Charleston’s Hibernian Hall

I recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time, and anyone with an interest in Irish history or architecture cannot help but be struck by the massive, Greek-columned Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street.


Hibernian Hall, Charleston – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Hibernian Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1840 for the Hibernian Society, an Irish benevolent association founded in 1801.  The Hibernian Society celebrates its non-sectarian identity, alternating between Catholic and Protestant presidents. Continue reading

Visiting the Ulster American Folk Park

107 Folk Park edit

It was pretty amazing to find out that a major part of my personal area of study was the subject of its own museum, the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh in Northern Ireland.  The folk park is a primarily open-air museum, with buildings, streets, and countryside representing the “old world” and “new world” for Ulster emigrants.  Visitors enter in the “old world,” with its thatched roof cottages and village streets with original buildings, historic school house, and the homestead of the Mellon family.  They make their way to the dockside and cross the Atlantic on board a “ship,” and arrive in the “new world,” with historic log cabins and houses that have been brought over from America and reconstructed on site.

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Mellon House – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Ulster American Folk Park was built around the site of the Mellon House, which remains in its original location, and historic buildings from Ulster and America have been moved and reconstructed on site to best portray life on both sides of the Atlantic, centuries of migration, and enduring connections between Ulster and America.  Truly an impressive undertaking to create a site with historic and representative buildings, demonstrations, and even animals and crops to portray their region and time period.

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Western Pennsylvania Log House – photo credit: L. Flewelling

John MacBride and Maud Gonne’s Irish-American Tour: Fundraising for the Second Boer War

Find my previous post on Maud Gonne here.

In November 1900, Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith, the two main organizers of the Irish Transvaal Society, heard the surprising news that John MacBride had returned from the Transvaal.  MacBride, famed for his leadership of the Irish Transvaal Brigade, had been in South Africa since 1896.  “It was shortly after the Jameson Raid that my own attention was first turned seriously to the course of events developing in the South African Republics,” he wrote.  He had been angered to learn that Irishmen in South Africa had supported the British during the Jameson Raid.  “My own view as to the manner in which Irishmen should act in such a crisis ran, of course, on altogether different lines, and although the Jameson business fizzled out in so contemptible a fashion, I felt convinced that the English would not allow it to be their final attempt on the rich republics of the Vaal; and I was also very anxious that our countrymen in South Africa should not, on the next occasion, be found on the side of the would-be grabber and oppressor.”

Once in South Africa, MacBride worked to organize the local Irish community, including establishing an Irish society in Johannesburg with Griffith.  Irish immigrants in Africa were soldiers, missionaries, civil servants, miners, and adventurers.  By the 1890s, about 15,000-20,000 Irish were in southern Africa, many spurred to immigrate by the discovery of gold in 1886.  When war broke out in 1899, an estimated 28,000 Irishmen served in the British army in South Africa.  In response to Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1900 to boost recruitment numbers for the British army, Gonne wrote an impassioned attack against her in the form of an article entitled “The Famine Queen.”  The article was first published in a special edition of Gonne’s own journal, L’Irlande Libre, and reprinted in the United Irishman, which was suppressed by the authorities to prevent people from reading it.  “Taking the Shamrock in her withered hand she dares ask Ireland for soldiers – for soldiers to protect the exterminators of their race!” Gonne criticized.  “And the reply of Ireland comes sadly but proudly, not through the lips of miserable little politicians who are touched by the English canker but through the lips of the Irish people: ‘Queen, return to your own land; you will find no more Irishmen ready to wear the red shame of your livery.’”  She avowed that any Irishmen who entered the British army would no longer be considered Irish.

Hundreds of Irishmen joined the war effort on the side of the Boers to fight against the British.  Donal McCracken writes, “A basic idea uniting the movement was the belief that Boer aspirations to national identity mirrored Ireland’s own and that consequently to support the Boers was to advance Ireland’s cause.”  The Irish Transvaal Brigade, founded and co-led by MacBride, operated from September 1899 to September 1900 and helped to galvanize the Irish nationalist movement.  Gonne compared the Irish Brigade to the Wild Geese (embodying the historic tradition of Irish soldiers fighting for foreign armies), who “upheld Ireland’s honour by fighting for the enemies of England even as to-day John MacBride and the Irish Brigade organised by him saved Ireland’s honour in the Transvaal.”  She declared that the Irish Brigade had done more for Ireland’s honour than any nationalist at home, “for it is action that counts.”

