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Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815.

Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815. By Kerby A. Miller, Arnold Schrier, Bruce D. Boling and David N. Doyle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xxvii, plus 788 pp.).

Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan is a stunning scholarly accomplishment and a major contribution to historical scholarship in a variety of fields. Its subtitle does not do full justice to the broad scale and scope of this work. While letters and memoirs form the core of the book--and are very useful--, the short analytical essays that comprise the rest of the chapters, the extensive annotations, and the appendices all also offer a wealth of information and insight into Irish emigration prior to 1830 and a number of important questions related to that migration. Miller and his colleagues have produced a monumental work of scholarship that will be an essential starting point for scholars of the Irish and Irish American experiences as well as the formation of identity within migration, or Diaspora, communities. There is a great deal here to consider and a great deal to discuss. There is only space in this review to discuss a few of the larger issues the book raises.

Miller's earlier work, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (1985) won awards and sparked a significant dialogue due to its provocative thesis. It also established Miller as major scholar of Irish emigration. This volume should also play a similar role in immigration history and the study of Irish emigration.

The individual narratives, whether they are collections of letters or memoirs, are the most visible part of the book. Professor Miller has been collecting narratives of Irish immigrants for some time--and generously sharing them with other scholars. Each of the other scholars involved, Arnold Schrier of the University of Cincinnati, Bruce D. Bohling of the University of New Mexico, and David N. Doyle of University College Dublin, brings a strong record of scholarship and particular expertise in the study of Irish emigration. Collecting such a broad range of documents, in both time and space, is a formidable accomplishment in itself. The selections are drawn from all sections of the mainland colonies and future United States as well as Barbados and Montserrat. There is a similarly broad and inclusive representation of counties of origin in Ireland. The selections are highly readable and interesting, bringing out the particular experience and personality of their author. Catholics and women may be slightly underrepresented (or appear so); women figure in just 11 of 68 documents, often as co-authors. But, allowing for gender and religious differences in literacy and the vagaries of the survival of letters and diaries from the period this may be inescapable. It is clearly not by design, and the problem is acknowledged in the Preface (p. viii).

Each entry is extensively annotated, greatly enhancing the value of the documents in understanding the experience of each subject as an aspect of Irish emigration. The research involved in annotating these documents, nearly all created by very ordinary people scattered over a large area, has led Miller and his collaborators into a larger number of local historical societies and organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. But, that work makes the experience of each individual much more effective--each becomes a real person about whom the reader knows enough to appreciate the particular experience as part of a larger historical phenomenon. Without the annotations, the documents would be less effective. The skill and effort expended have produced a very useful and usable finished product.

The third element in the book is the introductory and concluding comments--some quite brief, others more extensive--for each essay. These draw on the same research as the annotations and provide a context for each document and at least a minimum amount of information about the creator of the document. Several of the essays are of more interest because they address the question of identity--Irish, Scots-Irish, and several variants. The weighted meanings of these various terms and the cultural and political nuances they have accrued over several centuries are clearly discussed in the Preface (pp. viii-ix). The editors are careful to follow the usages they identify. Chapter 49, for example, deals extensively in the introductory and concluding remarks with the question of identity (pp. 435-451). A number of other essays go significantly beyond putting a particular document in context and discuss significant issues about the formation of identity. This is an important period and experience for the formation of the variety of understandings of being Irish and/or Scots-Irish. The commentary and documents are very useful and important contributions to this ongoing discussion. This raises one of the few problems I have with the book. It is very difficult to know which of the chapters deal with questions of identity or other important themes. The divisions in the table of contents are very general. This might have been addressed explicitly in the introduction--or perhaps I am looking for something the authors feel is covered elsewhere; there is an extensive index.

But this is a minor concern compared with the tremendous contribution this book makes to our understanding of Irish emigration in the century and a half before 1815. In bringing these documents together and so thoroughly and so ably annotating them and providing a rich context for their understanding, Miller and his collaborators have rendered a tremendous service to the scholarly community and they should be congratulated.

Oxford University Press has produced a very nice volume and also deserves commendation. This is a very large book at a time when many publishers shy away from large books. The maps are clear, of a good size, and helpful. The footnotes are at the bottom of the page to facilitate their use, something that should be encouraged--especially in works like this where they are helpful in understanding a document.

William H. Mulligan, Jr.

Murray State University
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Author:Mulligan, William H., Jr.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:990
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