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Miller, Irish Immigrants - l l 2 Major Problems in American...

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Unformatted text preview: l l 2 Major Problems in American Immigration t" Ethnic History O 5 | I thupings of kinship related or Emigrant neighboring emigrant households 15 households {tom 0 5 i 5 km irom Ovre Gitdsib village Owe Gardst village Figure 4.2 Immigrant Households from (")vre Giirdsjti Village in Midsec ' u n of Athens Township, ca. 1885 ESSAYS These two essays illustrate the very different reasons for emigration from Europe that created very different ethnic communities in the United States. Historian Kerby A. Miller from the University of Missouri uses the concept of the “American wake" to illustrate the perception that emigration from Ireland was an exile. Like traditional wakes, at which a recently deceased person was mourned. the American wake sym- bolized the "death" of an immigrant who was, in effect, forced to depart for the United States. In an inextricable combination of nationalism. alienation, and guilt, nineteenth-century Irish immigrants saw themselves as forced to leave their island because of the unfair practices of the British government and large landholders. Be- cause they felt that they were not leaving Ireland voluntarily, they could argue that they were not forsaking country and kin on purpose. Rather, they were exiled, a fact that foretold that, for most, emigration would be an unhappy experience. Kathleen Conzen, a historian at the University of Chicago, provides us with a different story. In exploring the experiences of German Catholic immigrants in a rural settlement in Minnesota from mid- to late-nineteenth century, Conzen illustrates how immigrants could replant communities in the United States and maintain the habits and beliefs that they had carried with them from Europe. As immigrants “made their own Amer- ica,” they distinguished themselves from their American-bom neighbors in the ways 9w.» ‘5” GJ‘ -' _,) n ..ouqmron' 1‘10: 6v Prohluwi M Mug remand/ti ratio tan the Radio: Arte pt to Conserve, 183tk1880 05 ON l'HG‘ 113 5 l “A that they farmed, worshipped. and built their famili s. This exemplary example of a radical attempt to conserve differs in a variety of ways from the Irish exile illustrated by the “American wake." Irish Immigrants Who Perceive America as Exile KERBY A. MILLER . . . Irish<American homesickness, alienation. and nationalism were rooted ulti- mately in a traditional Irish Catholic worldview which predisposed Irish emigrants to perceive or at least justify themselves not as voluntary, ambitious emigrants but as involuntary, nonresponsible “exiles.” compelled to leave home by forces be- yond individual control. particularly by British and landlord oppression. In pre— modern times Gaelic culture's secular, religious, and linguistic aspects expressed or reinforced a worldview which deemphasized and even condemned individualis- tic and inn0vative actions such as emigration. Although Gaelic Ireland withered from the blasts of conquest and change, not only did certain real continuities re main to justify the retention of archaic attitudes and behavior patterns but in fact those institutions—family. church. and nationalism—which dominated modern Catholic Ireland strove to perpetuate old outlooks which both minimized the de— moralizing impacts of change and cemented communal loyalties in the face of in- ternal conflicts and external enemies. Thus, tradition and expediency merged. and emigration remained forced banishment—demanding political redress and the em- igrants‘ continued fealty to sorrowing Mother Ireland. All these themes, attitudes, and social pressures were epitomized by the emi- grants‘ leave-taking ceremonies. commonly known as “American wakes." Archaic in origin yet adapted to modern exigencies, the American wakes both reflected and reinforced traditional communal attitudes toward emigration. Indeed, these rituals seemed almost purposely designed to obscure the often mundane or ambiguous re— alities of emigration, to project communal sorrow and anger on the traditional English foe. to impress deep feelings of grief, guilt. and duty on the departing emi» grants. and to send them forth as unhappy but faithful and vengeful “exiles"~—— their final, heartrending moments at home burned indelibly into their memories. easily recalled by parents‘ letters, old songs, or the appeals of Irish-American nationalists. The American wake seems to have been a peculiarly Irish custom, unknown in Britain or continental Europe. Most extant evidence of the practice dates from the post-Famine decades. but Asenath Nicholson witnessed an American wake in County Kilkenny in l844, and similar ceremonies—called living wakes—were common in late~eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Ulster, where they were held by Presbyterians as well as by Catholics. Nevertheless. the American wake From Immigrth