By September 1900, the war had entered a new phase of guerilla fighting.  Most of the Irish left South Africa, the majority going to America and many settling in mining camps in the western United States (as they had been miners in South Africa).  MacBride, who could not go back to Ireland, traveled to Paris, where he was met by Gonne, Griffith, and the Paris Young Ireland Society.  This was the first time MacBride and Gonne met, though they had previously corresponded with each other concerning the Irish Brigade.  Gonne wrote, “We sat up all night talking.  MacBride said he had come back hoping there would be something doing in Ireland.  The war in Africa is not over and England had still De Wet to deal with, but most of the foreign volunteers had been sent back and the Irish Brigade had been disbanded because the war was entering on another phase.  There would be no more regular battles; and in guerilla warfare only those who knew the country and spoke the language would be of use.”

MacBride told her and Griffith that John Blake, the Irish-American co-leader of the Irish Brigade, was staying on, and indeed, a few dozen Irishmen continued to fight as part of the Boer war effort.  MacBride himself hoped to return to Ireland to help lead a nationalist resurgence, writing, “Though at present the weapons have fallen from our hands, we hope to pick it up in our own island home, and never let it drop till, by union and strength, we blot out the last vestige of the ‘Empire of Hell.’”  However, MacBride realized through talking to Gonne and Griffith that the only current hope for movement on revolutionary nationalism lay in America.  They determined that MacBride would undertake a tour of America, hoping to spark Clan-na-Gael enthusiasm.  Griffith himself wrote a lecture for MacBride to deliver on his tour, using MacBride’s memories of his experience in South Africa.  Gonne recounted, “After a reception by the Paris Young Ireland Society and talks with a few friends from Dublin MacBride went to America.  In a few weeks, he wrote to me, urging me to accept an invitation to come on another lecture tour arranged by the now united Clan-na-Gael.  He added that he could not get things going unless I came.”

Gonne, who had toured America previously under the auspices of the O’Sullivan faction of the Clan-na-Gael, joined MacBride in the United States in February 1901.  “He was with a crowd of friends belonging to both sections of the united Clan who met me when I came off the French Trans-Atlantic liner at the docks in New York; and there was a great meeting in the Academy of Music the night after my arrival,” Gonne wrote.  “MacBride gave his lecture on the work of the Brigade and I spoke of Ireland.  We had a splendid press.”

Still, the American tour did not go as they hoped.  While Irish-Americans felt solidarity with the Boer people, the high point of Irish-American support had been the year before.  MacBride turned out to be a rather poor public speaker, and Gonne herself managed to alienate several prominent Irish-American leaders.  She was criticized for attacking the United Irish League and constitutional nationalists in her speeches.

The pair mourned the fact that lawyers and politicians, rather than revolutionaries, controlled the Irish-American nationalist movement.  “They could be counted on to exert their influence against an Anglo-American alliance, which England was always trying for.  That in itself was a great thing, for to make the holding of Ireland injurious to England is one of the means toward securing freedom,” Gonne recounted.  “No doubt they would back up the fight in Ireland when it started, but they were happier supporting constitutional leaders like Parnell and were hard to convince that there was nothing to hope from men like [John] Redmond or John Dillon.”  Despite lack of concrete support for revolutionary nationalism, she felt that the rank-and-file of Irish-American nationalist organizations were “ready for anything.”

Gonne returned to Europe at the urging of Griffith in May 1901, leaving MacBride in America.  “I didn’t feel I had accomplished much,” she reflected, “but I still hoped MacBride might succeed in setting the match to the inflammable fighting forces of the Clan-na-Gael, in spite of the politicians.”  As she returned to Paris, she managed to smuggle out a baby alligator from America as a present for her seven-year-old daughter.  After completing his tour of the American west coast, MacBride decided to return to Europe as well, working as a journalist in Paris while still hoping to help spark a revival in revolutionary Irish nationalism.  He wrote to a group of Limerick nationalists, “Depend not on aid from America or France.  God helps those who help themselves.  Let our motto be – ‘Ourselves! Ourselves alone! Sin fein! Sin fein!’  The brave doctrine of fight must not be allowed to be hushed in the land.  It is not by frothy speeches from platforms in Ireland and America and by academic motions in Westminster that our country shall be made ready for the chance that will surely come again – the second chance that comes to those who prepare for it.”

