Tuesday, August 3, 2010

David Emmons writes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845 - 1910

The University of Oklahoma Press has just published a book that explores America's love-hate relationship with one of its most prominent immigrant groups. Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845 - 1910 was written by University of Montana Professor Emeritus of History David Emmons.

Montana Public Radio reporter Edward O'Brien talked with Emmons last week about the book, beginning with why he chose to examine that particular time in American and Irish history. 


And, here's a print interview with David Emmons from the University of Oklahoma Press:

Q:  What led you to write about the Irish in the West in the 1800s?

A:  When I was writing my book on the Irish in Butte, Montana, there were a couple of aspects of the Butte story that were particularly interesting to me. First, Butte was the complete antithesis of what the West was supposed to be; it violated every feature of the western myth. It was ethnically–which is to say culturally–diverse, densely urban, intensely industrial, and loud with the shouts of discouraging words. Secondly, it was the most Irish city in America in terms of percentage of total population, which likely made it the most Catholic city in America. In sum, Butte was the anti-west.

Q: Was Butte representative of the West during this time period?

A:  Butte wasn’t typical of anything, but what became more obvious to me was that much of the West was not what it was supposed to be, that the western myth, largely an invention of Easterners, had no place for Irish Catholics. Many of those easterners hadn’t ventured far beyond Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, Wyoming might as well have been the nether side of the moon. That did not, however, keep them from writing about Wyoming and the rest of western America. And what they wrote left no room for Irish Catholics. Butte wasn’t supposed to be in the West; its Catholic weren’t either. In a very real sense, they profaned this mythical and quite Protestant landscape. They were beyond the American pale—the unfixed and movable borders that served to identify and separate different cultures.

Q:  Why do you say Protestant?

A:  Because the West was America’s future, the newest and best part of a republic that defined itself as Protestant and consequently free. For many Americans, Catholicism was a form of slavery and, like chattel slavery in the South, had to be kept out of the West.  The problem was that, although America’s Protestant inspired republic had no place for Irish Catholics, America’s equally Protestant inspired capitalism desperately needed their labor, needed someone to dig holes, lift rocks, lay track, shoulder rifles, and scrub floors.  Capitalism won that minor–and usually unacknowledged– skirmish with republicanism; Irish Catholics were admitted to the West. There were a lot of Protestants, however, who hoped and prayed that the West would assimilate these outlandish papists into the American cultural system and make useful citizens of them.

Q:  Were the Irish Catholics assimilated into the culture of the American West?

A:  I don’t think so.  If anything, Irish Catholics assimilated the West to their own cultural system—not the entire West—there were parts of it where the Irish cohort was too small to amount to much. But in the places the Irish dominated numerically, they remained clannish and contrarian. There’s a huge irony in this: the West was seen as a place where people could go to be free. In unexpected ways, it was precisely that. But this meant that westering Irish were free to remain Irish–which is to say, unlikely and unwelcome Westerners. The farther west they went, the more Irish they could be, and that was exactly opposite of what was supposed to happen. Clustering together in their impenetrable clans and going west did not “make them white”–they were always that. It made them “verdant,” as one of their many critics called them; more luminously and aggressively green, or in less color-coded language,  more Irish and more Catholic because they were freer to be both.

Q: What were some of the consequences of the Irish remaining clannish?

They ranged from the tragic to the comical to the unexpected. For example, many Irish directly challenged the prevailing ideology of the “Indian wars.” They made a direct connection: the natives of the New World were being treated by white Americans pretty much as the native Catholics of old Ireland had been treated by the British. But I think the consequences were most strongly felt in what has been called the “Irish strain” in American labor. The Irish dominated the Western labor movement.  They dominated the eastern, too, but the social dynamics of the two regions were different. The labor force of all of industrializing America was racially and ethnically polyglot, but the western labor force was wildly so. Tony Lukas’s book Big Trouble: . . . a Struggle for the Soul of America dealt with the criminal trial of three western labor leaders—that’s claiming a lot for a single episode in America’s troubled labor history.  But one thing is certain—having the tribal Irish in charge of what I called the West’s “piebald proletariat” was to ask for big trouble.

Q: What do you mean by “Irish American class”?

A:  “Irish American class” is intended descriptively rather than analytically. I mean only to suggest that the Irish often behaved like social classes were expected to behave. They placed themselves in history and had their own arcane consciousness and habits of thought, which frequently had an antagonistic relationship with those of the dominant non-Irish. Out of this came a movement culture that was frankly countercultural. This sense of themselves was both the cause and the effect of their disinheritance. In America, all of them—rich, poor, and middling—were in one sense disinherited. They had been told that they had no legitimate claims on the West, which meant no legitimate claims on the American future. So they built their own West and their own future. Only Irish need apply.

David M. Emmons is professor Emeritus of History at the university of montana, Missoula, and the author of The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875 - 1925.

He now lives with his wife Caroline along Rattlesnake Creek just north of downtown Missoula, Montana, and 120 miles northwest and downstream of Butte, the capital of western America's "Irish Empire."

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