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Transnationalism and history: some initial thoughts

by Ciarán McCabe

The Irish History Online database (www.iho.ie), which provides a searchable bibliography of Irish history, lists seventeen works (books, chapters and articles) with the term ‘transnational’ in the title. Of these seventeen, sixteen have been published since 2003. This simple exercise reflects the increasing trend among historians of Ireland to adopt a transnational approach in their study of this country’s past. Ireland’s historic experience must not be viewed in a vacuum, as a stand-alone process, but, instead, as part a broader transnational context which influenced (and in turn was influenced by) developments on this island.

In recently considering this methodology, I had reason to return to a book that I first read two years ago. The book in question is Richard Bell’s We shall be no more: suicide and self-government in the newly United States, published by Harvard University Press in 2012. I had first become aware of this monograph while taking a postgraduate reading course at Maynooth University. While constituting a study of suicide in American society from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, We shall be no more uses suicide as a vehicle with which to drive an analysis of a broad crisis of moral authority witnessed in the early United States. This is not merely a study of suicide, but rather an insight into wider social, cultural, ideological and political developments in the United States during these formative decades. In a nutshell, I found this to be a remarkable book by an exciting scholar, drawing on a decade of research to contribute new concepts and approaches to our understanding of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history.

Bell, We shall be no more, cover pic

Bell’s touching upon transnationalism in We shall be no more had relevance to my own research field of nineteenth-century Ireland. My PhD thesis, which examines begging and alms-giving in pre-Famine and Famine Ireland, touched on various aspects of transnational history and this is something I hope to engage with in more detail in coming years. During the course of my PhD research, a constant realisation has been that social questions in Ireland, such as the poor law debates, the multiplication of charitable societies and reforming ideas pertaining to the running of welfare and custodial institutions, cannot be viewed in a vacuum, as we sometimes tend to do in this country. Rather than being singular to Ireland, many of these ideas and processes were shaped in a transnational context. The influence of Britain and Europe was ever-present.

This theme is touched upon in Bell’s We shall be no more in his consideration of the emergence of humane societies in late-eighteenth-century America. Humane societies were charitable societies, founded and run largely by volunteers, which encouraged the investigation and implementation of pioneering life-saving techniques, particularly regarding drowning (either accidental or attempted suicides). The use of new methods in resuscitation and the use of modern life-saving equipment characterised these humane societies. It is no surprise that humane societies were largely found in coastal towns and cities, or urban centres with large rivers and canals. For instance, the first humane society was founded in Amsterdam in 1767. Bell is correct to place the development of this movement within the context of the wider humane society movement arising from Europe in this period, but I felt that he could have made more of this context. Similarly, in his analysis of the moral panic felt by American middle classes in the 1790s, more emphasis could also have been placed on the wave of panic felt throughout the transatlantic world at the events occurring in revolutionary France.

The transnational aspect of the humane society movement is truly fascinating and Bell is correct to use the term ‘movement’ to describe this network of charities. These were not individual, unconnected entities merely carrying out similar work at the same time as other bodies. Rather, these groups were formed under comparable conditions, by persons from comparable social backgrounds and with almost identical reasons for doing so. Yet, crucially, there was an exchange of information between sister societies from across Europe, Britain and the United States. Societies exchanged printed materials (such as rules and regulations, and annual reports), suggestions and advice based on precedent and experience. The term ‘movement’ can similarly be applied to the proliferation of fever hospitals, Strangers’ Friend Societies and mendicity societies throughout Ireland and Britain in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Among other things, examples of co-operation and the exchange of mutual advice between societies from Ireland and Britain, as well as the clear sentiment that these bodies shared mutual interests, underpin the transnational element of these philanthropic movements.

Further reading

Richard Bell, We shall be no more: suicide and self-government in the newly United States (Cambridge, MS, and London, 2012).

For a bibliography of works on transnational history, see the website of Transnational Ireland (http://transnationalireland.com/).

Simon Macdonald, ‘Transnational history: a review of past and present scholarship’, available at UCL Centre for Transnational History website (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cth/objectives/simon_macdonald_tns_review).


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