Historical Archaeology of the Irish Diaspora: A Transnational Approach

By Rotman, Deborah L. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Historical Archaeology of the Irish Diaspora: A Transnational Approach


Rotman, Deborah L., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


Historical Archaeology of the Irish Diaspora: A Transnational Approach Stephen A. Brighton. 226 pages, 34 figures, 5 tables, 5 appendices, bibliography, index. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. $49.95, Cloth, ISBN 978-1-57233-667-4.

Stephan A. Brighton combines archaeological and historical evidence to explore the Irish Diaspora in America. He employs comparative data sets from Ballykilcline, County Roscommon, Ireland as well as the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan, New York, and the Dublin section of Paterson, New Jersey. The primary material classes of his study include refined earthenwares, glass medicine bottles, and tobacco pipe bowls.

The book is divided into six chapters, each of which addresses a particular aspect of his overall project. Brighton begins by positioning his work within the context of historical archaeological studies of the Irish diaspora. His discusses the ways in which identity, particularly ethnicity, have been addressed in previous analyses of Irish-America. Brighton emphasizes how meaning is constructed, the role of the ideologies of modern capitalism in racializing Irish immigrants, and the relevance of their Old World histories in shaping their New World experiences.

Brighton proceeds by critically analyzing the term diaspora and cogently summarizing the relevant literature. He highlights the tremendous variation in the social, political, cultural, religious, and economic circumstances that have shaped Irish emigration over time. By underscoring the range of variability in the factors contributing to the displacement of peoples within the Irish diaspora, Brighton adds texture and dimension to understanding the ways in which immigrants were alienated from or incorporated into their new communities. Shared memory, stigmas and stereotypes, and transnational connections to Ireland served to reinforce collective life within the diaspora and contributed to identity formation. Brighton also stresses life cycle, age, gender, socioeconomic class, length of time in America, marital status, and other social dimensions as important factors in shaping the lived experiences of Irish immigrants in the United States - emphasizing the tremendous diversity of the Irish diaspora. The theoretical framework in this chapter is one of the most significant aspects of this volume.

Next, the author moves from theoretical discourse to a specific engagement with the Irish diaspora and its unique historical trajectories. Brighton summarizes germane historical events, including legislation that marginalized Irish peoples in their homeland, creating structures of unequal social power in Ireland and America. In sound archaeological practice, he elaborates the contexts from which people came as well as those into which they arrived. The transnational perspective which organizes this volume - that is, seeking to understand emigration and immigration from both sides of the Atlantic - makes an important contribution to the scholarly literature not only of the Irish diaspora, but of other displaced peoples as well.

The historical context of pre-Famine rural Ireland is developed in the subsequent chapter. Brighton provides an overview of the agricultural practices, divisions of labor, gendered social relations, and other features of rural Irish life. He also summarizes the archaeological excavation of the Nary family cabins in Ballykilcline, County Roscommon, the material evidence from which serves as a critical baseline for the material conditions of the rural poor in Ireland as well as for interpreting the historical and archaeological data from Irish immigrant sites in America. …

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