and Exiles: Ireland and the lrirh Exodtti to North America by Kcrhy A. Miller. Copy- right © I988 by Oxford University Press, Inc, Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Hi l l 4 Major Problems in American Immigration r" Ft/mt'r Ht'rtury seems to have been primarily a Catholic peasant custom carried on most persis- tently and in its original forms in areas which were still, or in recent memory, Irish- speaking. Thus, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American wakes were most common in west Munster, Connaught, and west and mid-Ulster, while in the midlands and eastern counties the custom had either become disused or lost many of its traditional features. In short, like its model—the wake for the dead—the American wake was a product of Gaelic culture, and both customs even— tually disappeared with the routinization of emigration and the westward advance of Anglicization. However, as late as 1901, American wakes were still common throughout most of Catholic Ireland, and one newspaper lamented that the entire island had become "one vast ‘American wake.‘ " The name given the custom dif- fered from area to area. Although the term “American wake" was most common, peasants in the Golden Vale called the ceremony a “live wake," while in east Ulster it was a “convoy.” In Connaught Irish-speakers referred to “the farewell supper" or “feast of departure,“ those in Donegal to the “American bottle night" or “bottle drink." In especially Anglicized counties with long experience of emigration, such as Meath and Wexford, the leave-taking occasion was called the “parting spree,” indicating the attrition of its once-tragic connotations. Nevertheless, despite regional variations of nomenclature, save in east Lein— ster the custom remained substantially similar throughout the island, and its most common name—the American wake—best reflected its character and tone. Of course, in traditional wakes for the dead, the relatives and neighbors of the de— ceased sat through the night and watched the corpse until burial. Among Catholic peasants the custom was a seemingly incongruous mixture of sorrow and hilarity, with prayers for the dead and the moumful keening of old women alternating with drinking, dancing, and minhful games. Although real deaths did not occasion American wakes, the choice of name was significant since Catholic countrymen at least initially regarded emigration as death’s equivalent, a final breaking of earthly ties. Such attitudes were rooted deep in Irish folklore, for example, in voyage tales which symbolized death or banishment and in popular beliefs which equated going west with earthly dissolution. In the mists of the west Atlantic, in the direction of America, lay the mythical isles which ancient traditions held to be abodes of the dead. Westward travelers, even peasants who added west rooms to their cottages, were believed fated for early demise; likewise, west rooms in farmhouses were tra- ditionally reserved for aged parents who had relinquished control of farms to sons and daughters-in-law. More concretely, in emigration's early decades, when money was scarce, travel slow and perilous. illiteracy widespread and mail service highly uncertain, and destinations only vaguely perceived. the departure for North America of a relative or neighbor represented as final a parting as a descent into the grave. Indeed, given the high mortality rates which afflicted Irish emigrants in both colonial Virginia and early-twentieth-century New York City, associating em- igration and death was not illogical, as churchmen warned and as peasants” own observations of consumptive “returned Yanks" seemed to verify, ironically corrob— orating ancient tales of Tir na nOg, the mythical western Land of the Young, whence no traveler returned except to wither and die. In addition, for the politi» cally minded the American wake seemed a proper commemoration of a process that was bleeding Ireland of its young men and women. As the Irish-Irelander European Migration and the Radira/ Attempt to Conserve, 1830—1880 1 l 5 Robert Lynd observed in I909, it was “not without significance that so funereal a name should be given to the emigration ceremonies, for the Irish emigrant ts not the personification of national adventure, but of something that has the appearance of national doom." Given such traditions and attitudes, it was not unnaturalfor tn’sh countrymen to hold wakes for departing emigrants. Even in the late nine- teenth century, traditional countrymen “made very little difference between gomg to America and going to the grave," and as one elderly informant remembered, when you left home, “[i]t was as if you were going out to be buried." The American wakes resembled the traditional deathwatches in their outward characteristics as well as in their symbolic significance. Both were held to gather together relatives and neighbors to honor the "departed," to share and assuage the grief of the bereaved, and to express