Divergent paths

Family histories of Irish emigrants in Britain, 1820–1920

Author: John Herson

This book is unique in adopting a family history approach to Irish migration in nineteenth century Britain. Historians of the Irish in Britain have almost totally ignored the family dimension, but this study shows that the family was central to Irish peoples’ lives and experiences. It was the major factor influencing the life choices and identity of the migrants and their descendants. The book documents for the first time a representative sample of Irish immigrant families and uses the techniques of family and digital history to explore their long-term fate. To do this it examines the Irish in Stafford in the West Midlands, a town that was a microcosm of the broader Irish experience in England.

Central to the book is a unique body of evidence about the lives of ordinary families. They were united by their Irish ethnicity and by living in the same town, but there the similarity ended. In the long term they diverged in different directions. Many families integrated into the local population, but others ultimately moved away whilst some simply died out. The case studies explore the reasons why the fate of these families proved to be so varied.

The book reveals a fascinating picture of family life and gender relations in nineteenth-century England. Its provocative conclusions will stimulate debate amongst scholars of Irish history, genealogists, historians of the family and social historians generally. The book also offers some valuable historical parallels to the lives of contemporary immigrant families in Britain.

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‘In this remarkable book, the author gives colour and life to this non-descript place, and voice to generations of the type of people that do not ordinarily feature in history writing. A micro-study of 22 out of a total of 206 Irish families who settled in Stafford in 1820-1920, what emerges from this collective family biography is unlike anything else in the canon of Irish migrant studies...The depth of research on show here is, at times, extraordinary.'
Ciaran O'Neill, Trinity College Dublin
Economic History Review, 69,2
May 2016

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