“Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study,” Journal of American History, 90 (June 2003): 134-62. [PDF]

The dominant theme in the recent historiography of the United States is the need to extend the boundaries of inquiry beyond the nation state, to internationalize the subject by placing it in a variety of global and cosmopolitan settings. The study of immigration and ethnicity ought to fit comfortably into this framework, but there is considerable confusion over the appropriate perspective and methodology. By investigating the global history of one prominent migrant group, the Irish, this article seeks to delineate an approach suitable for American immigration history as a whole. That approach combines two perspectives, the diasporic and the comparative. Diasporic (or “transnational”) history seeks to transcend the nation state as the primary unit of historical analysis, searching for reciprocal interactions and sensibilities among globally scattered communities. Comparative (or “cross-national”) history examines specific similarities and differences between the nations or national regions where migrants have settled. Nation-based comparative history, on its own, cannot capture the fluid and interactive processes at the heart of migration history; but a strictly transnational approach tends to underestimate the enduring power of nation states as the settings in which particular ethnicities emerge. By tracing the genealogy of the term “diaspora” through its several incarnations, explaining the nature of cross-national history, and examining migration, race, and nationalism as three illustrative themes, this article proposes a flexible new framework for migration history.


“Diaspora and Irish Migration History,” Irish Economic and Social History, 33 (2006): 43-48.

In this short article, part of a three-way scholarly forum, I expand on and modify some of the themes discussed in “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study,” Journal of American History, 90 (June 2003),  134-62. My approach here is to evaluate the usefulness of “diaspora” as a category of historical analysis from two perspectives: as a way of explaining the process of migration from the homeland, and as a way of explaining the history of disparate communities of common origin abroad. In the first sense, the utility is limited: evoking particular forms of historical suffering, including slavery and genocide, “diaspora” tends to reduce 400 years of Irish migration history into the single, traumatic but atypical experience of the famine; in the second, the potential utility is much greater, especially insofar as diasporic approaches allow historians to discern communication among and between different settlements abroad, for example in the realms of religion and nationalism.


“Violence, Race, and anti-Irish Sentiment in the Nineteenth Century,” in J. J. Lee and Marion Casey, eds., Making the Irish American: The History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States (New York University Press, 2006), 289-301.

Irish immigrants in the nineteenth-century United States were well-known as  perpetrators of racism. They were also victims of forms of prejudice that some historians have characterized as racist. Yet how could two such radically different historical experiences be subsumed under the same category? The Irish experience of race in the United States does not belong in the same category as black slavery or Asian exclusion. Most of the evidence on anti-Irish “racism,” moreover consists of words and pictures that reveal a great deal more about the enemies of the Irish than about how the Irish were treated and lived their lives. The point of this essay is not to downplay the suffering of the Irish and the prejudice they endured at nativist hands. Instead, it is to draw a distinction between cultural prejudice, as experienced by the Irish, and systematic racial discrimination, as endured by Chinese Americans and African Americans. In making this argument, the essay rejects the notion that the Irish arrived in America without being “fully white” and actively strove to acquire a “white” racial identity. If race is a way of typecasting people in order to exploit them, who would voluntarily seek to acquire a “racial identity”? The Irish, surely, were white on arrival; if asked to situate themselves in the peculiar racial hierarchy, predicated on chattel slavery, they had entered, what other identity could they have chosen? Rather than winning whiteness, they asserted their white supremacy and assimilated in part through the advantages of race – like many immigrants who followed them to America.


“The Irish in the Empire,” Chapter 4 of Kevin Kenny, ed., Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2004), 90-122.

As well as belonging to a colony at the heart of the British Empire, Irish people helped conquer, populate, and govern the colonies overseas. Historians and public commentators have often seen this ambiguous position vis-à-vis the Empire as a contradiction or even a paradox. But there is nothing anomalous in one colonized people helping to govern its homeland or to subjugate and rule other countries elsewhere in the same empire. Irish people conquered, settled, and administered other colonies throughout the Empire and took full advantage of the military, administrative, and commercial opportunities these colonies had to offer. This essay examines the role of the Irish as migrants, colonists, officers, soldiers, and missionaries in the Dominions, India, and Africa, and the significance of this activity both for Ireland for the Empire. In so doing, it suggests a rich context for broadening the contours of Irish “national history.”


“Nativism, Labor, and Slavery: The Political Odyssey of Benjamin Bannan, 1850-1860,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, CXVIII (October 1994): 325-61.

