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Transnational Protest: Social Movements and Political Mobilisation Across Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, 1879-1903

Final Report Summary - PRODIA (Transnational Protest: Social Movements and Political Mobilisation Across Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, 1879-1903)

Emigration out of Ireland forms a huge part of the country’s history. Yet the Irish people who emigrated are frequently considered in the state of the art literature as a separate field of inquiry, set apart from Irish history. The PRODIA project analyzes how Irish people in Ireland, Britain, the United States and Argentina engaged with nationalist and land reform movements in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and examines the links that pinned transnational networks together. In doing so, it sets out an integrated approach to the history of modern Ireland and its geographically widespread diaspora, rather than considering them as separate fields of inquiry. The methodology developed in the project contributes to advancing transnational and comparative approaches in Irish history and re-evaluates critical themes previously considered mainly in national contexts.

The main objective of the project is to demonstrate how political and social movements operate in the complex transnational space between diaspora populations and their home countries. It focuses on Irish nationalist and land reform movements in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and their activities in Ireland and amongst Irish migrant groups in Britain, the United States and Argentina. The study considers in detail (1) how these movements connected centres of the Irish diaspora worldwide with Ireland and with each other. It investigates (2) the lives and activities of multiple ‘link-men’ and ‘link-women’ that brought together networks and mobilized movements across disparate sites. It employs (3) genealogical records to excavate social profiles of grassroots supporters among Irish migrants. It compares (4) how the dynamics of mobilization varied in different regions. Beyond the world of Irish politics, it analyses (5) the relationships between Irish movements and the broader currents of transnational social radicalism during the period in question.

During the fellowship archival research was carried out in several repositories in a number of countries, these included the National Library of Ireland; the National Archives of Ireland; Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts and Archives Library; the UK National Archives; the Archives of the London School of Economics; the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam; the National Library of Scotland; the Mitchel Library, Glasgow; the Catholic Archives of Scotland; the Archives of the University of Dundee; the New York Public Library; the American Irish Historical Society, New York; the Burns Library, Boston College. Research in these repositories was complemented by research in digital genealogical and newspaper databases, including America’s Historical Newspapers Series 2, Gale NewsVault, Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers, and the Irish Newspaper Archives.

To achieve the main research objectives, the project utilized a two-fold approach. First, it investigated the lives of a number of link-men and link-women that connected different centres of the diaspora with Ireland and with each other. For example, Michael Davitt was a main figurehead in the Irish Land League organisation in the 1880s. He was born in Ireland, emigrated to Britain as a child, and as an adult he moved between these two countries and spent significant periods of time in the United States. Davitt’s mobile background and border-crossing are often seen as exceptional, contributing to his credentials as a leader. Yet my research has demonstrated that similar movement was not just confined to the leadership. Moving beyond well-known figures, this study has drilled down to uncover ‘link men’ and ‘link women’ whose lives were characterised by considerable mobility and who served as vehicles that carried ideas, worldviews, and fund-raising initiatives. Reconstructing the ‘transnational lives’ of these wandering agitators and organisers has enabled us to better understand how Irish political movements appealed to migrants and how networks were integrated across disparate global locations.

Second, the project combined archival research in newspapers, personal papers, letters, and police records, with new approaches that utilized genealogical databases to reconstruct social profiles of lesser-known activists and grassroots supporters. Excavating names in these databases enabled new insights into questions of social class, generational profile, gender and religion among members, and the extent to which they settled or moved between different locations. One neglected aspect of the history of the Irish Land League is the role of women in branches outside of Ireland. My project contributes toward shedding light on the role Irish emigrant women played in transnational social movements through combining genealogical databases with membership lists to create a detailed case study of the women who organised town hall meetings, social outings and raised funds to send to Ireland. In doing so the project has established a more nuanced picture of the gender dynamics of the Irish land reform movement and its appeal among emigrants.

A key advantage of the comparative approach employed was how it drew attention to factors and developments often neglected in national studies. The supporters of the Land League were far from homogenous. They varied between different geographical locations in Britain, the USA and Argentina, but also between different cities in one country, comprising first- and second-generation migrants from a range of social classes. The radicalism of the transnational Land League adapted and shifted according to the environments it entered in different locations. At the same time, at the root of the movement’s ethos was the advancement of what it considered to be self-evident and universal social and economic rights, which appealed to supporters seeking reform both in Ireland and in their host countries, and chimed with broader currents of transnational social radicalism – socialism, republicanism, suffragism – in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

How migrant populations connect with political movements and their country of origin is a topic that transcends national boundaries. This study will hold relevance beyond the confines of Irish history and I hope it will contribute to wider debates across different fields and disciplines.

The PRODIA project was carried out by Dr Niall Whelehan with the support of an EU FP7 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship (2014-2016) and was hosted by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.