In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ireland and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources

Atlantic History Ireland and the Atlantic World
David Gleeson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0248


Ireland sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest of the main European continent. It would seem then to be a natural part of the Atlantic world. When that “world” is defined purely as the expansion of European empires in the Americas and Africa, however, Ireland’s significance is not evident. A textbook on the Atlantic world from 1400 to 1900, for example, mentions Ireland in only 3 of its 674 pages of text. Ireland did not have an empire in the New World and could not participate directly in this expansion of Europe around the Atlantic basin. But, the Irish, as members of the British Empire, were participants in this first Atlantic world. Indeed, Ireland itself played a crucial role in the expansion of the English colonies in North America. There was also a large-scale movement of Irish people across the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries, where they, like other Europeans, could participate in, as D. W. Meinig describes it, “the vast interaction” (The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 1 [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986], p. 65) among the various cultures from around the Atlantic coming together in the Americas. Ireland’s economy too was integral, even when sometimes excluded by colonial regulations, to the burgeoning of the Atlantic economy. From the American Revolution in l775 to 1820, Ireland and Irish people retained strong connections with the new United States through established links and continual Irish immigration into the new republic. Irish Catholic exiles also continued to play a role in the administration of the remaining empires in the New World, both in Canada and the Spanish Empire in North and South America. While the Spanish and Portuguese withdrew from large portions of the Americas after 1820, signaling for many scholars the end of the Atlantic world, the Irish retained a transatlantic influence long after the collapse of the European empires, mainly through their continued peopling of Canada and the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the significance of Ireland and the Irish in the Atlantic world, both before and after 1820, the literature on the subject is disparate and diverse. The subject still needs a lot more exploration. Nonetheless, there is a sizeable amount of explicit scholarship on the Atlantic world, particularly on the earlier period, while it is often implicit in the works focused on post-1820.

General Overviews

There is no one comprehensive general overview of the Ireland in the Atlantic world, but the collection of essays in Gleeson 2010 highlights the breadth of scholarship, in terms of discipline and chronology, while also providing an analytical framework to assess the significance of Ireland and the Irish in it. O’Hearn 2001 provides a critical and interpretive account of Ireland in the Atlantic economy through its relationships with Great Britain and the United States from the late Middle Ages to the 20th century. The pioneer of assessing Ireland in the early Atlantic world, Nicholas Canny, synthesized his views in Canny 1988, concluding that the best way to understand Ireland and its relationship with Britain before the Act of Union (1801) was to examine Ireland as a colony and not just another kingdom. As a result, Canny argued for a broader study of Ireland in the context of an Atlantic world, a world very much based on colonization. Canny 1988 is therefore the starting place for anyone interested in Ireland in the Atlantic world. Smyth 2006 is a work of historical geography but shows clearly, through a series of maps, the major effects of English/British imperialism in Ireland and how it forced many across the Atlantic. Connolly 2008, a survey of early modern and 18th-century Ireland, accepts the importance of the Atlantic world to the Irish colony but sees Ireland more as a kingdom than a colony in the general scheme of British imperialism. For the role of Irish people in the Atlantic world, though very much focused on North America because that’s where the overwhelming of majority of Irish emigrants went, the best general book is Miller 1985. Kerby Miller analyzes Irish emigration and its impact on North America from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. Paying serious attention to the denominational differences of Irish emigrants, he argues for the continued importance of Irish culture in the lives of the Irish in America. Indeed, the Irish, particularly those of poor Catholic origin who came as a result of the Great Famine (1845–1855), were alienated from the business-oriented and individualistic United States and, in some ways, remained exiles in America, unable to handle the modernity of growing republic. By the turn of the 20th century, however, they had acclimatized to the United States, and “the long dark winter of Irish exile in America was over” (Miller 1985, p. 555).

  • Canny, Nicholas. Kingdom and Colony: Ireland in the Atlantic World, 1560–1800. Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

    A concise work based on a series of lectures, it combines primary and secondary sources to contextualize Ireland’s role as colony of the early English and British Empire. In some ways, Ireland became a test and a model for conquest and colonization for the construction of an empire across the Atlantic. This book is the starting point for those interested in the Irish in the early Atlantic world.

  • Connolly, S. J. Divided Kingdom: Ireland, 1630–1800. Oxford History of Early Modern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199543472.001.0001

    The best single-volume history of early modern and 18th-century Ireland has a chapter dedicated to Ireland in the Atlantic economy. The book also examines in detail the effects of the Cromwellian and Williamite settlements in Ireland. Despite the major changes brought by these attempts to pacify Irish Catholics and to transfer their property to loyal Protestants, Ireland remained a kingdom and not just merely a colony.

  • Gleeson, David T., ed. The Irish in the Atlantic World. Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

    This collection of fourteen essays provides an interdisciplinary (history, literary criticism, and musicology) examination of Ireland and the Irish in the Atlantic world. Running from the 17th to the 20th centuries, individual essays examine the cultural, economic, and political effect of the Irish on the Atlantic world and the Atlantic world’s effect on Ireland. Gleeson argues that, for Ireland, the Atlantic world did not end in 1820.

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

    In a comprehensive and interpretive examination of the Irish in North America from the 1600s to the 1920s, Miller finds that Irish Catholic emigrants retained a lot of premodern traditions that hindered their integration into American society. They thus saw themselves as exiles rather than emigrants, and this retention of traditional Irish habits had profound effects on America and the Irish in it. Reprinted as recently as 2010.

  • O’Hearn, Denis. The Atlantic Economy: Britain, the US and Ireland. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.

    Using world system theory, O’Hearn tries to explain the lack of historical Irish development, seeing similarities across the centuries. Ireland, he believes, remained an exploited periphery in the Atlantic economy.

  • Smyth, William J. Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland, c. 1530–1750. Critical Conditions. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

    Smyth’s work shows vividly the impact of English/British imperialism in Ireland, as well as the persistence of certain Gaelic cultural patterns. One section focuses particularly on the Irish connections to the Atlantic world and emphasizes the growing significance of places such as Virginia and the West Indies in early modern Ireland.

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