Exploring *how* Irish diaspora histories are being written are central to what the future of the subject looks like. Therefore we encourage focused case studies on the sources and methodologies that you are using to delve into Irish diaspora histories. Maurice Casey utilises the autobiography of Mairin Mitchell to highlight the individual and overlooked stories of the radical left.
On a summer’s night shortly after the end of the First World War, Mairin Mitchell , an Irish writer, joined comrades from a London anarchist circle on the roof of a Euston Road flat. The group included a young Hegelian enthusiast, a fellow London-Irish anarchist and a Russian sailor from a remote village on the Volga. Amid the smell of rooftop lead melting in the August sun, the friends talked of Marx, Hegelian dialectics, what Ireland might look like in the 21stcentury and communal experiments from Limerick to South America. Recalling the evening’s discussions more than a decade after the failure of post-war revolutionary hopes, Mitchell admitted that some might view their discussions as inconsequential, even naive. But Mitchell was not dissuaded:
‘Better in youth the endless talk, even the “isms” that show the divine discontent, than the young who do not question and who never rebel. At any rate, to some of the younger ones… who had so few of this world’s goods that conversation was all they could afford, life seemed one great adventure. The veterans were generous in opening their minds to us, and releasing the rich garnering of years of experience, reflection, and contacts.’[i]
This anecdote provides a brief glimpse into the under-researched historical experience of Ireland’s radical left diaspora; trade unionists, communists, anarchists and socialists of all shades of red, who became involved in the political ferment of their host countries and often tried to smuggle revolutionary change back home.
To date, Mitchell has barely bothered a footnote. Her books, a series of novels, travel memoirs and maritime histories, received positive reviews but underwhelming sales. Why has she slipped through the historical gaps? You could argue that a number of factors, including her gender, location and esoteric choice of writing subjects, made her invisible to previous generations of Irish diaspora historians. We can also state simply that Mitchell did not play a major role in any canonical Irish historical event – and that, for me, is precisely why she is worthy of study.
In her recollections of radical rooftop discussions, Mitchell foreshadowed my argument. Whether or not the task of imagining a new world on a London rooftop resulted in social transformation was immaterial to her. In Mitchell’s view, such debates played a role in generational transfer between activists. More fundamentally, the value of revolutionary dreaming, for Mitchell (and for the historian), lay in the very fact that it occurred.
Studying figures and debates previously considered picaresque or irrelevant can tell us a great deal about the manner in which our discipline structures its own hierarchies. In my project, I narrate the history of the Irish left with figures such as Jim Larkin, James Connolly and Peadar O’Donnell playing a walk-on role. I place women centre stage, most of whom have had little bearing on the current historiography and some of whom, such as Mitchell, are entirely absent from it.
In doing so, I ask: how do we define “meaningful” or “significant” subjects? When figures like Mitchell are deemed overly obscure, narrow definitions of historical significance are exposed. If we deem her unworthy of study because she did not rise to prominence within any organisation, then we both ignore and re-enact the process by which women were systematically placed in subsidiary roles in the political communities of the interwar left. Recent debates regarding the lionisation of exclusively outstanding women in popular culture have made similar arguments, criticising our continued reliance on gendered and individualistic tropes of what constitutes a significant feminist life. While my own focus on radical politics arguably continues the critiqued fixation on ‘badass’ women, I attempt to recover the ordinary feminist foot soldiers within rebel milieus to provide a collective vision of historical activism. Our framing of consequential historical events or figures is constrained only be our abilities to create methodologies that uncover the meaningfulness of these subjects.
Equally, if we dismiss radical political discussions as being irrelevant to the future of a home country that became a conservative land of Sunday mass and mass emigration, then we blind ourselves to how individual Irish activists, pushed out by a hostile country, acted as incubators for social mores that would later become commonplace in Ireland.
Mitchell was part of a trend of women who left Ireland to seek opportunities for progressive activism in the diaspora. Waves of Irish activists were drawn abroad in search of alternative political cultures. Similarly, bohemian cultural milieus hosted and transformed Irish emigrants who came in search of employment and found a sense of political purpose along the way. Radicalising the Irish diaspora entails not only studying those with unusual political opinions, it means upsetting the normative assumptions for why Irish people left the country – not just for economic reasons or to escape hunger, but also to avoid the intellectual poverty of a conservative society by accessing social mores and cultural communities hosted elsewhere.
