William H. Mulligan, Jr
Murray State University in Kentucky

Creative Commons 4.0 by William H. Mulligan, Jr. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

There are numerous studies of Irish emigrants in a variety of cities across the diaspora; in fact a number of cities have been the subject of multiple studies that deal with different time periods and different aspects of development of that particular Irish community. Each of these, of course, is a contribution to our knowledge and cumulatively have been successful in filling out a rich picture of the Irish diaspora communities around the globe. There are also studies that look at the experience of Irish immigrants in various countries. Less common are truly comparative studies that look at distinct Irish communities in different nations to compare their development and the lives of the Irish in those individual places. Sophie Cooper in her study of Melbourne in Australia, and Chicago in the United States makes an important contribution to our understanding of the diaspora by allowing us to see side-by-side the unfolding experience of Irish emigrants in different nations at roughly the same time.

A major strength offered by moving to comparative studies is to begin to understand more accurately both the diversity of the experience of Irish immigrants in various diaspora destinations and those things that were common across national borders. There are many variables in studying the diaspora on both the emigration and immigration sides. Neither Ireland nor any of the host countries were static; all were a developing culturally, economically, and politically across a wide range of areas. So, the Irish emigrants who left the north of Ireland in the early 1700s did not bring the same cultural baggage that Irish emigrants would have brought during the great famine or in the last half of the nineteenth century. And that experience would differ markedly from the 1970s or ’80s emigrants. No one study can deal with all of this, but Cooper suggests a model that covers a fairly broad period of time, nearly 100 years from 1830 until Irish independence, applied to countries that clearly had strong Irish influence in their development. In that way what she offers is a template that future researchers can look at and benefit from, as well as from her empirical findings. The book has many strengths. It approaches the topic with a clear research plan that is carefully explicated in the introduction and, when relevant, later in the text. The two cities are described in some detail to demonstrate their appropriateness as the subjects for comparison. While this may seem a bit mechanical, in the case of comparative studies, it is useful to orient the reader to what they are going to be immersed in. The succeeding chapters focus on specific themes such as club life and community associations, the Church, education, and politics to track how each city developed. Similarities and differences are effectively noted and discussed. There are no meaningful gaps where, for example, something in the development of Melbourne is discussed, when what happened in Melbourne was not what happened in Chicago, or vice-versa. This allows real comparison, and it is a sophisticated comparison to be sure. Cooper identifies some very subtle ways in which the communities varied or, in some cases, subtle ways in which their experience was more similar than would initially appear. In part, this is Cooper’s sensitivity to the difference between the Australian experience when for much of the time of the analysis Australia was a colony and then a dominion within the British Empire, while Chicago was part of a fully independent state throughout the period studied. Equally important, as the notes and bibliography show, the research base for the book is extensive. Cooper delved deeply into both the contemporary sources and the historiography of both cities.

One of the common characteristics of the two cities that greatly enhances their value for comparative study is their relative newness. They were created by European settlers during the formative period of their regions: Melbourne when Victoria began to develop; Chicago when the American Midwest was first “settled.” Neither had an old, established urban elite or traditions that encrusted many aspects of life for white settlers. In both cases, to a significant degree, the Irish came into a new community where they could help shape the development of that community from its earliest days. That of course is not true for all the communities where the Irish settled in the diaspora, especially in England and Scotland and on the East Coast of the United States. That would be a topic for an interesting comparison in the future. Cooper is aware of both the limits and opportunities these cities offer and that is a strength of the book.

One area in which the comparison is especially fruitful is the area of the role of the Catholic Church and particularly the role played by church schools, which leads to a discussion of the position and influence of religious women. The two cities were in very different environments. As part of the British Empire, Melbourne had an established church. Also, those Catholics who came to Australia in the period of the study tended to be Irish, and so the Australian Catholic Church was overwhelmingly Irish. The state school versus church school issue was less complicated than in Chicago. While there was no formally established church in Chicago, public schools had a heavy Protestant influence. Catholic schools were proposed and developed early on, but unlike Melbourne, the church was not almost completely Irish. As part of a multi-ethnic society, the Irish in Chicago were just one of several ethnic groups that were drawn to the city from the beginning and throughout its development. Cooper persuasively demonstrates how this difference affected the way in which the Catholic Church developed and the way in which parochial school systems developed in each city. In both Melbourne and Chicago, the Catholic parish was very important, and the school related to that parish was an important part of parish life, fundamental parts of the Irish experience and of identity formation. However, they operated in subtly different ways. One of the keys was a decision by the founding Bishop, Irish-born William Quarter in Chicago, to organize the city’s Catholic parishes along ethnic lines. In Chicago the Roman Catholic parishes were heavily dominated by specific ethnic groups, including Polish, Italian, and Irish. This facilitates comparison with Melbourne, although the reasons why the parishes the Irish lived in were heavily Irish have entirely different origins. This is an example of the extent to which Cooper has gotten into the very subtle differences between the two cities while never losing for a focus on the comparative.

This will be a useful book for those interested in the Irish diaspora and how the nature of Irishness developed in two of the major destination for Irish, Catholic emigrants.