A Land of Dreams: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Irish in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine 1880-1923
By Patrick Mannion
McGill-Queen’s University Press
$39.95 332 pages
“For us it is a land of dreams known only … through the medium of song, story and history.”
This quote, giving Patrick Mannion’s engaging investigation into Irishness within the Irish diaspora its title, is from a letter written in June 1920, from the students of St. Bonaventure’s College to Brother J. B. Ryan, wishing him a safe journey home to Ireland. It’s very poignant. And yet these students were not born in Ireland, and neither were their parents or grandparents. Their biological connection to that country was generations away. But still Ireland evoked some idea of home. Why did these students feel so Irish?
“The question of identity is complex,” Mannion writes. “Through time and across space, the phrase ‘I am Irish’ has carried many different meanings.” Definitions could include “’symbols’ such as food, religious rites, celebrating ethnic feast days, and, occasionally, engaging in the politics of the homeland.”
Constructing and fostering identity is an intriguing process, one Mannion deftly deciphers, exploring the social, political, and religious forces and factors shaping the concept of Irishness carried by and re-configured within waves of migration to North America. Specifically, this is a comparative study of St. John’s; Halifax; and Portland, Me.: one British colony, one Canadian province, and one American state. The former two initial populations are largely pre-famine, while the latter mostly arrived through and after that period.
The work is divided into six chapters. The first “introduces St John’s, Halifax, and Portland and their respective Irish communities”; the second “examines ethnic associational networks from 1880 to 1910,” like the Benevolent Irish Society; chapter 3 “covers responses to Irish nationalism from 1880 to 1891” such as the Land League – most Irish farmers were tenants paying rent to largely English landlords, and a stint of poor agricultural conditions prompted growing calls for reform – and the influence and disgrace of Charles Stewart Parnell; the fourth “begins with a discussion of dawning ethnic networks in the three cities from 1891 to 1911”; in “Chapter 5 we see the first significant divergence in how Irishness was understood in Portland versus the two British North American cities through an examination of growing popular engagement with diasporic nationalism between 1911 and 1918”; and the last chapter “examines the end of the period, 1919-1923, which represented the climax of ethnic expression in the three cities.”
Mannion is clear and insightful into the construction of cultural identity, which in a given moment is seemingly solid, but as he illustrates is actually fluid, shifting, and quite consciously directed. There were the expressions of Irishness, for example, like those supported and sponsored by an organization like the BIS through “their meetings and social events, as well as the ritual celebration of St Patrick’s Day, Irish ethnic and benevolent associations created many of the public spaces in which Irish identities were negotiated.”
At the forefront of Irishness in Newfoundland were the clergy. Priests and archbishops regularly inserted their views into the day’s topics and, even more crucially, had developed an education system staffed by nuns and Christian Brothers. All to the extent that, here, Irish was simply equivalent to Roman Catholic — in Halifax and Portland this was not the case. In Halifax many Irish were Protestant, while in Portland they were first associated with the lower working class. As Mannion explains, these designations of Irish by ethnicity, religion or class often overlapped in suggestive ways.
Another illustrative difference, this time contrasting Newfoundland and Nova Scotia with America, is the response to and support of more radical and violent forms of Irish nationalism. In St. John’s and Halifax, the Irish had little desire to break from the British Crown. In Portland, of course, they had most decidedly done just so. This schism would be reflected in the different countries reaction to the First World War as well.
As Mannion writes, Irishness within the diaspora “did possess a ‘wonderful complexity’’; however it was cultivated it was genuine, romantic, and often passionate. (I note that the cbc.ca/nl website just posted a story on waning Irish accents in Newfoundland – obviously this relationship continues to haunt and tantalize us.)
Mannion includes photographs, tables and figures, and his sources are richly multiple and varied — the bibliography fills almost 30 pages — and carefully interwoven. There are appendices and notes. “A Land of Dreams” is thorough, learned, and readable — it’s nicely digestible to non-academics.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.