This article offers an expanded study, based on new research, of one of the leading characters in my book Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, the nativist newspaper editor Benjamin Bannan. The 1850s was a decade of political instability and breakdown in the United States. Historians have debated whether slavery or nativism was at the principal cause of this crisis. In Bannan’s case, slavery was clearly the key issue, with its opposite – free labor – under threat by an unprecedented influx of Irish immigrants. This article demonstrates that nativism and anti-slavery in the North were complementary parts of a single, flexible but consistent ideology concerned, above all, with questions of labor. The two themes were of more or less equal ideological importance to Bannan in the 1850s, though he attached different weight to them at different times. Before 1856, nativism predominated over slavery in his writings; after 1856, anti-slavery came to the fore, as a logical complement to Bannan's still-vibrant anti-Catholicism. But anti-slavery sentiment was clearly present in his writings long before 1856 and anti-immigrant sentiment continued to be present thereafter. Bannan’s commitment to both causes was reflected in his mounting concerns about labor and society in the Pennsylvania anthracite region, in the context of a national political crisis engendered by sectional tensions over slavery and the arrival of an impoverished and apparently permanent Irish working class.


“The Molly Maguires in Popular Culture,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 14 (Summer 1995): 27-46.

Twenty young Irishmen were hanged in the Pennsylvania anthracite region in the late 1870s, convicted of sixteen murders. Virtually everything we know about them is based on accounts left by others, and these accounts are almost invariably hostile. The Mollys themselves left no evidence of their existence except for a few confessions tailored to the needs of the prosecution at the trials. The most important source of evidence was the Pinkerton detective and labor spy, James McParlan, whose employer Allan Pinkerton published the first major book on the subject, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (1877). On the basis of these contemporary accounts, the myth of the Molly Maguires was born: a band of Irish cut-throats, engaging in violence for its own sake, for money, or for revenge, who terrorized the anthracite region for more than a decade before they were finally brought to justice by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Reading Railroad. The central rhetorical element of this myth was the denial of history and the creation of a static world, closed to the possibility of change; and, as a corollary, belief in essential, timeless categories of human nature, like goodness and badness. If a single theme dominated the Molly Maguire myth, it was the absence of any motivation for the assassinations of which the Mollys stood accused: the killings reflected a natural Irish propensity toward violence and savagery. Examining a wide range of literary sources, this article traces the rise of the Molly Maguire myth in the Allan Pinkerton’s work, its high points in dime-novel fiction and in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear (1915), and its eventual dissolution in the historiography of the 1930s and the movie “The Molly Maguires” (Paramount Pictures, 1970).


“The Molly Maguires and the Catholic Church,” Labor History, 37 (Summer 1995): 345-76.

Accounts of the Molly Maguire episode in the anthracite fields of nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, where twenty Irishmen were hanged for sixteen murders, used to portray the violence as a transatlantic extension of the age-old sectarian conflict between Irish Catholics and British Protestants. Among other things, these accounts ignored the fact that the Catholic Church excommunicated members of agrarian societies in Ireland, and the Molly Maguires attacked clergymen and church buildings. In Pennsylvania, the Church continued to condemn the Molly Maguires for their secrecy and violence. But the tension between the Church and the Mollys was part of a broader cultural conflict between metropolitan and rural (or, in immigrant America, working-class) Irish Catholics, known as the “devotional revolution.” On both sides of the Atlantic the hierarchy sought to impose more orthodox beliefs and practice and to root out older forms of traditional or “folk” religion. As impoverished, alienated, Irish-speaking migrants from the most isolated parts of Ireland (especially West Donegal), the Molly Maguires were just the sort of Catholics the hierarchy targeted in the “devotional revolution.” While the hierarchy was unanimous in its condemnation of the Molly Maguires, some local clergymen sympathized with them in the late 1870s, when they began to suspect that innocent men were being executed. This article examines the broad social and cultural conflict between the Catholic Church and the Molly Maguires in the 1860s and 1870s, by tracing the hierarchy’s evolving position on labor issues and the thoughts and actions of clergymen on the ground (who played a central and deeply ambivalent role in the execution ceremonies). The outcome of the religious and cultural conflict examined here was a more restricted, more respectable definition of Irish-American identity with reformed Catholicism as its central ingredient. This classic definition of Irish-American ethnicity has been familiar ever since, but rather than being foreordained, it was the product of contestation within the ethnic community and between that community and the wider American society.