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The Irish Diaspora and the Creation of an Irish-American Heritage

Stephen A. Brighton

Stephen A. Brighton (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Maryland) has conducted archaeological fieldwork and historical research into the material conditions of daily life in rural society during the early modern history of Ireland from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth-century. Dr. Brighton’s research in Ireland seeks to identify and interpret the materialization of heritage creation during stressful economic and social conditions due to the injustices of colonialism, famine, and forced international dispersal of a large percentage of the Irish population.

Click here to read about Professor Brighton's new project in Texas, MD.


The Irish Diaspora forms much of the modern history of Ireland. The beginning of the seventeenth century marks the establishment of English rule in Ireland and Protestant Ascendancy. As a colony, the indigenous Irish Catholic majority was forced to be subordinate to an immigrant Protestant minority. Forced resettlement of Irish Catholics included both relocation to the barren bogs lands west of the Shannon River and transportation to the West Indies. This marked the first large-scale international movement that continued throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century.

The Great Starvation (or An Ghorta Mor) (1845-1852) represents the watershed for Irish dispersal. By the time of the Famine, a minority of the population controlled the rural landscape. Access to and control of land created a complex web of socio-economic relations and social position. Members of the landowning class were at the top of the socio-economic structure and controlled most of the rural Irish landscape. The rural poor class formed the largest numbers of the Irish population and held the least amount of land. It was the class of rural poor that was affected by the Great Famine. At that time between 1 and 1.5 million people were compelled to leave because of famine, disease, and eviction. Evictions of the rural poor were commonplace during the Famine. Clearances were nation-wide. To the landowning class evictions and assisted emigration schemes were a cheap alternative to rid estates of what was considered a redundant population. The Famine period and the decades following is time period in Irish history mark the largest global dispersal within the totality of the Irish Diaspora and had greatest impact on the creation of an Irish heritage of injustice and exile.


Archaeological fieldwork includes work County Sligo and centered on a single-component cabin site, probably occupied from c. 1790 to c. 1850. The collection of 2,320 domestic artifacts provides a unique view of rural material culture in Sligo during the early nineteenth century. Other excavations include demolished stone cabins in the townland of Ballykilcline, County Roscommon. Entire clusters of families were violently evicted from this area between 1847 and 1848. The collection includes sponge-decorated and transfer-printed fine earthenware ceramics, several other kinds of ceramics, glass fragments from bottles and tumblers, buttons, thimbles, white clay smoking pipes, and iron agricultural tools. This collection represents an important addition to the growing database of 19th-century domestic material from rural Ireland.

The material culture from Ireland is analyzed and interpreted in conjunction with the social histories and material culture from Irish-immigrant communities in Manhattan, Paterson, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in order to understand what impact the Irish diasporic experience had on the creation and expression of an Irish, and subsequently Irish-America heritage. At present, Stephen A. Brighton is currently studying the materialization of a transnational Irish-American heritage. This transnational heritage formed through inter-ethnic interaction of poor immigrant neighborhoods, as well as the experience of being marginalized as being the “foreign other.” The study of Irish Diaspora is vital to understanding contemporary concepts of heritage both in Ireland and throughout the world, as well as being used as a dynamic analytical concept in understanding the processes of creating and recreating heritage that seeks to move away from facile notions of assimilation and develop narratives on experiences of racism, discrimination, and prejudice in America.

Today, Irish historians debate whether the heritage of Irish dispersal should be considered a diaspora. Arguments stem from how Irish history should be interpreted in the present, because it is profoundly embedded in contemporary social and political issues, any overarching methodology to research what is obviously a diasporic heritage is complicated by contemporary conflicts and issues between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and England. The lack of critical focus on the underpinnings of modern Irish history creates a sterilized interpretation of a contentious and dynamic time in Ireland’s history, as well as its impact throughout the world. To further delineate the study of the Irish Diaspora there is a need for a transnational study acknowledging socio-cultural diversity in the Irish population emigrating in concert with the concept of lived experiences of colonialism and marginalization through time and space. Ireland’s current social and political issues and entanglements have prevented this type of research.

The vast amount of literature spanning four hundred years of Irish migration demonstrates that there is no consensus as to how to categorize, organize, or even approach the subject of Irish dispersal worldwide. Stephen A. Brighton’s interest rests on creating an overarching theoretical framework bringing together the complex history of Irish colonialism and the international movement of the diverse religious and economic groups as well as understanding experiences of social and economic inequality, extreme poverty, and of the lack of agency or choice various groups had in deciding whether to stay or leave Ireland.


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