Reflections on Transnational History, Part 1: Irish Unionists and the Role of America

“Despite the role played by the diaspora in shaping Irish nationalism, historians of Irish nationalism – even those who warn against the evils of ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘geographical solipsism’ – generally adopt the nation-state as their primary unit of historical analysis,” writes Fearghal McGarry.  “Similarly, studies of diasporic Irish nationalism usually overlook the impact of the phenomenon on Ireland.”

While there are many studies on the development of Irish-American nationalism, they do remain fairly separate from the general historical narrative of Ireland (with some notable exceptions).  Enda Delaney describes the development of two separate fields of historiography, “one covering the ‘homeland,’ or domestic history, the other concerned with the ‘diaspora,’ or migrant communities, and only rarely do these historiographies collide.”  The diaspora is generally subsumed into migration studies, examining the role of the migrant group in their host society, while there has been less work done on how the diaspora impacted Ireland beyond the sheer volume of emigrants.

How do we as historians examine the connections, exchanges, and circulations of Ireland, migrants, their host societies, and the wider world throughout history, along with the more traditional histories of Ireland?  I’ve recently been thinking a lot more about the ideas behind transnational history.  I do feel that looking at history through a transnational lens is a natural path to follow given the interconnections in our world today.  Transnational history may be without a clear definition, but as Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier write in the introduction to The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, it is about addressing “the entangled condition of the modern world,” a condition that clearly is not wholly new or unique (though still we must guard against reading back present-minded views of globalization onto history).

While we can see links and flows of people, ideas, products, processes, and patterns across the world (as described by Iriye and Saunier) throughout history, we have to find a balance for how much these were important as compared to local, regional, national, or other processes.  How do we get closest to discovering what was most important to people in the past and what their lives actually encompassed?

America has a significant place in the study of transnational history, earning its own entry in the Palgrave Dictionary (interesting in itself because one of the main tenets of transnational history is to undermine exceptionalism).   Martin Klimke writes, “The extraordinary transnational appeal of America is one of its most outstanding historical characteristics.  The attraction of the ideas of self-government, freedom of religion, and the embrace of universal democratic principles as the nation’s foundation transformed the United States of America into a global reference point, both negative and positive, for a plethora of desires, debates and developments.”

Klimke continues, “Since national or local cultures are generally constructed through binaries and created through imagined differences between oneself and the ‘other,’ disputes about American influence often reach to the core of identity debates in various parts of the world.  In them, America often serves as a projection with which to identify or from which to separate and distance.”  Thus the image/products/institutions of America have been used both negatively and positively throughout the world to compare the position of one’s own nation/political movement/culture etc.

And I’ve found that Irish unionists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did both – they depicted Irish nationalists as too closely controlled by their American financiers and as a foreign movement that was unwanted by the Irish people.  But unionists also depicted an America with positive connotations – celebrating their Scotch-Irish heritage and the ideals of the American Revolution.

I would not want to overstate the American role in Ireland – but the unionists themselves clearly attached significance to the American influence.  They certainly did not read the diaspora in America as separate from the Irish nationalists in Ireland.

One key contribution of a transnational approach is in emphasizing the idea of circulation.  Isabel Hofmeyr writes, “The key claim of any transnational approach is its central concern with movements, flows, and circulation, not simply as a theme or motif but as an analytic set of methods which defines the endeavor itself.”

With this idea of circulation in mind, it is clear that it wasn’t just that America imposed its presence on the Irish question.  It was that the unionists took the idea of America and shaped it to their own purposes.  They overstated the American influence in the Irish nationalist movement because it helped them to further their movement.

The Irish diaspora in America was influenced by both Ireland and the host society; in turn the diaspora impacted both Ireland and the United States.  Our challenge is figuring out how to accurately capture these transnational processes in a way that is comprehensible, does not create false generalizations, and keeps local contexts and individual experiences in view.

Suggested Reading:

Bayly, C.A., Sven Beckert, Matthew Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol, and Patricia Seed. “Conversation: On Transnational History,” American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (2006).

Delaney, Enda. “Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies xxxvii, no. 148 (2011).

Iriye, Akira, and Pierre-Yves Saunier, eds. The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History: From the Mid-19th Century to the Present Day. Houndmills: Basingstoke, 2009.

McGarry, Fearghal. “‘A Land Beyond the Wave:’ Transnational Perspectives on Easter 1916.” In Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, ed. Niall Whelehan. New York: Routledge, 2015.

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