Friday 28 October 2016

The Forgotten Irish: a heartbreaking education for Irish family historians

Published by The History Press Ireland
I'd been looking forward to publication of The Forgotten Irish by Damian Shiels for some time, and it has completely lived up to expectations.

Its 288 pages hold the stories of 35 Irish families who lost loved ones who served in the US military between 1861 and 1910, the majority through the American Civil War. The narratives have been developed from the rich files of the widows' and dependents' pension record collection held at the National Archives in Washington DC (not online), which holds the claims and supporting documentation relating to the families of 1.3million deceased servicemen, many thousands of them Irish. The individual files hold military records, baptismal records, medical reports and affidavits showing the deceased soldier supported the claimant financially, as well as original letters exchanged by the family and serviceman.

The latter provide the most poignant details for each real-life story told by the author, and many of them have been carefully transcribed in the book, capturing the emotions of the writer and the atmosphere of the time.

The book and the stories it tells are arranged into four themes, as Damian explains in his Preface: "The first two sections, 'Wives and Parents', and 'Community and Society', emphasise the lives of soldiers' families... and seek to illustrate how the pension files can be used to examine topics such as family emigration, chain migration, financial dependence and the maintenance of tranatlantic connections, as well as social issues.... The final two sections, 'A Life in Letters' and 'A Death in Letters', are aimed at providing a direct insight into the lives and emotions of some of these emigrant soldiers, using their own correspondence, and also at investigating how their loved ones received news of, and coped with, their deaths."

By their nature, the stories are sad. They are also incredibly rich with detail about the Irish emigrant experience and the lives of those left behind, either in Ireland or in America. I consider this book a must-read for the Irish family historian. It's easily my book of the year.

The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America is now available in good bookshops in Ireland and online (The History Press Ireland, Amazon, Book Depository etc.).