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D.R. MacRaild ‘Crossing migrant frontiers: comparative reflections on Irish migrants in Britain and the United States during the 19th century’

Donald MacRaild is Pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge exchange at London Metropolitan University and is known for his work published on Irish, Britain, Social and labour history.

In this chapter MacRaild starts by detailing that from 1815-1930 more than 50 million people left Europe in the most striking population movement in history. He then continues on to discuss why migrants would choose to go to one place over another. One reason is that Government Legislation made America and Canada major destinations for those wanting to start a new life. He states that for some of the Irish they wanted to be way from Britain and America gave them good job prospects. For others Britain was as for away from Ireland as they could afford. Money was also a large factor as some people could not afford the £20 to travel to America, whereas it cost 2d to get to Britain. Hence why Britain received many of the poorer migrants.

By 1870 95% of Irish born Americans were in 20 of the states, mostly heavy urban states like new England. The Irish were the largest 1st generation of migrants in 27 states and 2nd in the rest of the states.

During the industrial revolution the Irish were used as scapegoats in both America and Britain because of the social unrest. Poorer Irish individuals found themselves labelled with the criminals. Many others made to return to Ireland under laws of settlement and removal as they were seen as an economical threat during hard times. MacRaild continues on by discussing how Irish migrants and free blacks had Similar experiences in America. Irish were seen as “not quite white” and were outcast, just like the free black people. There was competition for labour between the Irish and Black people. This race competition was not as big in Britain as slavery wasn’t as Big in Britain as it was in America.

Britain had less migrants trying to establish themselves Politically. The Irish in Britain shaped urban infrastructure as they would only give job contracts to their own. However, in America the Irish were bribed in elections as there were large numbers of them that could help candidates win.

MacRaild notes how the civil war was an opportunity for the Irish, the union army recruited 150,000 Irishmen and in the heat of battle the Irish American created a new sort of Irish identity. However, the Irish soldiers were often condemned for their drunkenness and brawling while being praised for their valour. There was no opportunity like this in Britain for the Irish as being a soldier in war was an obligation under the act of union, so they had less opportunity to integrate into society like the Irish Americans were able to.

MacRaild concludes the chapter by stating that Irish immigrants were influential in Britain and America, but in different ways. He then finishes on the words of Oscar Handlin, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” The same could never be said of Britain.

One thought on “D.R. MacRaild ‘Crossing migrant frontiers: comparative reflections on Irish migrants in Britain and the United States during the 19th century’

  1. This blog post is very well structured as it is divided into several points made by MacRaild. Through this, the post makes it easy for the reader to grasp the general ideas within the work of MacRaild without reading the entire article themselves. The blog post highlights the clear differentiation in motivations for migrants to America and Britain which is said to be highly due to the price of the transportation. It points out that due to this, Britain received many of the poorer Irish migrants, which could be the foundation for the stereotype of Irish migrants in Britain being unskilled and illiterate. The blog also describes the hostile attitudes towards Irish migrants and the use of them as scapegoats within both countries, despite there being other aspects of the experience of Irish migrants which differed between America and Britain. The use of the quote from the article is powerful as it clearly demonstrates the importance of migrants within any community, not just American.

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