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Stories of Irish immigrants in post-Famine America told in new book from MIC academic

Sarah O'Brien holding her book in front of College building

A new book from MIC academic Dr Sarah O’Brien tells the stories of Irish immigrants in post-Famine America. Of Memory and the Misplaced draws from 30 memoirs written between 1900 and 1970 and shows the prevalence of intimate and taboo themes in ordinary immigrants’ writing, such as domestic violence, same-sex love, and famine-induced trauma.

Combining literary and historical theory, Of Memory and the Misplaced highlights voices that have traditionally been silenced and offers a rare and unexplored collection of primary source autobiographical texts to better understand the experiences of Irish immigrants in the United States.

According to Dr O’Brien: “In the early twentieth century, memoir-writing was a craze in the US. It became fashionable for older people to write down their life stories. Luckily, some of the memoirs written by Irish emigrants during this era survived. They offer a rare glimpse into the remembering mind of those who left after the Famine."

“The memoirs I write about in this book were never published. These were outsider artists, with no expectation of a public audience. So they give a candid perspective on Irish emigrant life. I found the women’s memoirs especially honest. They don’t romanticise their past and they don’t shy away from addressing taboo topics like domestic violence, same sex relationships and the pain of motherhood.”

Importantly, Of Memory and the Misplaced critiques the role of the Irish landscape as a site of memory and shows how the interiority of the domestic world has provided Irish women with the language needed to reclaim their own lives.

“For me, the book is a reminder of the power of telling your own story”, notes O’ Brien. “Immigrants in Ireland today are dealing with so many challenges. I hope that one day we will be reading some of their memoirs. I think they will have remarkable things to teach us.”

Praising the new publication was Professor Elizabeth Grubgeld, Professor in English at Oklahoma University, who said: “O'Brien has produced an exceptionally rich and beautifully written study of Irish diasporic life narratives informed by the arguments of contemporary memory studies and autobiographical theory. Micro-analyses of four texts ranging from the Famine era to the late 20th century are balanced by a sophisticated and wide-ranging synthesis of 18 other works which establishes patterns of experience and narrative recollection among Irish immigrants to the United States. Historically precise and theoretically erudite, this book will be an essential text for scholars of autobiography, immigration, memory studies, and Irish literature and culture.”

Click here to find out more about Of Memory and the Misplaced.

Dr Sarah O’Brien is a Lecturer in Education at MIC and is a Co-Director of the Oral History Centre at the College. She graduated as a primary teacher in 2004 before receiving a PhD in History from MIC in 2009. O'Brien's first book, published in 2018, was an Oral History of the Irish in South America.