A Land of Dreams: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Irish in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia & Maine.

If you have a new book or article that relates to the history of the Irish diaspora, we would love to have a blog post to highlight it to the world! Dr Patrick Mannion’s new book has just been published and promises to shed new lights on the Irish in coastal eastern North America.

Historians of the Irish diaspora, scattered around the world in a manner befitting the complex entity we study, are frequently united by two central questions: how was a sense of Irish identity created, and how was this identity transmitted from generation to generation in overseas Irish communities? It is these questions that guided my research in A Land of Dreams: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Irish in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine, 1880-1923. The book examines intergenerational ethnicity and nationalism in three medium-sized port cities on the prow of northeastern North America: St. John’s, Halifax, and Portland. I argue, essentially, that a sense of “being Irish” did not evolve in isolation, but rather as a result of a complex interplay of local, regional, national, and transnational networks. The capacity for Irishness to remain a primary feature of a cohesive group identity did not necessarily wane generation by generation, but rather rose and fell through time, depending on circumstances in both old world and new.

These three cities may seem like an unusual setting for a study of diasporic nationalism. Certainly, they are far removed from the continent’s nationalist hotbeds such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or even Montreal. But the unique nature of Irish settlement in each place sets up a fascinating examination of community and identity. Newfoundland is one of the oldest outposts of the Catholic diaspora. Migration and settlement took place primarily in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries as emigrants, almost all of whom were from within thirty miles of the port of Waterford, followed the networks of the migratory cod fishery and established themselves in St. John’s and in the fishing harbours of eastern Newfoundland.

In the opening three decades of the nineteenth century, some 35,000 passengers were recorded – most arriving at St. John’s. In 1836, fully three-quarters of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants were Irish or of Irish descent, though this proportion declined through the remainder of the nineteenth century. By 1840, the migration was virtually complete – the vast waves of emigrants fleeing the Great Hunger bypassed Newfoundland. Irish settlement in Halifax was similar.

Immigrants from the south and southeast arrived in the decades before the famine; many from Newfoundland as part of a “two-boat” migration. Although Irish migration to Halifax continued later than to St. John’s, both cities’ Irish communities were overwhelmingly native born by the 1880s. In Halifax, the Irish were a strong minority, whereas in St. John’s they often formed a majority of the city’s population, while Halifax was also home to more Protestants of Irish descent. The growth of the Irish community of Portland, by contrast, was a late-nineteenth century phenomenon. Migrants from the west of Ireland – particularly county Galway – settled in the city during and after the famine, with a subsequent wave of immigration in the 1880s. My comparative study, then, examines two well-established, overwhelmingly native-born Irish-Catholic communities within the British Empire (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949), both well-integrated into each jurisdiction’s corridors of political and economic power, with a newer Irish-American community, comprising a much smaller minority in a predominantly Yankee-Protestant milieu.

Unsurprisingly, echoing the findings of other diaspora historians, expressions of Irish nationalism in St. John’s and Halifax tended to be more moderate and constitutional; certainly less Anglo-phobic, than those in Portland. Even after the Easter Rising of 1916, clear, public support for a fully independent Irish Republic did not take hold in St. John’s or Halifax. Nevertheless, between 1880 and 1923, nationalist associations flourished in each port. The most influential of these, such as the Land League and Irish National League in the 1880s, the Friends of Irish Freedom (St. John’s and Portland) or the Self-Determination for Ireland League (St. John’s and Halifax) in the 1920s, were extensions of groups already established farther west. While a sense of Irish identity, of course, persisted in each community, it was these nationalist groups, through public meetings, lectures, rallies, and articles submitted to local newspapers, that transformed latent ethnic consciousness into an active, public engagement with the politics of the old country.

The intensity of these responses varied through time. My study revealed a surge in Irish identity at the beginning of the period – as many individuals of Irish birth and descent participated in the Land League and Charles Stewart Parnell’s movement for Irish Home Rule in the 1880s. This was followed by several decades where Irishness was seldom the basis for a strong, communal identity; while the climax of the narrative was in 1920 and 1921, when a remarkable resurgence in expressions of Irish ethnicity took place in all three cities, even as the generational gap to the ancestral homeland was widest. While direct connections to the “old land” were waning, understandings of being Irish evolved in a thoroughly North American context.

An understanding and appreciation of “being Irish” was created in the households, schools, streets, and parishes of local communities, but for those of Irish descent, the connection to Ireland was strongly influenced by the extension of North American nationalist associations into each city. The study calls on us to consider how the networks of diaspora connected people and places, and how ethnicity not only evolved through time, but also diffused from place to place. That the third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Irish of St. John’s and Halifax engaged with the politics of Ireland just as passionately as their first- and second-generation counterparts in Portland is a significant finding. It demonstrates the persistence and spread – both temporal and spatial – of Irish identities in the global diaspora, and it is my hope that A Land of Dreams will inspire further comparative investigations of overseas Irish community and identity.

Originally from Newfoundland, Canada, Dr. Patrick Mannion completed his PhD in history at the University of Toronto in 2013, where his research focused on Irish-Catholic community and identity in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Portland, Maine. Most recently, Patrick has been working as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Boston College. He is completing a study of the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ role in the construction of Irish ethnicity in the United States and Canada, 1880-1925. You can get in touch with Patrick through his Twitter link @Pat_Mannion or patrick.mannion[at]bc.edu.

Image: St. Patrick’s Hall, pre-1900. Home of the St. John’s Benevolent Irish Society, established 1806. Source: Geography Collection of Historical Photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador, Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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