While constitutional nationalism was on the rise in the early years of the twentieth century, Gonne, MacBride, and Griffith’s experiences show that the undercurrents of revolutionary nationalism remained, biding time and preparing for that chance.

Selected Reading:

Norman Jeffares and Anna MacBride White, eds., The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).  Written 1938.

Anthony J. Jordan, ed., Boer War to Easter Rising: The Writings of John MacBride (Dublin: Westport, 2006).

Donal P. McCracken, Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War.  (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2003).  Originally published as The Irish Pro-Boers, 1877-1902, in 1989.

Donal P. McCracken, MacBride’s Brigade: Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Boer War (Dublin: Four Courts, 1999).

Margaret Ward, ed.  In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism (Cork: Attic, 1995).

Margaret Ward, Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc (London: Pandora, 1990).

On the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising


Dublin’s GPO – photo credit: L. Flewelling

One hundred years ago on Easter Monday, Irish republicans mainly made up of members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, and Cumann na mBan rose up in rebellion, seizing several strategic locations throughout Dublin (as well as rising up in other parts of Ireland).  At their headquarters at the General Post Office, the Irish republican flag was raised and Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic.

… Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory. …

On this 100th anniversary, so many dimensions of the Easter Rising have been explored.  As we’re a blog focused on global history, it is worth remembering that this was an uprising with global dimensions, supported by the Irish diaspora.  And after the Easter Rising, with the British government swiftly carrying out the executions of the rebellion’s leaders, huge numbers of Irish abroad flocked to join or support revolutionary nationalism in Ireland.  The Easter Rising sparked real vitality in the Irish-American community that hadn’t been seen since the days of Charles Stewart Parnell.  Some 800,000 Irish-Americans joined nationalist organizations and over $10 million was raised in support of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army.

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.

The World As Gaeilge

I’ve just been at the wedding of a good friend and in her honor as an American speaker of Irish, I thought I’d take a look at the Irish language worldwide.  This ended up being an enormous subject, so I’ll just give a snapshot of what came up while researching.

125 years ago, in 1891, only about 14% of the population of Ireland spoke Irish.  The Gaelic Revival in the late nineteenth century, led by Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNeill, and others, steered the resurgent interest in the Irish language and connected the language to the strong nationalist politics of the era.  When the Irish state was founded in 1922, the Irish language became compulsory at schools.  Today, Irish is the first official language of Ireland and an official language of the European Union.  The language throughout Ireland has been granted substantial investment by the state including Gaeltacht areas specifically designated by the government as primarily Irish-speaking regions.

Despite high levels of investment by the Irish government and interest in the language by people in Ireland (not necessarily translating to actually speaking the language), use of Irish in the home has declined substantially.  This is the case even in the strongest Gaeltacht areas in Co. Donegal, Co. Galway, and Co. Kerry.  Irish is endangered as a community and family language, even as numbers of people who have Irish as a second language stay steady or expand in other regions.

Out of a population of about 4.6m, about 77,000 people speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system (as of 2011).  Does Irish constitute a living language?  Can and should it compete with English in Irish-speaking areas?  How should the Irish government approach the language?  How closely tied are the Irish language and the state of the economy?  The language faces many questions moving forward, especially as it is listed as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO.

In Northern Ireland, Irish is considered extinct as a first language, although as many as 10% speak Irish as a second language.  It is listed under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages for Northern Ireland.

The Irish government and other organizations (such as the Fulbright Commission, Ireland Canada University Foundation, Glór na nGael, and Daltaí na Gaeilge) have substantially invested in Irish language use worldwide.  The government grants funds to university programs supporting Irish language learning mainly in Europe and North America.  In 2015-2016, Ireland is supporting programs in Britain, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, France, the United States, and Canada.  The grants are not restricted to places where there are significant numbers of Irish-born people.  The Irish language also has a presence in Australia, where it is taught at the University of Sydney, in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Russia, and China.