at once communal sorrow and a reaffirmatton of communal continuity in the face of potentially demoralizing disruptions. The American wakes usually took place in the home of the prospective emigrant and generally lasted from nightfall until early morning of the next day, when the “Yan- kee"—as he or she was called in west Munster—made the final departure. During the week preceding the American wake, the intending emigrant visited relatives and neighbors to bid them personal farewells and invite them to attend. Priests seem to have been rarely or only briefly present at these affairs (perhaps because traditional wakes generally were clerically proscribed occasions of sin), but by the late nineteenth century it was customary for the "Yankee" to make confession and take communion on the Sunday before departing, and also to pay an obligatory visit to the parish priest’s house, there receiving his blessing, presents of prayer books, scapulars, and holy pictures and medals, "as well as much excellent advice and warnings as to the dangers to faith and morals to be met with by those who leave the Catholic atmosphere of holy Ireland." Through these rituals churchmen both sanctioned and, they hoped, retained some control over a process which they opposed but could not halt. Meanwhile, the women of the emigrant‘s house were busy baking, cooking, and cleaning in preparation for the American wake. Unless times were very bad or the community exceptionally poor, either the emigrant‘s parents or the guests supplied liberal amounts of food and refreshments, including large quantities of whiskey or, later, porter and stout. While their elders sat around the hearth, the young folk danced to the music of fiddles, flutes, pipes, or melodeons. Between dances the guests cried, sang songs, told stories, and drank away the night. Thus, like their more gruesome counterparts, the American wakes combined elements of gaiety and grief, but all the evidence indicates that the latter emotion predominated. This was particularly true in the earliest American wakes, held in areas which had witnessed little previous emigration and in traditional or Irish- Speaking districts generally. Dancing and singing were often absent at such early Wakes. and the participants passed the night with sighs and somber conversation, in an atmosphere laden with gloom and foreboding. Frequently, as in real wakes, the emigrant’s mother or another old woman raised a keen over the “dead” one. These were long, sorrowful elegies which alternately praised the emigrant‘s Virtues and descanted upon the sufferings which his or her loss would inflict on parents and community. Indeed, both the traditional keens for the dead and these Stylized lamentations over emigration often bitterly reproached their subjects, thus l 1 6 Major Prahh’mx in Aini'ri'ran liiiiiiiqr'izlitili t” Frhmr History projecting parental and communal responsibility and guilt upon the “departed.” “Why did you leave us? had you not every comfon that heart could wish? were you not beloved by your parents and friends?" sang a keener for the dead in 1817: sen— timents replicated later in the century by an emigrant‘s mother in Kilkenny—— “O mavoureen, and why do ye break the heart of her who raired ye? Was there no turf j in the bog, no praties in the pit, that ye leave the hairth of yer poor ould mother?"—and still later by another in Connemara—- “Is there anything so pitiful as a son and a mother / Straying continually from each other? I who reared him without pain or shame lAnd provided food and good clean sauce for him. . . . Isn‘t it little my painful disease affects him /And the many sorrows that go through my heart?" . . . . **** Regardless of the emigrants ambitions or the real roles parents may have played in obliging'departure, the effects of such laments, delivered in shrill, pierc- ing wails. were irresistible and devastating. Before long, “with tears rolling down worn cheeks and feeble old men tearing their gray hair," a chorus of wailing women and weeping men, including the emigrant, joined the old keener in her de- spair. No wonder that participants in such starkly primitive American wakes de- scribed them as “harrowing affairs” displaying “naked grief" and “elemental emo~ tions." No wonder, either, that participants. especially the emigrants themselves, would seek to relieve the tensions of such occasions by making elaborate promises to return or send remittances and by excusing their actions as involuntary, nonre- sponsible “exile.” **** Perhaps the most telling indicators of the spirit prevalent in the American wakes were the songs which the participants sang. These were a mixture of folk compositions, broadside ballads, and—increasingly by the late nineteenth cen- tury—songs published in popular periodicals such as The Nation '5 Penny Readings or in cheap collections like The Harp of Tara Song Book. The later published bal- lads were almost invariably nationalistic, interpreting emigration in