BOOK REVIEW / History as she used to be spoke

OCEANS OF CONSOLATION: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia by David Fitzpatrick, Cork University Press pounds 35/pounds 19.50

CONTEMPORARY politics remind us every day of the importance of Irish emigration; not coincidentally, the subject carries a heavy emotional charge and is prone to maudlin generalisations. The same is true for its historiography, which often evades the huge difficulty of getting at the experience of the unprivileged and unrecorded. Many surveys rely on the rhetoric of journalism, fiction, popular poetry - and emigrant letters. The resultant picture (usually that of breast-beating exile) raises two awkward questions. How typical are those who wrote home - might they not constitute a self-selecting sample of the literate, the unhappy, and the professionally polemical? And what does the act of writing a letter signify?

These issues lie at the heart of this study, a tour de force by one of the most innovative historians of his generation. Fitzpatrick's first book, dealing with provincial experience of the Irish revolution, was a masterpiece of petite histoire which implied large conclusions. Twenty years later this utterly different work also challenges received ideas by methodological bravura, expressed in a deceptively limpid and ironic prose and combining empathy and incisiveness. "Like marriage, emigration was expensive, premeditated, calculated, and the outcome of negotiations involving a wide circle of interested relatives and the collection of extensive evidence concerning the available options. Unlike an Irish marriage, it was also reversible and repeatable."

To reconstruct this intimate process Fitzpatrick, like others before him, has chosen letters: but he has read them differently. The first part of the book surveys 100-odd epistles to and from Australia, painstakingly assembled in 14 sequences. They have been culled from many hundreds examined, because of their coherence and continuity; and because they represent the voices from steerage, some intensely articulate, some barely literate ("It taks me tow Days to rite a Letter"). Other editors of emigrant correspondences have ironed out infelicities and dropped salutations and endearments: Fitzpatrick reproduces every arbitrary capitalisation and truncated spelling (so some passages represent a series of e-mail addresses). They can still be magnificently eloquent; the resounding title is lifted out of a letter from Hunter Valley to County Clare. His lovingly obsessive analysis of letters as a "sub-literary form" charts how spelling and construction reflect the cadences of a local accent, and relates the implications of address and elision, preoccupations and reiterations, to the mental world of poor emigrants in Australia - and their relatives at home. A dense web of evidence is built up from genealogies, local histories, government records, local statistics, family history, and much more. Those 14 sequences become mini-series within a grand narrative, underpinning the scintillating thematic chapters which close the book.

Thus we have a major revision of emigration history, clarifying disputed areas like invisible income, geographical mobility, religious affiliation, reverse migration, marriage patterns, family relationships ("Silsvester is no Benfet to Me in worled nor ever was nor will"). But it is based on an utterly absorbing reflection of "real" experience, apprehended through voices that reflect the resilience, spirit and hardihood of ordinary people: their "clamour for schooling", their courageous negotiation of a dangerous world, their spiritual life (one sequence provides a rare portrait of rural Irish Methodism), their determined wish for a better life which does not negate their real and moving longing for "home". "Its the depest thought in my heart does the water still come into the Yard in winter times & I supose all the Visstoers [visitors] they the same as ever." Personalities emerge; the mist lifts from the landscape.

But Fitzpatrick never loses sight of the subtle agenda behind the most innocent assertion, and the significance of certain ritualised subjects like death and the weather. His analysis is equally enlightening when it looks at what is not there in the letters (drink, sex, games, sport, music, dancing, art, literature). Politics impinge, but cynically: "You will think a greadle [great deal] of the Thurless Meeting when you read it but you will be Surprized when I tell you it was got up by the tag rag of this Country by a few village attorneys and a Skow pool of a MP we have." And Fitzpatrick shows how writers who stayed "home" deliberately stressed the alluring cosiness of Irish life, censoring out the reasons why their correspondents had to leave, and thus anticipating de Valera's "masterly blend of moral and economic rhetoric" in the 1930s.

Reading and re-reading this book, one absorbs Fitzpatrick's own obsession with recapturing the reality of these people's experience. The publishers have thoughtfully produced a short cassette of readings from the letters (pounds 5.95), updating the great Victorian historian F W Maitland's injunction to "read history until you can hear the people talking". One correspondent echoes this: "Actualy my Dear Father I fancy I am speaking to you verbaly while I am writing this Scroll to you but my grife I am not." As rigorous and original as Maitland himself, by listening hard Fitzpatrick has reconstructed the two worlds of the emigrants - the one they left and the one they made. Whether or not this book wins all the prizes it should, it will loom larger and larger on the historiographical landscape; Irish emigration can never be written about in the same way again.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones