Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Law of Serendipitous Convergences and Irish Emigration to Everywhere

A number of years ago, when I devised the eponymously named “Wolfgang’s Law of Serendipitous Convergences”, it referred mostly to the fact that whenever I attempted to turn into my driveway from the US highway on which my house was located, there would inevitably be that very rare and only occasional bicyclist leisurely pedaling on the sidewalk across my driveway, thus causing me to wait until he/she had passed. 

This would, in turn, cause me to hope that the 18 wheeler behind me had the good sense to notice (a.) the village’s 30 MPH speed limit and (b.) my turn signal and brake lights.

Had I arrived at my driveway 15 seconds earlier or later, there would have been no issue.   

And yes, statistically, this bicyclist thing doesn’t happen regularly, but, being human, I tend to remember those times when it DOES happen.

The very fact that I’m writing this suggests that – so far – everything has been working out.  However, lately I’ve noticed that the young folks driving behind me while talking on their cellphones (illegal in NYS) are a whole lot less attentive that the folks who drive the big rigs. Thus, things may change soon.

Still, that bit about traffic and bicycles is not really the point of today’s post.

It is, however, about “Wolfgang’s Law of Serendipitous Convergences.”   

So, here we go.

Three days ago, lots of U.S. cities, large and small, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with parades and all manner of silly festivities.  People dressed up in lots of silly green clothes, dyed their hair a silly green, drank silly green beer, wore silly green hats and proclaimed their faux Irishness – even if only for the day.  Over the years, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have become more and more alcohol-centric and raucous – a kind of sanctioned Mardi Gras in the middle of Lent – and less and less about the celebration of Irish culture and heritage.

But that’s not the issue, either.  Here’s the whole point about convergences:

A few days ago, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, there was a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the high number of “hidden” Francophone (i.e., French-speaking) Irish in the Province of Quebec. Current estimates suggest that 40% or more of all Quebec residents have some Irish roots. Of course, most Quebecers already know about this little twist of history, but outside of the province, it’s a well-kept secret. 

The Irish have been coming down the St. Lawrence River in search of land and wives since colonial times.  A large number of Irish settled in Quebec in the 1830s and 1840s, with some families occasionally spilling over into northern New York and northern Vermont.  Those that stayed in Lower Canada, as it was called, found Catholic French-Canadian wives and settled down on farms to raise large Catholic Irish-French-Canadian families.  Blue-eyed, red-headed and blond French-speaking farmers and their wives – all with Irish surnames - soon spread across the St. Lawrence valley and beyond. 

In fact, Montreal has had a St. Patrick’s Day parade every year since 1823.  Not a bad showing for one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.

When I was at university in Montreal decades ago, the editor of the major French daily newspaper – Le Devoir – was an impressive politically astute gentleman by the name of Claude Ryan.  Ryan, whose first language was French and who considered himself a French-Canadian, was a descendant of a long line of “Irish” French-Canadians.

But wait…there’s more!

A few days later, my Law of Serendipitous Convergences kicked in.  I got an email from a colleague in Ireland (who is a Spaniard by birth) reminding me that it was time to renew my membership in SILAS

Whatever is SILAS, you ask?

SILAS is the acronym for the Society for Irish Latin American Studies – a scholarly organization that publishes a journal about the Irish diaspora in Spanish and Portuguese speaking parts of South America and the Caribbean.  SILAS has been documenting this migration to South America for a while now, and has built a rather remarkable database of Famine-era Irish immigrants to Argentina, for example.

So that serendipitous convergence of the newspaper story from Toronto and the email from Ireland got me thinking again about the 19th century Irish diaspora and how not every Irish emigrant came to the United States.

When we do research, we tend to take a singular point of view.  For example, when we study the 19th century Irish migration here in the United States, we tend to focus our research on those folks who came and settled in the communities in which we ourselves had ancestors.  We study the Irish in Albany, the Irish in Brooklyn, the Irish in Chicago, the Irish in Omaha and so on, so it looks like the Irish all left Ireland for America. 

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it misses a basic point about migration research.

People migrate to lots of different places for lots of different reasons. Large extended Irish families, migrating out of Ireland over several decades during the 19th century, sent members to Canada, Scotland, England, Australia, continental Europe and, of course, to North and South America. Brothers sought out sisters and nephews sought out uncles all over the world.  More importantly, Irish immigrants quickly assimilated into the cultures into which they moved.  They learned the language and the traditions of the host country.

If we ignore this fact, we miss the possibility of discovering those forgotten cousins and their non-English-speaking families.  For example, the Shanley family members who settled in Argentina in the 1840s to work in the cattle industry ( all listed in the SILAS database) came from County Longford, possibly not far from the area where my great-great grandfather (who came to New York State) was born.  The likelihood of locating Spanish-speaking very distant cousins in Argentina is actually statistically rather high for people like me with roots in the Irish Midland counties, since those are the very people who left Ireland for Argentina.

Without investigating the SILAS website years ago and subsequently joining and supporting the organization, I may never have thought of the possibility of a distant connection in Latin America.

It’s important to remember that research problems can often be solved by changing the position where you’re standing and looking around in other, less obvious directions. 

And as I learned years ago, what you see – and therefore what you discover – depends largely upon where you stand and where you look.  Oh, and by the way, the SILAS database above may be members-only in the near future, so you may want to check it out soon.  

Better yet, join us!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much of reminding us of how we tend to over simplify migration patterns. I am the proud grandmother of two grandsons whose father came to Ohio by way of Venezuela and was the son of Hungarian defectors. Combine that with my diverse ancestry and I guess we can best call them Americans.