Review of Sophie Cooper’s Forging Identities in the Irish World: Melbourne and Chicago, c. 1830-1922 by Martin Walsh

Review of Sophie Cooper, Forging Identities in the Irish World: Melbourne and Chicago, c. 1830 – 1922

Much research and study has been devoted to understanding how the Irish diaspora fitted into their new communities abroad, but also how they remained connected to the land of their birth. Dr Sophie Cooper seeks to add to this growing canon of literature in her new book Forging Identities in the Irish World: Melbourne and Chicago, c. 1830 – 1922. The focus of her work, she explains, is on ‘the ways that Irish communities encouraged and sustained a collective sense of connection to an idea of ‘Ireland’ and a wider Irish Diaspora’ in the cities of Melbourne and Chicago (p. 1). What differentiates this research from previous studies is the concept of ‘foundational identity’. It is the idea of how emigrants consciously and unconsciously or passively and actively engaged with ethnic identity in their new communities. Most significantly of all, this study peels back the historical narrative to the beginning of ‘white settlement’ in both cities and carries it forward to Irish independence. In this way it allows us to track changes in Irish identities in both cities and to see if they mirror events happening in Ireland. 

Cooper’s transnational study is an ambitious undertaking which is explored through the themes of ethnic and religious associational culture, educational provision, nationalism, and public performance. These themes are investigated through six chapters: Melbourne and Chicago: An introduction; Building bonds: Secular club life; Church and Club; Religious Parish Life; Sisters and schooling; Public and religious education; Different fighting styles: Political Nationalism; St Patrick’s Day and the public performance of identity. Collectively, the author ‘seeks to understand the differing but equally important roles of Irish men and women in shaping Irish community life abroad’ (P. 1). As she notes herself, the role played by men in shaping Irish identity aboard has been extensively researched. However, the part played by women in shaping Irish identity abroad is under researched and a comparison between men and women has not been undertaken to date. This book seeks to address this imbalance in the historiography (p. 2). 

Comparative studies can often be complicated by factors that affect one country or city and not the other. For example, the Chicago fire of 1871 only impacted Chicagoans. Through the extensive use of primary sources – religious and diocesan collections, state and local archives, online sources, and newspaper collections from Dublin, Melbourne and Chicago – Cooper has been able to navigate these difficulties and demonstrate how the Irish formed a locus of identity that adapted to the expansion of each city. This is best demonstrated in the concluding chapter where Cooper provides the example of an Irish person living in Melbourne who sent their child to a Catholic school, went to mass in St Francis Catholic Church, and at the same time ‘may have bought groceries from an Italian, chatted to a Scot on the tram, or shopped for herbs in Chinatown…and probably dressed in clothes made in the mills in Lancashire [England]’ (p. 227). In other words, the world around them was becoming globalised and yet they remained rooted within their own Irish identity which acted as a shield to protect them from change.

Dr Cooper has amply demonstrated in her study how the themes discussed above created foundational identity at a much earlier point in history than we would have hitherto believed. Thanks in part to the assiduous use of the sources uncovered, this book is an engaging and thought-provoking contribution to the historiography of the Irish diaspora. In particular, I was impressed with her chapter on female religious and the education of Irish-born children. This chapter is where the book excels. Cooper clearly demonstrates that nuns were responsible for laying the foundations for schooling in Melbourne and Chicago. The arrival of nuns in both cities coincided with the influx of Irish emigrants. They hastily arranged school facilities for Irish emigrant children and ensured that they received an education focused on their Irish heritage. Thus, ensuring that these children, as adults, did not forget their Irish identity. While there is reference to lay-women and their role in organising dances and fundraising for Irish causes it is in the context of a male-dominated world. I would have liked to have seen references to lay-women teased out a little bit more. For example, did middle-class women in their own right organise fundraising events through drawing room meetings and other such events? What role did working-class women play in shaping Irish identity? Perhaps they did not play, or more accurately were not allowed to play, an active role in Melbourne and Chicago society in what was a male-dominated world? 

This does not distract in any way from what is a comprehensive account of the development of ‘foundational identity’ in both Melbourne and Chicago. This book should be a core reading for those interested in or studying the Irish diaspora and for those who want to understand how they maintained an allegiance to their new community whilst being firmly rooted to the Irish identity they had left behind.

Dr Martin Walsh FRHistS is currently working at the University of Limerick where he is the Project Officer for the University of Limerick Oral History Project. His research is focused on the transnational emigration/migration of Irish and English women. He is particularly interested in understanding the moral panic caused by the movement of women through the urban space in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Martin is currently writing a social history of the University of Limerick, which was commissioned by the university as part of its UL50 commemorations.