Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Irish in the West : Beyond the American Pale (Book)

“Between 1845 and 1910 approximately five million people left Ireland for the United States. The vast majority of them were Catholic, desperately poor, and without the work skills that could command decent wages.” So begins the Introduction to Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910 by David M. Emmons, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Montana (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 2010).
Immigrants aboard ship for departure.
Illustrated London News (1850).*

To put that number in perspective, those emigrants came from a nation whose population peaked at about 8.5 million just before the Great Famine of the 1840s, and averaged only about 5.6 million over the time period in question.

This is a very significant text, and a monumental scholarly achievement … “The product of three decades of research and thought.” The hardback contains 350 pages of description and analysis, and over one hundred pages of supporting material. The font used, smaller than the typical paperback, allowed the publisher to cram huge amounts of information into those pages. (Full disclosure: I received this book as a free review copy.)

This book is important because typical histories of the Irish in American tend to focus on “ethnic enclaves” in the larger cities, mostly on the East coast. As Dr. Emmons says, “Historians have not paid a great deal of attention to the Irish American experience in western America.” He then briefly outlines what he thinks are the reasons for this relative neglect. Beyond the American Pale is meant to fill the resulting gap.

He next gets into the meat of his thesis: These Irish emigrants were “beyond the pale” – not just outside the mainstream of American life, but actively rejected by that society. Back then, job postings often said, “Irish need not apply.” Their Roman Catholicism was the highly-visible issue that called forth such vitriol from overwhelmingly Protestant America. Yet Emmons argues persuasively that the root cause lay in the amalgam of their religion with ancient Celtic folkways.

Building on the work of other experts, Professor Emmons says that the Irish “were premodern leftovers – communal, dependent, fatalistic, passive, traditional – attempting to make their way in a modern industrial society that was individualistic, independent, optimistic, aggressive, and innovative.”

Emmons then spends some time assessing “The West” the Irish were moving into. Actually, he describes a variety of Wests. But his emphasis on “industrial society” was the crucial element. Conventional stories of the West focused on the homesteaders and cowboys (and sheepmen) who provided grain, meat, and other foodstuffs to feed that society.

Miners in Butte Montana, many of the them Irish, ca 1908.
Credit (probably) Butte-Silver Bow Archives.*
Yet western gold, silver, copper, wood products, and so on were equally important, if not more so. Their production required large numbers of men who would do the hard, dangerous work for rock-bottom wages. There simply weren’t enough “modern” – independent, optimistic, aggressive – workers willing to fill the need. Enter the desperately poor, unskilled Irishmen, who had to take any jobs they could get. Still, while the industrial engine needed the Irish, it did not embrace them; they were still “beyond the pale.”

Emmons devotes two chapters to comparing and contrasting the Irish in America to two other groups of outsiders: black slaves and Native Americans. He discusses the variety of reasons, or excuses, that led citizens of the Northern industrialized states to view Irish Catholicism as a threat equal to that of the Southern institution of black slavery. Beyond that, it appears that blind prejudice equated incomprehensible Native American spiritual beliefs to the “superstitious” practices of the Papist emigrants.

Intertwined within that analysis, Emmons describes how emigrating to the United States showed the depth of Irish desperation. To move away from the home turf, he declared “was to be detached from community – and that was the cultural equivalent of falling off the edge of the earth. The Irish word for community was muintir; there is no adequate English translation. Na muintiri were held together by bonds of family, tradition, and shared and intensely local values.”

The fact that the emigrants faced distrust and contempt when they arrived only aggravated the problem. Their answer was entirely predictable: “They set up their parallel universe – their own schools, churches, fraternities, neighborhoods, and rookeries.”

Emmons spends some time studying that phenomenon. He concluded that “the Irish went to where the Irish were.” That is, once some Irishmen had a foothold at a particular place, or in a particular situation, others soon followed. This is a well-supported assessment. However, his discourse sometimes implies that the Irish were unique, or at least unusual in this regard, and that is somewhat problematic. Records show clearly that ties of blood and marriage – for English, as well as various ethnic groups – commonly led to family enclaves all over the West. Yet the Irish versions do seem both more broadly based within the community, and more tightly knit.

The final chapter examines the relationship between these Irish communities and the American labor movement. Being culturally and historically predisposed to resist exploitation, the Irish were often at the forefront of that movement. Yet, in Emmons’ view, militant Irish unionism was never about international socialism. The Irish community was too “intensely local” for such a strain to take root.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the debate among the Irish in America about how far they might bend to perhaps achieve “assimilation.” The majority concluded that rampant anti-Catholicism in mainstream America made that next to impossible. It was then an article of secular faith that the West embodied America’s future. By refusing to compromise their core values, the Irish might thus have cut themselves off from that future. Instead, Emmons says, “They built their own West and their own future. Only Irish needed to apply.”
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Butte, ca 1920.
Credit (probably) Butte-Silver Bow Archives.*
I have only one quibble, and that is not with the author. The publisher’s Product Description describes the book as “masterful yet accessible.” It is certainly masterful. The “accessible” claim is perhaps based on the author’s interweaving of selected Irish-American “folk stories” into the text. Also, the writing style is clear and crisp, and not over-loaded with academic jargon. However, his historical discussions are wide-ranging, tightly reasoned, and (sometimes) controversial. They often require close, careful study to achieve full understanding.

As just one example, consider his discussion of the “West(s)” where the Irish found themselves “beyond the pale.” Emmons calls them subregions of “The West” and says, “I count eight real ones as well as the two constructed ones.” One of the “constructed” subregions is, of course, the mythic West of story, song, and movies – he calls it the “heroic” West. Another subregion, the “Urban West,” had its own characteristics and was “the one most favored by westering Irish.” The author devotes many pages to describing these subregions, sometimes quite extensively. The explanations are fascinating and informative, but a casual perusal could miss important nuances and implications.

Beyond the American Pale is an authoritative and valuable treatise on the history of the Irish in the American West. Readers with an interest in that subject should find it well worth their time.

* Not from book, which has no illustrations other than on the dust jacket.