaty sprung up across the United States, much as they did in Ireland, with some supporters likening Irish Dáil delegate Michael Collins to George Washington. These comparisons between the Irish and Americans continued as descendants of American presidents, such as Chester Alan Arthur III, willfully involved themselves in support of Irish affairs, and the first president of the Irish Free State—Eamon de Valera—was well known as half-American by birth. So continued the rhetorical and political interweaving of Ireland and America.

Brundage then traces the gradual decline of Irish nationalism through the postwar period, noting that immigration of Irish individuals to America had declined significantly since the dawn of the Great Depression, and many Irish Americans had branched out from their predominantly Irish communities in the cities, hoping to achieve more suburban lives but ultimately losing touch with their ethnic enclaves. By the early 1960s, only a few strong Irish nationalist factions operated on the eastern coast of the United States, but their former vigor would be revitalized in the following decades during the Troubles.

Aptly, the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 conclude Brundage’s two-hundred-year narrative, reinforcing the conception of Ireland as the once and future homeland, and America as its ally. While sectarian conflict and terrorism plagued Northern Ireland, many Americans called for their elected leaders to intervene in the fight for lasting peace. This push for peace initiatives in politically divided Northern Ireland rather ironically received bipartisan support in the United States, and eventually coalesced into several reciprocal visits of Irish and American leaders to one another’s respective countries—most notably, Bill Clinton’s visit to Northern Ireland in 1995. By Good Friday 1998, Brundage argues, a “complicated chapter of Irish—and Irish American—history ... had come to a close” (p. 217). This conclusion to an era of Irish nationalism is a constructed end designated by the author, and, aside from its clean break after exactly two hundred years, it is not one that is otherwise particularly self-evident. Brundage argues that the end of armed conflict and the beginning of peace in Northern Ireland is a “logical endpoint” for his narrative both numerically and thematically. He uses a natural denouement of history—the de-escalation of a conflict—to mirror the conclusion of his book.

Brundage’s comprehensive work of Irish and Irish American history is a testament to the relevance of a comparative approach in analyzing broad, but ultimately linked, moments in history. Bookended appropriately between the Rebellion of 1798 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the work is a pivotal piece of scholarship that weds the Irish with the American and the personal with the political. The stories of Irish and American notables are certainly important and necessary pieces of the Irish Nationalist narrative that Brundage draws from archival sources both in Ireland and America. However, this wide-reaching history could also benefit from a deeper exploration of the experiences of lesser-known figures, who may not have had the advantages of local or national fame, political reputation and networking, or financial backing to support them in their fight to remain loyal to their homeland during politically tumultuous times. The humble realities experienced by common or nameless individuals may provide deeper insights into how the purposeful and accidental enmeshing of Irish and American culture and identity furthered the development of Ireland’s nationalist history over the course of centuries.

That being said, Brundage’s work will undoubtedly inspire and guide many future works on Irish nationalism to come, especially in light of twenty-first-century developments. Its major strength lies in its ability to place America in the context of two hundred years of Irish history—not relegated to a mere footnote but as an equal contributor in the formation of the modern Irish nation. Brundage does not view this relationship as casually beneficial or as a bond formed through happenstance; he argues that the careful and purposeful enmeshing of Irish and American culture transcended the Atlantic to further develop the rich and parallel history of two nations that still remain bound to one another today through diasporic connections. Bolstered by Brundage’s willingness to continually assert that “memories of the past were tethered to the needs of the present,” Irish Nationalists in America is a momentous history of togetherness that offers significant insights into the history of two nations tied together by much more than just the ocean they share between them (p. 194).

Citation: Maddison Rhoa. Review of Brundage, David, Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798-1998. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54696

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