The Invisible Irish

Finding Protestants in the Nineteenth-Century Migrations to America

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Rankin Sherling
McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion
  • Chicago, IL: 
    McGill-Queen's University Press
    , January
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For those of us from Protestant Irish and Northern Irish families and communities, Rankin Sherling’s work on the inclusion of Protestants within the nineteenth century Irish diaspora and more general migration trends has been long awaited and is most welcome. The story of our ancestors, within the wider tale, has been untold for so long we have often wondered if it would forever be silenced and forgotten in deference to the more dominant focus on Irish Catholics. It is important to state, however, that The Invisible Irish does not concern itself with those stories per se: apart from two obituaries (those of the Rev. John McNulty and the Rev. James Gubby, which occur late in the text, 214-15) the journeys, lives, and experiences of individuals and families are not detailed. The Invisible Irish instead focuses on the keystone in methods that will, eventually, enable those stories and lives to be illuminated within the wider collection of writing on Irish experiences and the Irish diaspora. As such, this book should be required in all Irish studies/histories courses and any university course that teaches methodologies in Irish studies, sociology, history, or religious studies from undergraduate onwards.

The Invisible Irish begins by detailing the problems that have occurred within research and scholarship that have resulted in almost no inclusion of Protestant Irish within the migration after 1775. Sherling notes that: “Irish Presbyterian migration in the eighteenth century has long been one of the most popular fields of study in American history. Yet, while the migration of Irish Presbyterians did not stop after 1800—in fact it almost certainly increased—almost no one has studied the phenomenon after 1800. Those rare historians who have done so seem unable to get any further than about 1815” (4).

Part of the problem, we are told, stems from the rupture of the American Revolution, scholarly parameters that remained unchallenged for too long, and a lack of reliable data combined with “a confusion and contest over Irish identity, and specifically how Protestants fit into that identity” (11). Furthermore, 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.

Sherling’s “break”in finding reliable data to draw up a larger picture of Irish Protestant migration came when he realized that Presbyterian clerics had their migration journeys recorded and that those records were preserved. From the data on the clerics (defined on page 19 as ordained ministers, licensed minsters not yet ordained, and divinity students) a mirroring of general data emerges that allows for an understanding of Presbyterian Irish migration during the nineteenth century. This is detailed in the introduction and becomes significant in the data presented from page 110 onwards, with particular emphasis on the methodology and the wider mirroring pattern being found in chapter 8 in which Sherling concludes that the numbers of nineteenth century Irish Presbyterian migrants may have surpassed their eighteenth century counterparts. This is not a surprising finding, given that the nineteenth century saw the onslaught and desire to get away from an Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger / The Great Famine), but it is a signifcant finding since it demonstrates the level of suffering of many Protestant Irish, something all too often neglected in literature on the subject (218-29). Furthermore, in addition to finding data on the migration of clergy, Sherling also uncovers individual stories and lives that rub against what he terms “blanket views” about Protestants in Ireland (212). For example, he profers the lives of Rev. David Bell and Rev. John Hall, who both served in rural areas hit the hardest by the potato blight, noting that they stayed there throughout an Gorta Mór and thus raised questions over the truthfulness of the depiction of Protestant clergy and missionaries in such areas now being “viewed as unscruplous, anti-Catholic proselytizers, infamously offering soup to dying and desperate Caholics in exchange for a promise to convert to Protestanism” (212).

Chapter 2, “A Goverment Unto Itself: Conflict, Theology and Presbyterianism in Ireland,” is not only a detailed account of the role and influence of the Prebyterian church in Irish communities, but a helpful drawing out of how a religious institution can form a quasi-national society/identity, especially in areas under colonial rule (as I would argue Ireland was) and in bitter armed conflict. The careful detailing also lends credence to Sherling’s idea that following the clergy is a useful method for identifying the Protestant migration as they would have developed similar standing and role in the new world where they settled and eventually became Irish-American. However, it also draws attention to an area in which the information in The Invisible Irish is somewhat less well developed: the impact of the clergy migration on those left behind. While Sherling cannot, and is not expected to, answer everything, for those of us who are Northern Irish or Irish there is also a sense of wanting to know who followed the clergy in their migration and who was left behind and for what reasons? Sherling points to the need for more work on the Irish Protestant migration writ large, so hopefully this book will be a key stepping stone in finding future answers to those questions.

There are a few minor inaccuracies within the text, as there are in most (for example anomalies in the tables on pages 234-40 and their accompanying narrative). Despite its title, this book deals only with Presbyterians and not Protestants as a whole, but even there, it does not always draw out the myraid of differences that existed among Irish Presbyterians, nor make it entirely clear how they were different (and why) from Scottish Presbyterians, for example. While this may seem a minor point, given the history of Ireland and the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, a greater nuancing of religious groups (and political, paramilitary, and sectarian groups) is needed in writings about them if we are to avoid “blanket views” and a repeating of tropes from the past that have not been helpful. Overall, though, this is a book with much to commend itself and I am looking forward to sharing it with my students and using it in my own research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Francis Stewart is Lecturer in Critical Religion at the University of Stirling.

Date of Review: 
May 27, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rankin Sherling is assistant professor of history at Marion Military Institute.


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