Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"Come You All Courageously": Irish Women in America Write Home

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"Come You All Courageously": Irish Women in America Write Home

Article excerpt

WHAT we know about immigrants has too often been seen through official lenses. Documentation beyond official sources is scarce because few immigrants conducted their lives with an eye to the biographer. If the world of immigrants is to be recovered, historians must be innovative in identifying and using nonconventional sources. Personal documents like letters are an especially appropriate source for research on immigrant and ethnic women, whose lives are so often hidden. In this essay I examine some of the themes that appear in letters written by Irish women. (1)

In Ireland two scholars based in Ulster were responsible for emigrant letters being given due place as historical documents. The late Rodney Green of Queen's University, Belfast, was the first to collect emigrant letters systematically, and it was he who first alerted many of us to their importance as documentary sources. Brian Trainor, while director of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, also ensured the collection and preservation of emigrant letters, encouraging researchers such as myself to work in a receptive atmosphere. Drawing attention to their documentary significance, Professor Green said that while emigrant letters are highly subjective material as historical documents, they do nevertheless allow one to make some valuable generalizations about the emigration/ immigration experience. (2) Among other conclusions, he noted "the favourable reaction of the emigrants to American conditions...." (3) Most emigrants would have agreed that, on balance, America offered more than had Ireland. Their letters, replete with statistical information about wages and prices, are valuable sources for economic history, demonstrating that immigrants often had a sophisticated awareness of local as well as international markets.

Emigrant letters have been extensively used by some American scholars. Arnold Schrier used letters as historical documents in his pioneering and evocative study, Ireland and the American Emigration, 1850-1900, published in 1958. (4) Drawing on 222 emigrant letters as documentation, he opened what has become a lively and continuing discussion about the use of letters as sources. Twenty-five years later, Patrick O'Farrell used emigrant letters to document the lives of the Irish in Australia, while Kerby Miller drew on a wide array of letters in his influential study, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, published in 1985. (5) Donald Harmon Akenson challenged the adequacy of these earlier approaches in an article drawing on a selection of letters from the Irish in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. (6) More recently, David Fitzpatrick has used detailed and informed textual analysis to elucidate Irish-Australian letters, extending the range of what historians can achieve with such sources. (7) My own method has been to use textual analysis to create a computerized database with five main categories: family name, letter author name, collection, recipient, and characteristics of each letter. The letters were analyzed in terms of subcategories such as push-and-pull conditions, mention of remittances, evidence of bad family relations, renewal of ties, choice of spouse, poetry, religion, and education. The themes were analyzed in two different ways, one using individual letters, the other using individual authors as the unit of observation.

Collections of emigrant letters are likelier to contain letters from men than from women, although some evidence suggests that women tended to write more often. Thus my research efforts located only ninety-five letters from forty-five female authors, while there were five hundred forty-four letters from one hundred seventy-six male authors on which to base an analysis. (8) The letters were collected from several sources in Ireland and America. (9) Following an examination of how the letters of women and men differed, I will explore a number of themes appearing in women's letters. …

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