On Every Tide: The Making and Remaking of the Irish World
By Sean Connolly.
Basic Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 528 pp. $35.

Reviewed by John P. Rossi

Writing about the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to those Irish who emigrated to the United States, has attracted some outstanding scholarship in the past. Now Sean Connolly, a professor emeritus of Irish history and research fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast, has written what will be the definite analysis and contribution to this field for the foreseeable future.

On Every Tide traces the impact of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries not just on the United States where they settled in the largest number but also on Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even a small community that settled in Argentina.

The Irish were the largest part of mass immigration out of Europe between 1821 and 1961. Sixty million, mostly poor and desperate people, crossed the Atlantic in those years, the largest portion of which went to the United States. Eight million of that figure were Irish and most of those settled in the United States as well, congregating in the cities of the East Coast where they constituted the bottom of society. 

Connolly is careful to note that the Irish had emigrated to America before the Revolution and in the half-century after the founding of the Republic, but that group was largely from Ulster and overwhelmingly Protestant, unlike the Catholic Irish who followed them. The failure of the potato crop and the subsequent famine of the 1840s changed that and Ireland forever. Connolly points out that the Irish population had reached eight million before the famine, a staggering one-third of whom depended on the potato for 90% of their food requirement. One million would die and a million and a half would flee Ireland over the next five years.

Those Irish who arrived in the United States did possess one attribute that set them apart from other immigrants: they spoke English. Among those emigrating in the 1840s and 1850s, Connolly estimates that 25% were Irish speakers. 

The Irish confronted waves of protest from American groups throughout the nineteenth century despite slow progress economically and socially. In the 1840s there were attacks on Catholic Churches by anti-immigrant groups including the burning of a Church in Philadelphia and a convent in Boston. The Know Nothing political movement of the 1840s and 1850s was inspired by fear and hatred of Catholics and that meant Irish.

In his discussion of the role the Irish played in the American Civil War, Connolly notes that the Irish fought on both sides although the largest number, 16,000, served in the Union Army. The Irish had no interest in the slavery question, Connolly points out, and “were noted for their lack of sympathy with the abolitionist cause.” This was partly a result of economic rivalry. As the poorest section of the white working class, the Irish competed with African Americans for scarce labor jobs.

Connolly does not believe that the role the Irish played in the Civil War helped them gain acceptance in American society. He notes that the terrible riots in New York City against the draft along with vicious attacks on African Americans confirmed the view that the Irish were wild and unruly. 

The Irish joined the Army in large numbers for job security. Connolly notes that after the Civil War a quarter of the soldiers serving on the western frontier had been born in Ireland. John Ford’s post-Civil War cavalry trilogy with its large number of Irish played for comic relief was not romantic nonsense after all.

The other area where Irish immigrants in the East especially dominated was the police. As early as 1855 one quarter of the police in New York City were Irish. Fifteen years later there were 32 Irish police captains in the city but no Germans. This reflected the Irish absorption into politics where the two major political parties sought their votes. Because of Republican connections to various anti-Catholic political groups, the Irish became Democrats. Some idea of how fast they rose in the party ranks can be found in the fact that by the 1880s there were Irish mayors in New York, Chicago, and Boston. In national politics, their progress was slower. There were few Irish in the House of Representatives or the Senate until after World War I.

Few Irish returned to Ireland, unlike other immigrant groups, but they continued to take an interest in various forms of political protest against English rule, whether moderate like the Home Rule movement or more violent like the Fenians with their demand for a Republic and later the IRA campaigns. This interest continues with less enthusiasm down to the present day.

Many of the attitudes of the Irish in America set them apart from those who settled in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. Australia initially had been settled by convicts from Great Britain. In general, those Irish who went to Australia did not experience the kind of prejudice the Irish in America encountered. There were no cities in which to congregate, like Philadelphia and New York City, and there was plenty of work available. As difficult as conditions were on what was an almost empty semi-continent, there were jobs for those who were willing to labor: sheep herding, tree felling, railroad construction, etc. Another way in which the Irish in Australia stood apart from those in America was in the substantial number who chose a rural way of life. One-third of the Irish born in New South Wales were engaged in agricultural work, a figure far greater than for the Irish who emigrated to the United States. One by-product of the Australian experience was the availability of food, which was significant to those coming from famine-wracked Ireland. The food consumption per head in New South Wales, Connolly notes by the end of the nineteenth century, was the highest in the world.

Connolly notes that while the Irish did not have a smooth introduction to Australian society, the hostility they experienced did not produce the kind of tribalism that characterized the American Irish.

Irish settlement in New Zealand was limited. There were only 35,000 Irish in New Zealand by the 1870s, a drop in the bucket compared to the United States or even Australia. Perhaps this was the result of New Zealand being the most British of what was called the white dominions. Despite that, the Irish rose slowly to power in New Zealand holding the important office of minister of justice as early as 1884 and even reaching the top position as prime minister in 1908, a half-century before an Irish American won the Presidency of the United States. Connolly sums up the situation of the Irish experience in New Zealand as one of a sub-culture rather than a ghetto. 

Irish emigration to Canada was substantially different from what occurred in the United States. The total number of migrants was insignificant compared to those in the States. Between 1861 and 1910, for instance, 2.6 million Irish made their way to the United States while for Canada the figure was 160,000. Part of the explanation for this was that there was no Irish community in Canada comparable to those in the United States that served as a magnet for the Irish. Another significant difference arose from the fact that the Irish in Canada were more evenly divided religiously. Fifty-four percent were Protestant in the 1870s and this discouraged some Catholics from emigrating there. Toronto, for example, was known as the Belfast of Canada, a title not designed to attract Catholic immigrants.

Another complicating factor was the existence of a large French population in Quebec. Catholic Irish were never able to forge a comfortable relationship with the French-speaking Canadians. The French were not particularly open to the Irish despite the common religion. Also, there was tension between the French Catholic Church and the Irish who dominated the Catholic Church in North America.

Connolly has written the definitive study of Irish immigration throughout the world. I can’t think of any major source dealing with the theme of Irish immigration that he has missed. On top of that, the book is an easy read despite its great length of 900 pages. Anyone interested in what happened to a people literally driven out of their own land in the nineteenth century should have Connolly’s study in their bookcase. It is quite simply a gem.

John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA.

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