While there are fewer than 1,000 native Irish speakers in Canada, a vibrant community of Irish language learners has led to the purchase of land in Ontario in the Tamworth/Erinsville area to create a Permanent North American Gaeltacht.  This was established in 2007, and is the only officially sanctioned Gaeltacht outside of Ireland.  The area is set aside for events and gatherings in which Irish is spoken as a community language and the living culture and traditions of the language are celebrated.  No one lives there permanently.

In the United States, one of the oldest Irish language programs is at Catholic University in Washington, DC.  The program was funded in 1896 with a gift of $50,000 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  Irish is most vibrant in the New York City metro area, as exemplified by this fun character study of an Irish-speaking garbage truck driver.  And there are several universities and community colleges in the New York/New Jersey region with Irish language programs.  According to the MLA, about 350 people currently study Irish at the university level in the United States (as of 2013), with the number limited due to programs lasting a maximum of 4 semesters.  There are more people (like my friend) who study Irish in less formal settings, not for university credit, in cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago.  In 2011, there were at least 87 academic and non-academic institutions teaching Irish in the United States.  Even more difficult to track, other Irish learners get a taste of the language through online study.  As of 2009, about 24,000 speakers of Irish lived in the United States, although this was self-reported and does not indicate level of fluency.

UNESCO estimates that about half of the world’s 6,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the 21st century if nothing is done to preserve them.  Will most languages really be extinct within the next hundred years?  We will have to see how people’s interests, parents’ dedication to passing the language on to their children, and government policies make a difference for the path of the Irish language.  After all, its status now is much different than a century ago.

Additional Sources:

Daniel de Vise, “A modest revival for the Irish language,” Washington Post 5 Mar 2012.

Susan Krashinsky, “A tongue-twisting labour of love in Canada’s Gaelic-speaking community,” The Globe and Mail 2 Sep 2011.

Kari Lydersen, “Preserving languages is about more than words,” Washington Post 16 Mar 2009.

David McKittrick, “Bualadh bos… Gaeltacht goes global,” Independent 18 Apr 2007.

Helen Ó Murchú, More Facts about Irish (2008/2014).

RTE Radio 1 Documentary: “More Irish Than the Irish Themselves” 12 Mar 2011.

Henri Le Caron, the Spy in the Midst of Irish-America

“Le Caron turned to writing his memoirs, while continuing to smoke some sixteen cigars a day and nurturing his carefully waxed dark mustache.” –K.R.M. Short

As well as being the subject of one of the better random quotes ever scrawled in my notebook, Henri Le Caron also crops up as a rather unlikely villain in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, a baseball time travel novel strange enough that even though I finished reading it several weeks ago, I’m still processing.  (Fun look at the early history of baseball, though.)


Henri Le Caron/Thomas Beach – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Le Caron was the pseudonym for English spy Thomas Beach, who had infiltrated the Clan-na-Gael, the leading Fenian organization in the United States.  He blew his cover to testify against Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell at the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime held in 1888-1889.

Born in Colchester in 1841, Beach had posed as a Frenchman and enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War in 1861.  As he settled in Nashville at the end of the war with his wife, Le Caron gained inside information about Irish-American plots against Canada from an army colleague, John O’Neill.  Le Caron wrote of these plots to his father, who put him in touch with the British Home Office.  On a trip to England in 1867, he was recruited as a secret agent reporting to Robert Anderson, who worked as a Home Office advisor on Irish political crime.

Le Caron moved his family to Illinois and joined a Fenian circle there, still posing as a Frenchman with particular hatred of the English.  He quickly rose up in the organizational ranks, both helping to organize and betraying the attempted Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870.  Le Caron became an associate of John Devoy, Patrick Egan, Alexander Sullivan, and other Irish-American leaders, and met with Parnell twice.

As the recipient of the spy’s reports, Anderson used Le Caron’s information to contribute to a series of articles for the Times on “Parnellism and Crime.”  This series, published in March and April 1887, attempted to link Parnell and the parliamentary nationalist movement to rural violence and dynamiters.  It included forged letters purported to have been written by Parnell commending the Phoenix Park murders.

Le Caron had maintained his cover for over twenty years when he shocked nationalists with testimony at the Special Commission hearings.  This led to threats against his own life.  Le Caron wrote in his autobiography that he held “undisguised loathing” for “the blatant loud-voiced agitator, always bellowing forth his patriotic principles, while secretly filling his pockets with the bribe or consequences of his theft,” taking advantage of “the poor deluded Irish in the States.”  He portrayed the Irish Parliamentary Party as swindlers and tricksters.  In the end, however, his evidence did not have a significant impact on the case against Parnell at the Special Commission.

