Book review: The Invisible Irish by Rankin Sherling

The Invisible Irish by Rankin Sherling
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Study reveals clergy’s link to mass migration, writes Dean Jobb

The Invisible Irish: Finding Protestants in the Nineteenth Century Migrations to America by Rankin Sherling | McGill-Queen’s University Press, 368pp, £84

It’s one of the loose ends of Scots-Irish history: how many Irish Protestants emigrated to the United States in the 19th century, and where did they settle? There’s no simple answer, because the records that could establish the scope of this mass migration – tens of thousands of people over the course of the century – simply do not exist. Britain and the US did not begin to keep detailed migration records until the mid-1800s and the US census did not record religious affiliation.

“The one single historical databank that could possibly reveal the parameters of Irish Protestant immigration in the 19th-century United States cannot do so,” historian Rankin Sherling notes, “because the right questions were not asked.”

As a result, Irish Protestants – most descendants of 17th-century Plantation Scots Presbyterians – have become the “invisible Irish” of the title, lost in the exodus of Irish Catholics to America in the 1800s, particularly during the Great Famine. Sherling, a professor of history at Marion Military Institute in Alabama, came up with an ingenious approach to solve this puzzle: follow the clerics.

Irish Presbyterians were a tight-knit community; life revolved around the church and its clergy. A rigid social hierarchy sandwiched them between the adherents of the established Church of Ireland and the majority Catholic population. Faced with the threat of government persecution and sectarian violence, they turned inward. And this church-centric community persisted when members moved to America. “For the Irish Presbyterian community (in Ireland and America),” Sherling writes, “the church was central, helping to orient and organise their lives.”

This feature of Irish Presbyterianism gave Sherling his “ah-ha” moment. If he could not track the community as a whole, he would trace the hundreds of Presbyterian clergymen (most trained in Glasgow) who migrated to America to tend to New World congregations. He assembled clerical records and compiled a near-complete database of ministers who migrated to America from 1683 to 1901, hypothesising that trends in clerical migration mirror those for Presbyterians as a whole.

This is scholarly history and the charts, tables and number-crunching at the heart of the book cannot convey the human stories of tragedy, endurance and survival that played out as Ireland’s Protestants set out in search of a better life. But patient readers – particularly those with Protestant-Irish roots (including this reviewer) will glean insights into Irish Presbyterianism, the role of the clergy and the forces behind this overlooked migration. Sherling’s hard slog through the data has produced some surprising results. Most migrating ministers gravitated to Pennsylvania and New York. And the number of clerics relocating to America spiked in the 1840s; if his premise holds and this reflects a corresponding influx of Protestant immigrants, it shows the extent to which the horrors of the Great Famine were visited on Catholics and Protestants alike. While he concedes more studies are needed to confirm his conclusions, one piece of the Irish diaspora puzzle is no longer invisible. n

• Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the stranger-than-fiction story of a brazen con man in 1920s Chicago, teaches creative nonfiction and journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His website is www.deanjobb.com

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