Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Book Review, McCarthy, Scottishness and Irishness in New Zealand since 1840

This Book Review - or a version of it - will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies.

McCarthy, A. (2011). Scottishness and Irishness in New Zealand since 1840. Manchester University Press, 240p.

We take into our hands a new book by Angela McCarthy, aware that there is already a body of work in place.  Amongst my favourites, amongst the published articles, is the 2001, ‘ ”A good idea of colonial life": personal letters and Irish migration to New Zealand’, which firmly laid ground rules.  New Zealand was going to study its migrants’ letters, and was going to contribute to our better understanding – and better use – of the Emigrant Letter elsewhere.  As for books, my favourite is the 2005 Irish migrants in New Zealand, 1840-1937: 'the desired haven', which should be better known to scholars of the Irish Emigrant Letter.  That book explores its letter collections using the ground rules – again, ground rules – of David Fitzpatrick.  And it bravely shapes its Thematic Index alongside that of Fitzpatrick’s Oceans of Consolation.  Since I am especially interested in how knowledge is created and shaped, the Diaspora Studies geek in me always enjoys Angela McCarthy’s literature reviews.

In tandem with such studies of Irish settlement in New Zealand there has appeared a sequence of articles studying Scottish settlement and letters, and a book which combined perceptions, the 2007 Personal Narratives of Irish and Scottish Migration, 1921-65:'For Spirit and Adventure'.  I should pedantically make the point that it is now easily possible to track the influence of all these works using online resources like Google Scholar and JSTOR – and if we are going to theorise about ‘the Irish’ and the Emigrant Letter, New Zealand will not be ignored.

We are therefore looking at scholarship about, cumulatively, two emigrant groups, the Scots and the Irish, and scholarship which often studies them in a comparative manner.  Since most statements about ‘the Irish’ are disguised comparisons, this approach is valuable.  And this approach is rare – partly for almost geo-political reasons, and here I would include the politics of academic careers.  Communities themselves are interested in difference – to track the real life effects of prejudice, or as a way of shaping a distinctive identity, or as part of generation control systems.  This new book by Angela McCarthy is about identities, Scottishness and Irishness.  It is thus an exploration of repertoires of identity, which – I have pointed out elsewhere – mostly coalesce around leisure activities.

There are obvious dangers, for the writer and for the reader.  The specialist reader is inclined to read with most attention the material about one specific group, and I must confess that that is what I did, at a first reading of Scottishness and Irishness.  This is, sort of, fair.  We see how the writer handles the material with which we are most familiar.  There are dangers with cumulative material about ‘Irishness’ - literature reviews can, over time, develop into a kind of shorthand.  Detail is lost, time and place, research discipline and methodology.  An inter-disciplinary approach must be critical.  Here, for example, Stivers (p17), is a study of alcohol use in the USA and American stereotypes – it is not a study of ‘the Irish’. 

A second, closer reading, truer to author’s intentions, took on the themed chapters, the matched Scottish and Irish detail – each chapter shaped by a knot in the research material and in background theory.  This sent me back to the literature on Scottish identity – see above, online resources – so that I could begin a better dialogue with the book.  There is no doubt that, at times, the book can be a bit programmatic – but after a while I found this to be a strength rather than a weakness.  The geek in me sees this book as the literature review, writ large.  And I am struck, as I read the material about the Scottish identity alongside the Irish, not by difference, but how similar the two groups are.  Both groups move from one little archipelago in the northern hemisphere to another little archipelago in the south – and, for the most part, entirely within the structures, economic, control, patronage, of the British Empire and its successor organisations.

It is always possible to find a difference, of course – but is it, to coin a phrase, a difference that makes a difference?  One difference that McCarthy does highlight is that whilst Irish societies in New Zealand frequently articulated political aims, Scottish societies were predominantly cultural (p 142).  In our own time, when there is a restored and active Scottish Parliament – and, soon, a referendum on Scottish independence – this certainly makes us pause.  We are certainly looking at matched control systems here.  And the detail of the ways in which the Scots of New Zealand ‘forged’ – to use Linda Colley’s word – a cultural identity are revealing.  Look, for example, at the Scottish use of Robert Burns (p140) – there is no matching Irish use of Thomas Moore.  In another part of my working life, the study of song, I look at Burns and Moore as models for nineteenth century lyricists.  When it comes to repertoires of identity some bits of the possible repertoire simply work better than others.  In the new country, in the new communities, selection processes take place.  Yes there will be discussion of authenticity, but there will also be a willingness to invent tradition, as the need arises.

Another way into McCarthy’s material is to explore gaps and absences.  If we were to indulge a typical focus group study of Irish identity, discussion of violence would loom large – particularly a willingness to use violence for political ends.  This is how we were seen in the world, and still are, to a certain extent.  Lee and Casey (2006), the standard work on ‘Making the Irish American’ – ‘making’, not ‘forging’ – must pause to give Kevin Kenny a chapter to explore that very issue.  And this makes discussion with our colleagues in the Armenian or the Basque Diaspora so… productive.  There is very little about this part of the repertoire in McCarthy’s book, but the author is, of course, aware of debates – there is discussion of the 1988 movie, The Grasscutter, a standard thriller in which a violent secret organisation intrudes into the idyll.  But in that case the secret organisation is Irish Protestant and loyalist.  Mostly we see the Irish and the Scots behaving like a standard subaltern group within the British Empire – if anything McCarthy’ selected quotations give an impression of Irish unwillingness to engage in violence.

So, a book that makes us work hard, and makes us think – especially when we place it alongside wider study of diaspora.  For this we give thanks.

Patrick O’Sullivan


No comments:

Post a Comment