political terms, but in fact it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish “genuine” folk compositions from commercial productions. so similar were their themes and so frequently did authors of both kinds of songs borrow images and phrases from each other and from the earlier formal-song traditions. To be sure, the great major- ity ofthe emigrants‘ ballads were unorigina], clumsily worded and rhymed, and re- plete with mawkish sentimentality. However. their sheer number and immense popularity on both sides of the Atlantic (many songs current in late-nineteenth- ceiitury Ireland had been composed in America) indicate that they both reflected and reinforced conventional Irish perceptions of emigration, and were so deemed highly appropriate to express communal sentiments at the American wakes. That such sentiments were nevertheless not entirely unambiguous is demon— strated by a significant minority of songs which conceptualized emigration in other than political or negative terms. For example, several ballads portrayed emigration unhappin but realistically depicted its usually mundane causes. Thus, the author of "The Emigrant's Farewell to Donegal" lamented. “My father [held only] five _ European Migration and the Radical Attempt to Conserve, 1830-1880 1 17 acres of land / it was not enough to support us all, [Which banished me from my native land, I to old Ireland dear I bid farewell." A few songs went funhergand blamed emigration on parental decisions regarding inheritances and marriage prospects: “How cruel it was of my parents to send me /Away 0 er the dark rolling waves of the sea," cried “Barney, the Lad from Kildare," now alone, “out of work, and without a red penny" on the cold streets of urban America. In addition, a num- ber of ballads actually celebrated emigration as a blessed release‘from poverty or oppression. and predicted that the emigrants would enjoy prosperity and liberty in “The Glorious and Free United States of America.” “If you labour in America, promised that song‘s composer, “In riches you will roll. lThere s neither tithes nor taxes there / Nor rent to press you down; / It‘s a glorious fine free country, /To we]- come every man. / So sail off to America, /As soon as e‘er you can.“ Some songs were positively joyful, portraying emigration as an exciting adventure best under- taken by footloose “playboys” such as “The Rambling Irishman," “The Wild Irish Boy," and the author of “Muirsheen Durkin," who declared he was “Sick and’tired of working" and so was “off to California, where instead of diggin’ praties /I ll be diggin' lumps of gold." Likewise, “The Irishman now going to America told the rollicking story of an Irish canal laborer who fought and wooed his way into the heart and purse of an American widow with $2,000 and a well—stocked farm. That song’s composer, like many others, urged his listeners to reject Irish poverty and follow his example. More extreme was the atypical ballad “The Green Fields of America,“ whose unsentimental author declared, “[It’s] little I'd care where my bones should be buried,” and cursed those so supine as to remain willingly in Ireland. Songs which described emigration and America positively seem to have been most common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and most popu- lar then and later in Anglicized districts whose relatively advantaged inhabitants had had long and generally favorable experiences with emigration. For exam- ple, most of the emigrants‘ ballads sung in Counties Meath and Wexford around 1900 were optimistic, promising opportunity and even "independence" in a still- idealized America. Coinciding as they did with the Great Famine‘s horrors, the 1848 California gold strikes at least temporarily reinvigorated the old image of America as a land of easy riches; even in traditional Kerry, songs promising freedom and happiness in the United States (especially to the unmarried) were popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such songs certainly served useful purposes, for as rhymed renditions of the caislea’i'n (ii'r myth they assuaged many of the fears and tensions surrounding emigration. However, theirs remained a mi- nori'iy viewpoint, especially in the post-Famine period, when emigration became at once more intensely politicized and most prevalent in hitherto-traditional or lrish- speaking districts. Moreover, despite their undoubted popularity such songs were generally inappropriate at American wakes, for those occasions were deSigned not to celebrate departures but to lament them. not to extol the emigrant as an ambi— tious or carefree individual but rather to impress upon him or her the full burden of a communal opinion which demanded grief, duty. and self—abnegation as the price of departure. Thus, although a number of songs praised the “Land of Liberty" as a refuge, usually this was in the context of politicized exile from a beloved Ireland rather t...
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