The Canon: Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. By Kerby A. Miller

July 15, 2010

The notion that the Irish were exiles driven out of Ireland by poverty, hardship and English colonialism was hardly new when, in 1985, Kerby Miller's weighty, learned study hit the bookshelves. After all, nationalists had used such language since the famine of the 1840s. And it wasn't as if there had been no epic studies of Irish emigration before. Indeed, American scholarship was stuffed with histories of Irish immigrants. So why did Miller's 600 pages of small-typeface writing make the splash that it did? The answer lies in its transoceanic range and scholarly depth.

The book was well received by luminaries in Irish history who praised it in what were often very long, thoughtful reviews. Miller's work was acknowledged as an example of transatlantic history of the most suggestive and interesting kind. His reading of virtually everything on Ireland from 1700 to 1900 to frame his study suggested that he may have produced the most exhaustively contextualised book ever written on Irish history. But it was the range of his primary research - nearly 5,000 letters sourced from countless archives and collections in America and Ireland - that held the attention of the world. Emigrants and Exiles went on to inspire many other studies in which personal narratives played a pivotal role in explaining the Irish experience of emigration.

Yet some reviewers had reservations. The one that has lived longest with me is the idea that, in being swept up by vast impersonal forces and the machinations of the British state, Miller's Irish emigrants were said to lack agency. In a fundamental sense, this was true: Irish people had few options other than departure from their homeland. Yet my own research on the Irish who went in the opposite direction - to Britain - led me to understand there was virtually no internal narrative among the Irish in Britain of emigration as exile.

Miller's book was (and remains) an inspiration when looking at the Irish or Irish-American side of things; but its feeling of epic despair does not sit so easily with the Irish in Britain. The Irish who went there did not usually return home permanently either, and although they suffered abuses and prejudice in their new homes, they could nevertheless visit Ireland more easily than their American cousins and so the tangled relations of the two islands became written into their personal lives.

In Britain, the Irish emigrant critique of British rule was much less highly developed and notions of exile were relatively hidden by continued association with Britain and by a retained closeness to Ireland. Thus, Miller's book looked to me like a very American study, shaped partly by the Irish-American self-image of escape from Old World despotism.

Regardless of any criticisms, the important thing is that Miller's book shaped our thinking, and it still does. Even 25 years on, Emigrants and Exiles remains key reading for students and academics alike.

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