Kenny- “Twenty Years of Irish American Historiography”

Kenny- “Twenty Years of Irish American Historiography”

This article is an analysis of the books that were are and are currently available about Irish American immigration. Kenny focuses more on 19th century immigration and the writings of Miller as he seeing his writings as an essential part of the field of Irish American History. It is an important writing and essential to the field of Irish American History. Miller’s worked discussed why the Irish Immigrant population saw their migration as involuntary. Kenny states that because because this work was so essential in the field, it received a lot of critical analysis.

Kenny states that the Miller takes the viewpoint of Irish American immigrants were “communal, static, dependent, and fatalist” (67). The article mentions the works of those who opposed Miller’s view. Specially, Kenny refers to a work by Akenson which states that Miller’s work is a gross misinterpretation of the Irish American immigrants of that time. Kenny states that while Akenson’s point does point to possible fallacies in Miller’s work, it does not explain why Irish American immigrants did not fair well after coming to America. Miller’s work is still the only one that explains American specific immigration of the Irish and is still essential to explaining their history.

Kenny then moves on to talk about how historians tried to move away from the “doom and gloom” perspective that Miller’s work seemed to portray. Timothy Guinnan argued that the migration of the Irish was a rational decision rather than them being forced out. Kenny notes that Guinnan’s work is based on a mass migration while Miller based his analysis on the lives of Irish American immigrants. Women Irish American immigrants are put into a category of their own. Their migration is viewed a more voluntary than the mass migration because it was believed that the women believed there was a better life for them in America. There have been several historians who have noted this, Miller being among them, however it was not the focus of his work.

Focus is placed on 19th century immigrants because this is the mostly widely studied immigration period. Most of the Irish immigrants who came to American came during this time. This time spectrum has an effect on the interpretation of the migration because at this point in time the Irish were seen as a “uniquely disadvantaged group” (70).  Poverty and cultural were seen as huge influence in the migration of Irish Americans.

Next, Kenny discusses the concept of “whiteness”. While Irish immigrants were not seen as “white” when they first came to America, overtime they came to be accepted into the fold as part of the “white” population. This was due to a separation of themselves from other groups, such as African Americans. This caused their favor to rise and be more accepted into American society. A problem with this concept is that “whiteness” is very broad and vague. Historians could find evidence of it in many aspects of history. However, there is evidence of Irish immigrants did move from being seen as a lesser class and moving up to being accepted by the general American population. “Whiteness” and race are not necessarily seen as a part of the class system, however, Kenny notes that race is important when analyzing relationships between different groups. The study of Irish American immigrants has evolved a lot over time with the analysis of race and perspectives and it is continuing to evolve.


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