Parnell was cleared of the charges made against him after Richard Pigott admitted to forging the letters that appeared in the Times.  Pigott himself committed suicide.  As for Le Caron, as Short so colorfully describes, he went on to lead a reasonably calm life with his family (and mustache) in South Kensington until his death in 1894.


Suggested Readings:

Le Caron, Henri.  Twenty-Five Years in the Secret Service.  London: William Heinemann, 1892.

Short, K.R.M.  “Henri Le Caron.”  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Anderson, Robert.  Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement.  London: John Murray, 1906.

Cole, J.A.  Prince of Spies: Henri Le Caron.  London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Lyons, F.S.L.  “‘Parnellism and Crime,’ 1887-90.”  Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Ser., no. 24 (1974).

Whelehan, Niall.  The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

The Irish (and Irish Music) in the American Civil War

For the past two Sundays, the History Show on RTE Radio 1 has explored the Irish presence in the American Civil War, particularly looking at the role of Irish music.  I highly recommend listening to the episodes, especially the first one which covers a wide swathe of Irish music from both the Union and Confederacy.  The episodes highlight music as a primary source that can be used to uncover the mood of the country during war, the transmission of ideas, the connections made between people spread out over wide geographical areas, popular culture, and views of Irishness in the United States in this era.

While there had been a long history of Irish immigration to America, Catholics overtook Protestants in overall numbers of immigrants for the first time in the 1830s.  The new immigrants faced rampant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the urban areas in which they settled, particularly in the Know-Nothing, nativist era of the 1850s.  The immigrants often took refuge in the institutions of the Catholic Church and Democratic Party.

Because of their high population presence in northeastern cities, Irish immigrants made up a large part of the audience at vaudeville performances and had close ties to the popular music of the mid-nineteenth century.  I found the segment in the first show on Irish blackface minstrelsy particularly interesting.  Irish immigrants sought opportunities to establish their legitimacy as Americans and pursued blackface minstrelsy as a way to prove their equality to all other white members of United States society.  Blackface minstrelsy was a rationalization of slavery that portrayed slaves leading happy lives on the plantation.  The song “Dixie” came out of the minstrelsy tradition, written by Dan Emmett (an American of Irish ancestry).

It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, and 20,000 for the Confederacy.  Both sides had Irish Brigades, a term which had roots in Irish history itself with the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who fought for France and Spain in continental Europe).  Both sides had popular songs written by Irishmen or Irish-Americans, promoting their cause.

The second episode of the show highlights the ways in which songs about war change from early anthems which provide meaning and motivation for the conflict and romanticize the war, to later songs which long for the return home and mourn the pain of separation and loss.  The disillusionment of the Irish over the course of the war, exposed during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, is also highlighted in song with “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

There are many other elements of Irish involvement in Civil War-era America covered in these two episodes, and it’s worth listening just to hear all of the songs.

An unrelated yet fascinating article from this past week is National Geographic’s portrait of the archaeology of London, a layman’s look at the history of archaeological exploration of the city.  It portrays the layers upon layers of history present in the city, and it goes without saying that many of those layers contain archaeological finds revealing London’s millennia-long connection with the wider world.  As the article notes, “The modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.”  The Museum of London, a personal favorite of mine, itself does a fine job of portraying those layers of prehistory and history from its perch alongside the Roman Wall.

The Thames is at the heart of archaeology in the city, and when the tide is out it’s particularly revealing.  The article’s author, Roff Smith, observes the river at early morning with a representative from the Museum of London Archaeology.

“Almost everything you see here is archaeology,” says Cohen, who points out a Roman-era roofing tile here, a piece of blue-patterned Victorian porcelain there, as we scramble over the uneven ground.  “With every tide this gets jumbled up again.  It’s never the same twice.  You never know what you’ll find.”

This reminded me of the “Tate Thames Dig” installation at the Tate Modern, a work of art filled with hundreds of random, repeating, and revealing artifacts unearthed from the Thames.

  • Smith, Roff. “London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History.”  National Geographic (February 2016).