David Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Adam Tate
Clayton State University

David Emmons’ fascinating Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910 argues that the significant, but little-known, Irish Catholic immigration to the American West reveals the true, rather than mythic, character of the West as a place of ethnic diversity and industrial capitalism (1). The strength of Emmons’ book lies in how he tells this story. Due to the Great Famine, one million Irish died and two million more left Ireland, in their minds as “exiles,” to find new homes (8-9).  By 1910 five million Irish people had come to the United States (1). Emmons attempts to determine the impact of Irish migration in the American West, but faces two challenges. On the one hand, he could study the Irish immigrants as minor players in the American tale of western migration. The Irish then would become mere participants in a larger process. On the other hand, he could study the Irish from within, as communities seeking economic opportunities. The first approach risks losing the agency of the Irish immigrants while the second might misinterpret the Irish experience by missing the broader context (11). Emmons deals with the problem by taking both approaches. He looks at the interior life of the Irish immigrant communities as well as the broader American context in which they operated. This requires a tremendous amount of research and mastery of several sub-genres of American historiography. Emmons succeeds admirably.

Emmons uses the image of a pale—“an enclosure bound by a line that could be drawn on a map”—to discuss both the cultural differences between Catholic Irish and Americans and the American ethos of the West(3). Those within the pale wished to extend the borders while those outside of the pale pushed back (4). The tension was constant. In terms of culture, Irish folkways, shaped primarily by Catholicism, clashed with the dominant American folkways, inherited and developed from British Protestant originas (see David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 1989). Emmons maintains that “what truly held Britain together was not Protestantism but the intense and abiding hatred of Catholicism” (45). Colonial expansion put British settlers face-to-face with the Catholic “Other,” as well as numerous candidates for outsider status: Native Americans, Africans, and African-Americans.  Americans—by which Emmons seems to mean Yankee, Anglo-Saxon Protestants—connected Catholic Irish to other hated groups as objects of scorn and exploitation. But just as Britons formed an identity based on the fact that they were non-Irish Protestants, Catholic Irish formed an identity based on Catholicism and Irishness. This not only ensured constant hostility between the groups but also meant that the Irish would not desire to assimilate (see 45–48).

Emmons extends his argument about the inherent tension between Irish and Britons to counter the charge of scholars who contend that the Irish used race and racism against African-Americans in order to assimilate into the American mainstream. The latter contention assumes both that the Irish desired assimilation and could actually be assimilated.  Emmons counters that racial distinctions alone could not effect Irish assimilation, because their persistent Catholicism was the major obstacle to their acceptance in American society (178). He acknowledges that many Irish absorbed American racist attitudes, but denies a grand scheme by the Irish to use race to assimilate (6, 52, 152–153, 320–21). 

In the dominant American view, Emmons demonstrates, the Catholic Irish were not supposed to move west. The West was a place where Protestant Americans would be delivered “from the past” and establish American individualism in its purest form (5, 34–35, 126–127). Emmons tackles the antebellum nativist literature that portrayed the West as a Protestant homeland threatened by both southern slaveholders and Irish Catholics. Northern nativists, many of whom filled the ranks of the antislavery Republican Party, linked southern slaveholding and Irish Catholicism as dual forms of servitude (54–58, also 80–82). Fervent Protestant nativists sought to convert the Irish to Protestantism and American culture, but when they resisted, he notes, nativists claimed that the Irish “were genetically as well as culturally outlandish and depraved” (60). The Irish were, in a sense, in worse condition than enslaved blacks. “The slaves of the South, at least, wanted to be free," Emmons explains; "The slaves of Rome did not” (60). Once the campaign against slavery had been won, the campaign to construct the West along the parameters staked out by nativists—without Catholics—continued in earnest. Americans created more myths about the Irish, comparing them to Indians, or “savages,” in the parlance of the nineteenth century (138–152). “Reform elements in America,” Emmons tells us, “were never able to shed their reflexive anti-Catholicism” (70).  The Irish remained “‘beyond the pale’”(73).

Despite tremendous cultural opposition to their presence, the Irish moved west in large numbers and became part of the “working classes” (292).  Emmons puts it memorably: “The Irish in America was a story of the shovelers amid the conquistadors” (337). He devotes the second part of his book to examining Irish communities in the West. He finds that “the Irish, in wildly disproportionate numbers, were the instruments of America’s western advance” (213). For example, “In 1870 Irish immigrants made up almost a quarter of the frontier army . . . and more than 60 percent of its foreign-born” (213). Emmons provides helpful graphs and statistics to support his claims. He looks at specific Irish communities in Montana, Iowa, and California to chart Irish influence. He notes that the Irish tended to move in groups or found Irish “colonies” where there was a priest, preferably an Irish priest, to serve the community (238–239, 249, 279). He spends some time on Irish miners and addresses questions about labor radicalism. Emmons concludes that Irish miners often did not join other labor radicals in strikes because they sent a good part of their wages back to Ireland to support family and could not afford work stoppages (290–308). Western Irish valued economic security and thus sought “government jobs” as soldiers or policemen and jobs that were more insulated from market fluctuations (223–225, 248–249). The Irish built their own insular communities in the West not only to pursue and protect the values they cherished but also because they were unwanted by Protestant Americans (314, 334–335).

Emmons concludes that the Irish “exposed” the “myth of what Protestant America was supposed to be” (342). Hardly the site of triumphant Protestant egalitarianism and individualism, the West was a place of religious and ethnic diversity, large disparities of wealth, and corporate capitalism. By promoting a different ethic—a Catholic one—the Irish functioned as an oppositionist tradition in the country. The irony, of course, was that the cultural outsiders shaped in significant ways the history of the region in which they were never supposed to be present. Perhaps, that was their victory. 

Emmons’ book is full of astute insights.  A short review cannot do justice to his many digressions and historiographical comments (see especially his discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, 99–106). The book reflects years of research on the topic. Though at times longwinded, it is a pleasure to read.           

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