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From Emigrant Exiles to Immigrant Gentiles? Kerby Miller on the Irish in North America, 1985–2003

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 19, 2003


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by David Fitzpatrick

"EVER SINCE ITS PUBLICATION in 1985, Kerby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America has been justly admired as the most erudite, humane, and wide-ranging study of its dauntingly vast subject. Equally well versed in the national and local histories of both countries, Miller gave shape to an impressive array of primary documentation by applying a powerful but controversial vision of emigrant mentality.

The mass of emigrants, both Catholic and Protestant, were pictured as ‘exiles’, more or less hindered in their performance as settlers by the residue of a ‘Gaelic-Catholic world-view’ encouraging passivity and self-pity rather than relentless pursuit of self-betterment. Miller’s typification of the Irish emigrant was probably most useful as an organisational device, and many critics – notably D.H. Akenson in a torrent of polemical but incisive volumes such as Small Differences (1988) and The Irish Diaspora: A Primer (1993) – have challenged the belief that Irish emigrants were, in Yeats’s phrase, ‘maimed from the start’.

Moreover, much of the documentation cited in Emigrants and Exiles was perfectly consistent with the utilitarian view of emigrant performance, recording positive and pragmatic responses to the challenge of survival in America. Even Miller’s critics owe him an irredeemable debt for locating and quoting thousands of personal letters and memoirs, so defining much of the raw material for their own studies. Yet the very scope and intricacy of Emigrants and Exiles precluded systematic use of this hoard of personal testimony, which could only be quoted in snippets with minimal biographical or local context."

This article looks at Kerby Miller's book Emigrants & Exiles, justly admired as the most erudite, humane, and wide-ranging study of the Irish in North America, a dauntingly vast subject.