Some might find it easy to brusquely dismiss the actions of radical women who operated on the fringe of an overwhelmingly patriarchal state. But such a dismissal would ignore how progressive change can be cumulative. Continually arguing for the seemingly impossible can keep ideas alive until a time when change becomes inevitable. This was certainly the experience of Ireland’s LGBT and feminist activists. Members of the Irish LGBT community have historically emigrated to escape Ireland’s religiously proscribed sexual mores. Specifically during the 1980s, many gay men left Ireland in search of communities that would treat the AIDS crisis they faced with something more than the callousness they faced at home. Recent events have brought to public attention what Ann Rossiter has termed ‘Ireland’s hidden diaspora’, the tens of thousands of women forced out of Ireland in search of reproductive care and the women already present in England who supported them upon arrival.[ii] These are the emigrant communities who demanded radical transformations of Ireland, often in the face of overwhelming hostility. Belatedly, historians are recognising them as part of the diaspora story.
Indeed, our failure to popularise the histories of those who spent lonely decades on the margins of Irish national and diaspora politics has left us poorly equipped to provide a historical narrative of precedence for Ireland’s recent and transformative referendums. The #HometoVote phenomenon is instructive of how political desires fostered within the diaspora can cause tangible change at home. The Repeal iteration of #HometoVote was well-publicised and strategically organised by diaspora groups. The renewed focus of these groups on anti-abortion laws in Northern Ireland speaks to a continuous historical fact of the diaspora: it has always been a space where the distances within the island of Ireland itself have collapsed, with emigrants from the North and South of the country sharing lodgings and experiences within the urban metropoles to which they emigrated. These campaigns belong to a wider history that appears to haunt the Irish state – simultaneously eager to shake the diaspora for whatever pennies may be jangling in pockets but entirely unwilling to provide an electoral voice to emigrants.
This last point might also prompt us to reflect on ‘presentism’, the conscious refraction of history through the lens of the present, in Irish diaspora research. Historians are occasionally averse to aligning their research with contemporary political concerns. Historians of Ireland, a country with plentiful experience of history being weaponised, are perhaps more aware than most of the potential pitfalls of doing so. Yet, in a period in which the diaspora is an entity mobilised for varying political ends, there exists a moral imperative among historians with one eye on emancipatory politics to guide this narrative. The Irish state, having framed the diaspora as little more than a market audience through successive government initiatives, creates an imaginative void that historians have an opportunity – and perhaps a duty – to fill. Fuelled by a profit-making approach to the diaspora, Irish governments have little incentive to rebuke how their customer-base appropriates Irish history for a reactionary agenda – as seen with former Fox news host Bill O’Reilly’s recent attempt to deploy his Irish heritage against immigrants and the concept of ‘white privilege’. Diaspora historians have a duty to provide a corrective – and many do. Perhaps the most well-known work in this genre of historically rigorous and politically engaged diaspora research is Liam Hogan’s debunking of the ‘Irish Slaves’ myth.
Equally, popularising stories of the generations of Irish forced to imagine a future for their country outside oftheir country could help the diaspora to recognise its potential to change Ireland fundamentally, not just contribute economically. Catherine Hall has discussed how present-minded engagement with the past may be one way of ‘disrupting the global triumph’ of a political project which suggests there is no possible future beyond the neoliberal model.[iii]While recognising the unsavoury moments in history of the Irish abroad, there remains significant stories of resistance and dissidence that could inspire others to rethink how past generations of Irish emigrants shaped and discussed Ireland’s future.
One such story in this vein is Mairin Mitchell’s recollection of the anarchist gathering on the Euston Road flat. Mitchell’s rooftop revolutionaries did not reshape their world, but, in a period wherein Europe finished one cataclysmic war and lurched into another, their capacity for imagining different futures is worth recovering. There is enormous historical value in tracing how an alternative political and social order was imagined, even if this society never existed beyond the dreams of those who sought to bring it about. Curiously, one of the topics Mitchell and her comrades discussed on the rooftop was what Ireland would look like in the 21stcentury. We do not know how the debate progressed, but Mitchell’s anarchist-persuasion and youthful optimism suggest a progressive blueprint was laid out. Doubtlessly, the politicians who were simultaneously acquiescing to the gradual Catholicization of independent Ireland would have had a diametrically opposed vision to that of Mitchell and her egalitarian cohort. But if we turn to Ireland’s recent history, and specifically to the courtyard of Dublin castle at the end of May 2015 and May 2018, which vision of Ireland’s future has proved more prophetic?
Maurice J. Casey is a DPhil student at Jesus College, University of Oxford. His research examines the international connections of Irish radical women during the interwar period. You can follow him on Twitter @MauriceJCasey or email him at Maurice.casey[at]jesus.ox.ac.uk.
[i]Mairin Mitchell, Storm Over Spain (London, 1937), pp. 132-3
[ii]Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The Abortion Trail and the Making of a London-Irish Underground (London, 2009).
[iii]Catherine Hall, ‘Thinking Reflexively: Opening “Blind Eyes”, Past & Present, 234 (January, 2017), p. 254.