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.

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