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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary