Writing American Immigration History: Notes on an Essay

The border wall at Nogales

The border at Nogales, Arizona / Sonora (May 2019). Photo by Sara Goek.

I recently wrote a bibliographic essay titled “Writing American Immigration History” for Choice, a book review publication for academic libraries (read it here for free). I started it while Trump shut down the federal government over funding his border wall and finished when he declared a national emergency to try to get that funding. It’s an interesting time to be an immigration historian.

The task: select about 50 books in the field and write a 5,000-word narrative that cites and connects them all. As many writing or teaching projects do, this prompted me to catch up on the new literature in the field and to extend my familiarity beyond my primary research areas. It proved especially challenging at a time of burgeoning scholarship in the field, with many new academic books as well as articles and op-eds providing historical context for current events.

I knew from the start that I wanted, and needed, to do something different than the excellent #ImmigrationSyllabus. I had to not only select good sources, but to explain why and organize them into a coherent narrative. The Immigration Syllabus is organized chronologically into topical “weeks.” I decided that my primary narrative would be not the history of immigration, but the historiography – in other words, the history of immigration history. The way in which the writing of that history has evolved over time itself constitutes a historical phenomenon.

As I selected texts to include, I sought input from other historians in an open call here and on social media. Most responses came from people I know, but I did get a couple suggestions from others whom I’ve never met. I realized after the fact that my work with academic librarians in a membership association had influenced that decision. In that setting sharing work for feedback is something I do all the time, but I’m not sure it’s something I would’ve done in such a public forum previously. Librarians have many quirks (one of which is a dislike of non-librarians commenting on their quirks, so I won’t specify further!) and among them is a genuine tendency towards collaboration and openness. Coming from a field where work tends more towards the individual and competitive, that attitude has been a welcome revelation.

No doubt there will be historians who criticize this essay for not including the book they think is more important. I can’t please everyone, nor could I include every text in an essay with established parameters. Since completing the essay, I have heard of three more new books that I would have liked to include. As with all the scholarship referenced in the essay, the end result represents my particular perspective and my own time.

I decided after the fact that it would be interesting to analyze the composition of the bibliography. It includes 60 items, 58 of which are discrete publications. Monographs dominate – unsurprisingly – with a few multi-author and multi-editor works. Articles are beyond the scope of this assignment, though I did squeeze one in. The works were published between 1951 and 2019, skewing towards the more recent end of the timeline. (Click on the chart for an interactive version.)

While recognizing that gender binaries are problematic, nonetheless examining the gender breakdown is interesting. History remains a male-dominated field. Approximately 45% of new Ph.D. graduates are women, but that percentage used to be much lower. I don’t know if a standard methodology for analyzing bibliographies by gender exists. For example, if an author appears twice, are they counted twice? How do you count multi-author works? I tried both methods. Counting each author each time they appear in the bibliography led to a breakdown of 53% male to 47% female among these works, while counting each unique author only once means a 55% male / 45% female breakdown.

Chart of works by year and gender

The gender balance has shifted over the last couple decades. Out of the 58 works here, half fall on either side of 2006. Those in the pre-2006 group have approximately a 2:1 male to female authorship ratio while post-2006 the ratio flips. Not only do women know history, but at least from where I sit, they’re engaged in some of the most exciting new work in the field.

 


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who gave me suggestions based on a draft list of sources (particularly Sophie Cooper, Gráinne McEvoy, Christian Nøkkentved, and Eric Smith). Special thanks to Luke Kirwan for being my go-to editor and proofreader since the good old days in Sheraton Court. And thanks to Bill Mickey and the staff at ACRL and Choice for the opportunity to write this piece.

Advertisements

Input Needed: Key Texts on American Immigration History

immigration history books

Fellow historians: I would like your input. I am writing a bibliographic essay on American immigration history (mid-nineteenth century to the present) for an audience of academic librarians. The basic assignment is to cover 50 books in 5,000 words. What follows is a draft list of 52 books, organized thematically into three categories. Note that the focus is monographs, not articles (though I may end up including a few of those).

Am I missing a book you consider crucial? What other text(s) would you include and why? If you would include another text, which one(s) from the current list would you leave out? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Historians: Conceptualizing Immigration

This section will outline trends in the historiography of American immigration, from Handlin to the present.

Bodnar, John, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985).

Daniels, Roger, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd edition (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).

Dinnerstein, Leonard & David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, 4th ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Donato, Katharine M. & Donna Gabaccia, Gender and International Migration from the Slavery Era to the Global Age (Russell Sage, 2015).

Gabaccia, Donna, Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Marinari, Maddalena, Madeline Y. Hsu & Maria Cristina Garcia (eds.), A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: US Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965 (Urbana, Chicago & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2019).

Molina, Natalia, How Race Is Made: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)

Reimers, David, Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People, (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Roediger, David R., Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1993).

Ueda, Reed (ed.), A Companion to American Immigration (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006).

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia (ed.), Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Americans: Controlling Immigration 

This section will focus on law, policy, and ideologies related to immigration and how those have evolved over time. 

Benton-Cohen, Kathleen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Bon Tempo, Carl J., Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Brown, Wendy, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

Cannato, Vincent. American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010).

Daniels, Roger, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).

Ettinger, Patrick, Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

Haines, David W., Safe Haven?: A History of Refugees in America (Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2010).
Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

Hirota, Hidetaka, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Kang, S. Deborah, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Law, Anna O., The Immigration Battle in American Courts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Lee, Erika & Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Luibhéid, Eithne, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

Lytle Hernandez, Kelly, Migra!: A History of the US Border Patrol (Oakland: University of California Press, 2010).

Ngai, Mae, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Schrag, Peter, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism (Berkeley: University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011).

St. John, Rachel, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013.

Immigrants: Lives, Cultures & Communities

Of the three sections, I had the most difficulty limiting the number of texts in this one. Overall it is intended to cover a broad range of ethnic and racial groups, geographies, and cultural practices. The texts represented here should be the definitive texts on their subject and/or representative of recent trends in scholarship on that subject. 

Barrett, James R., The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City (New York: Penguin Press, 2012).

Choate, Mark I., Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Diner, Hasia R., Roads Taken, The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015).

Gabaccia, Donna R., We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Gjerde, Jon, The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Gutiérrez, David G., Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Halter, Marilyn & Violet Showers Johnson, African & American: West Africans in Post-Civil Rights America (New York & London, New York University Press, 2014).

Hansen, Karen V., Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hsu, Madeline Y. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Kenny, Kevin, The American Irish: A History (Harlow, UK & New York: Longman, 2000).

Lee, Erika, The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Lee, Joseph & Marion R. Casey (eds.), Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States (New York: New York University Press, New York, 2006).

Lorenzkowski, Barbara, Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850-1914 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010).

McBee, Randy, Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States (New York & London: New York University Press, 2000).

Miller, Kerby A., Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Minian, Ana Raquel, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Sánchez, George J., Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Showers Johnson, Violet, The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900-1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Takaki, Ronald, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, revised edition (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1998).

Waters, Mary C. & Reed Ueda (eds.), The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Young, Elliott, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Zahra, Tara, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016).

 

Please share your thoughts in the comments below or contact me directly. Thank you!

In spite of the gains

The findings of a recent Pew Research survey on gender equality contain this observation: “In spite of the gains women have made in the labor force in recent decades, today’s young women are no less likely than older generations to say the country has more work to do in bringing about gender equality. And Millennial women are significantly more likely than Generation X, Baby Boomer or Silent Generation women to say that men have it easier than women these days.”

Among women, Millennials most likely to see advantages for men

If I’d had to guess in advance, I would have expected different results. 57% of women overall say the country hasn’t gone far enough in giving women equal rights, according to the survey. Why do a higher proportion of younger American women feel the least progress has been made? The recent outings of powerful men as serial sexual harassers and the devastating scale of #MeToo seem to prove how far we have to go. They vindicate the Millennials’ responses to this survey, though that’s far from a good thing. However, it still doesn’t explain the differences in opinion by age. What does? A hypothesis:

We were told it had been solved. We were told we could grow up to be whatever we wanted. We watched as women shattered glass ceilings to become Supreme Court justices, astronauts, and Oscar-winning film directors. We were told that progress was inevitable, that the gender pay gap would disappear, that we would have equal access to healthcare, that we had the right to jurisdiction over our own bodies. We were told we could have relationships based on mutual respect, consent, and shared responsibilities. We were told that within our lifetimes we would see a female president. We believed those things. We still hope one day they will be true.

And yet. Yet when we become artists, engineers, economists, or historians – not to mention hotel housekeepers – we find men who inhibit our advancement or place little value (monetary or otherwise) on our work. Yet we continue to be patronized, interrupted, harassed, assaulted. Yet we continue to be told we are biologically ‘different’ (read: inferior), too emotional, too bossy, too shrill, too ambitious. Yet we are told to smile, to be nice, to accommodate, to soothe men’s fragile egos, to ease their fear at the thought that they (horror of horrors) might have to share housework or defer to a female boss. Yet we do not see ourselves well represented in a popular culture that supposedly includes us. Yet we cannot move through public spaces without fear. Yet we have to argue for our very humanity, over and over and over again.

None of this is new. Many others have said it before, and more eloquently. Read Rebecca Solnit, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay. For that matter, it’s been said for centuries. Read historians Mary Beard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Alice Kessler-Harris.[1] But that’s exactly the point. Women have never been silent; we have been silenced.

At its most extreme silencing takes the form of violence, including rape and murder.[2] It also encompasses threats and trolling on social media. In these instances women who made their voices heard paid a high price for it. On an everyday level silencing tends to take the more mundane forms of comments that reduce women to body parts rather than acknowledging our character or the content of our speech. That speech gets interrupted or ignored entirely, when it’s even considered part of the conversation in the first place (see: ‘manels’). The end result is, as comedian Jo Brand recently spelled out – with admirable patience – to male BBC panelists, “for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

Not wanting to be worn down seems a reasonable request. Feminism is not, and never was, about women ‘replacing’ men or seizing power. It is about equality. That is literally the dictionary definition: belief in and advocacy for “the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” It is called feminism because women have for too long borne the burden of gender inequality. Feminism is about women having seats around the table and our voices being heard. Note that it’s a round table: More people need seats? Get more chairs and a bigger table. No one ends up on the floor.

Do men today have it easier? Yes. Is that an irredeemable privilege? No. But to add seats to the table we need awareness in the place of obliviousness. We, as a society, need to acknowledge the problem. We need to listen to women. We need to believe their stories. We need to do better. And for that we – men and women – need feminism. Bring on the next wave.

 

[1] There are many, many more fantastic female writers. Those listed here have all written extensively on the subject, far too many to itemize in a footnote: look them up and start reading. Another good place to start is the “Rape Culture Syllabus” put together by Laura Ciolkowski for Public Books: http://www.publicbooks.org/rape-culture-syllabus/

[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books, 2017). The essay “A Short History of Silence” addresses many forms of silencing, including the ways in which rigid gender roles silence men – telling them not to express emotion, or only certain emotions, and denigrating any behaviors seen as too feminine.

Ken Burns and the Risks of Reconciliation

The opening episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War shows a series of iconic moments in film with a twist: they play backwards. As viewers we are asked to rewind our understanding of the war, to start from the beginning. In the process we are supposed to build a new understanding, through which we can all find solace in a shared history. But can we?

Ken Burns likes narrative history. An authoritative voice speaks to connect hours of historical footage and talking heads. The format harks back to earlier periods in historical scholarship when historians presumed their own objectivity. The sort of editorial decisions that go into selecting who to quote, what words to use (calling the Vietnam War a “failure” or “tragedy” rather than a “defeat”, for example), and what images to put behind them, are all acts of interpretation obscured in the guise of fact and marshalled to support an interpretation. Giving the appearance of showing all sides further glosses over the biases. With subject matter as divisive as the Civil War or Vietnam War, this framing of the story ends up flattening out the events’ complexity and decades of debates.

A major challenge of teaching history at college level is that students arrive with an understanding of history not dissimilar to that found in Ken Burns’s documentaries or their school textbooks. The past is presented as a series of facts, while little or nothing is said of how or why those facts were chosen, if indeed they are agreed upon ‘facts’ as opposed to contested issues. Historians understand, and try to communicate to students, that the past is subject to debate and our understanding of it continues to change over time. The danger of narrative history is that it makes an argument and selects evidence to support that argument without acknowledging that it does so. Whether to accept the stories these documentaries tell at face value or probe them further is left to the individual. Too many, I fear, may choose the former. Neither The Civil War nor The Vietnam War ask explicit questions of their viewers. Therein lies their broad appeal and therein lies their danger.

The films are about, in Ken Burns’s words, “ultimate reconciliation”. This may come from a noble impulse to come to terms with history and establish an American canon that bridges partisan divides. Laudable though this optimism may be, reconciliation can create moral equivalence where it may not exist. It leaves us with “a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes” without sufficient critical analysis of those causes. In the case of the Civil War this very narrative enabled the glorification of the Confederacy, the reimposition of white supremacy, and willful amnesia around emancipation.[1] In the case of Vietnam, the reconciliation narrative depends on mischaracterizing the anti-war movement and apparently explaining the politically-motivated decisions and lies of successive American governments as attempts by “decent people” to “muddle through” (episode 1). The hope for closure may be premature.

This is not an indictment of either film. There are good reasons for watching both and much of value to learn.[2] Rather, it is a call to see them for what they are: particular perspectives on American history. We have a rich past. It is complicated and messy, and its meaning is far from clear-cut. We can and should ask difficult questions and engage in civil debate over how to answer them. Questions – like protests – show not a disdain for the American project, but rather a commitment to bettering it. Reconciliation may be therapeutic, but it is not a cure. Privileging it risks losing a fuller examination of our past and our present.

[1] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap Press, 2001).

[2] I will leave it to historians of the era to evaluate the content. See, for example, Christian G. Appy’s reviews of the series for the OAH blog Process: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episodes 3 & 4, Episodes 5 & 6, Episodes 7 & 8, Episodes 9 & 10.

Everyday War

Mathew Brady, “Deck of a Gun Boat,” National Archives (NWDNS-111-B-129)

Bearded and clean-shaven, grim and smiling, black and white, sailors of the United States Navy assemble on the deck of a gunboat in a nation torn apart by the Civil War. They sit or stand. Some look into the camera, unsmiling. Others turn away, focused on the task at hand. Motion blurs the outlines of a few. Their officer stands on the prow behind them, upright in his double-breasted coat, eyes fixed on the horizon and a cannon at his side. In the foreground sits another cannon, the machinery of war disguised as a prop for casual poses.

Look closely. A five-string banjo is out, and perhaps a tune in the air, though the drummer holds his sticks at rest. Checkerboards lay on the deck, players poised over the next move. A few sailors concentrate on sewing. One man reads a book; another may hold a newspaper, half hidden behind the wheel of the ship. A head peeks out from below deck, furrowed brow surveying the proceedings. The men pose, but the positions they adopt more closely resemble those of a family snapshot than a studio portrait.

A relatively lax approach to military uniforms points to the exigencies of war. Standard issue frocks prevail (we know they are navy blue, though it’s a black and white photograph), complemented by woolen flat hats, some worn at jaunty angles. A couple caps are in evidence, such as that worn by the man leaning over the checkerboard at center. Neckerchief styles vary. A few men have insignia of an eagle and anchor on their left sleeves, indicating their rank as petty officers. The gunner in the foreground has the same patch on his right arm.

The ship is probably the USS Miami. The year could be 1864. The location is a mystery.[1] The officer may be W.N. Wells. The names of the enlisted men who appear are lost to history.[2] The photograph stays mute on those details. Mathew Brady or one of his employees captured the image. We cannot know why was he there or what prompted him to record this scene.

The most striking Civil War photographs tend to stick in our memories: the dead on the battlefields, Lincoln and his generals. Yet photographs of mundane moments like this one – the crew of a gunship passing the time – offer a fuller picture. While artists or illustrators could draw on traditional heroic imagery to portray the heat of battle, the limits of technology constrained photographers. As a result, we see more of the everyday-ness of life (and death) in war. Alan Trachtenberg writes, “the strength of the pictures lies in their mundane aspect – their portrayal of war as an event in real space and time”.[3] This photographer seems to have interrupted a relaxing afternoon. It just so happens the space is a gunboat and the time is a war.

 

[1] It could be the James River in Virginia as the USS Miami operated there at various times during the war and other photographs of gunboats in Brady’s collection are identified as having been taken there in 1864.

[2] The names of the men who served on the USS Miami are no doubt recorded in some capacity, but we would find it difficult if not impossible to match names to the faces in this photograph.

[3] Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p.74.

Remembering Japanese-American Internment

On February 19, 1942 – two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the establishment of military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” in the interest of national security and defense.[1] In broad terms, it gave the military power to decide who constituted a threat. It did not, as many discussions of it imply, specifically mention Japanese Americans. That fact does not make it any less pernicious.

General DeWitt of the Western Defense Command was convinced that the entire Japanese-American population posed a threat to the nation. Between March and August of 1942 he authorized a series of “exclusion orders” that applied to “all persons of Japanese ancestry”.[2] Authorities removed approximately 110,000 men, women, children, of whom about two-thirds were American citizens, from their homes on the west coast. Without any attempt at due process, they were ordered to store or dispose of their property, herded into groups at assembly centers, given numbered tags, and sent on buses or trains patrolled by armed guards to unknown destinations. The ten internment camps, known euphemistically as “war relocation centers,” were all in desolate, distant locations. Those closest to the coast were more heavily militarized, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. As one man recalled:

We were told that we are being evacuated so that the government can protect us. The first thing that I had observed was that they had armaments, not facing out, but facing in.[3]

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

No evidence supported the perceived threat. Rather, its origins lay in racism and fear. Adding the two and throwing government propaganda into the mix meant the policy enjoyed widespread support. Both the press and Congress almost unanimously endorsed it. Groups supposedly committed to ending discrimination either supported the policy or looked on in silence as the “gravest violation in civil liberties since the end of slavery” took place.[4]

Many understand the historical lesson of Japanese-American internment, like that of the Holocaust, to be “never again”. But there is another important lesson. It could happen again. Fear is part of human nature and those in power have repeatedly harnessed it against the ‘others’ in society. The record of internment should stand today not as a monument to a past from which we may safely distance ourselves, but as a reminder of what is possible and what we should do all in our power to resist.

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by stonemason Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

[1] Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942. Full text available from: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5154.

[2] Civilian Exclusion Order, San Francisco, California, May 15, 1942.

[3] Remembering Manzanar, documentary film (National Park Service, 2004).

[4] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p.241.

Danny Meehan

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Fiddler Danny Meehan was born in 1940 and grew up in Drimalost, in the Blue Stack Mountains of south Donegal, in a family and local area with a rich musical heritage. At age sixteen he migrated first to Selby in Yorkshire. He worked in many places across Britain, finally settling in London in 1963 where he established a career as a self-employed stonemason. He also met and played with many great musicians in pubs, folk clubs, and concert halls in London. He appears on the album Paddy in the Smoke, with the group Le Chéile, and has two solo albums. He returned to live in Donegal in 2007. In 2012 TG4 honored him with the Gradam Saoil (Lifetime Achievement Award).

However, that biography doesn’t do him justice. He is a larger than life character – humorous, generous, self-effacing, and, as he says himself, still a bit wild. Those traits come through in his music as well – his clever variations on traditional tunes, his unwillingness to put his own name to original compositions, and, having lived through what he calls a “dark age” for music, an appreciation for the young musicians of today. His is a music shaped by his roots in Donegal, his 50 years in England, and the many musicians he heard and played with along the way.

Out of curiosity, during the interview I asked Danny about his grandparents, because I’d read that his grandfather migrated to Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century and returned to marry and settle down in Donegal. Danny’s response became the focus of an article, “‘Most Good Stories Are True, You Know’: History, Tradition, and Identity in a Family Story” in The Irish Review (vol. 53, 2016). In conjunction with that article, I have put my full oral history interview with Danny Meehan and recordings of his music on my PhD project website, Voices of Irish Music & Migration. The specific audio clips referenced in the article are also available from The Irish Review‘s website.

Huge thanks, of course, to Danny for sharing his stories and music. Thanks to Aidan O’Donnell for initially helping me get in touch with him. Danny’s nephew John Daly kindly provided additional information on the Meehan family history and the family photographs. Thanks to Clare O’Halloran and The Irish Review for supporting the publication.