In April 1930, The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, printed a review of a book entitled Slavery by Lady Kathleen Simon. The review was decidedly unfavourable. It suggested that the author of Slavery had, through her loyalty to Britain, uncritically accepted all British reports and commentary on the issue of enslavement. W. E. B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis, may have expected a rebuttal from Kathleen Simon, but he could hardly have predicted precisely the point in the review that compelled her to respond. ‘I have received the copy of the Crisis with your review of my book on slavery’ Simon wrote: ‘My only complaint is that you call me an Englishwoman. I am an Irishwoman.’
Lady Kathleen Simon, Viscountess Simon, DBE, was an anti-slavery activist born in Rathmines, Dublin, in 1869. Although she had lived in England for decades, her country of birth, as she made clear in her letter to DuBois, was not incidental to how she perceived herself and her campaigns. ‘I travelled up & down this country denouncing England’s treatment of my country, & helped thereby to get it changed’ Simon continued. But Simon knew better than to burn a potentially important bridge to an intellectual like DuBois. Concluding the letter, she noted that she was coming to the US and asked: ‘Where shall I find you to make your acquaintance?’.
In 1932, the Moscow Daily News, a Soviet newspaper, printed an interview with Benjamin Pelin, an elderly Irish rebel. Pelin’s journey to the Soviet Union started in New South Wales, Australia, where he had lived for many decades. Born in 1852 in Edenderry, Pelin first left his native land for Australia in 1894 following his active involvement in a radical agrarian organization in Ireland, the Knights of the Plough. In Australia, he became a familiar figure in labour circles.
When a Soviet reporter found him in 1932, Pelin was 80 years old but still holding on to the beliefs that first sent him searching for another shore. Laughing, he told the Moscow Daily News reporter: ‘I was chased out of Ireland thirty years ago for trying to organize the farm labourers… maybe they will chase me out again when I tell them of the wonderful things I have seen in the Soviet Union’. From Leningrad, he planned to catch a Soviet steamer to London and then head onwards to Ireland, his country of birth. Interested in both redistribution and the divine, Pelin planned to attend the Eucharistic Congress while in Dublin. Few attendees at the Eucharistic Congress were likely to start dreaming of Leningrad Tractor factories after speaking with Pelin in a queue for a Bishop’s blessing, but that would not have dissuaded him from trying.
As a historian of the Irish abroad - and, more specifically, Irish contributions to progressive and radical political movements abroad - I am keenly aware that the Irish diaspora has always had a political voice. Yet when we think of the political contributions made by the Irish diaspora to domestic politics, we usually cite recent events, such as the Good Friday Agreement or the #HometoVote phenomenon. We are much less likely to think of the journeys or contributions of those like Benjamin Pelin or Lady Kathleen Simon. Yet their stories point to a broader and less-acknowledged facet of Irish diaspora history: Irish emigrants, in ways both minor and major, have always attempted to shape the fate of their home while in emigration and often returned to the island with transformative ideas about politics and community.
There were many vessels that carried these ideas home. Often, we hear about the importance to Irish family of remittances from abroad. Usually this meant money sent home to put food on the table, underwrite the emigration journeys of others or further line the pockets of absentee landlords. One 1958 calculation estimated that Irish Americans sent home 260 million US dollars back to Ireland in the late 19th century. But it was not only the financial contents of the envelopes arriving in Irish homes that changed the course of the nation. Emigrants wrote home about the new jazz records they heard, the motion pictures they saw and the political ideas abroad that both inspired and repelled them. When Irish people awoke on two different May mornings in 2015 and 2018 to discover a political earthquake reflected in voting tallies, they were feeling the tremors of generations of emigrants returning home and envelopes dropping into letterboxes. Even when separated by an ocean, emigrants have proven capable of transforming their home.
The extension of the right to vote to Irish emigrants would not introduce a diasporic element to Irish politics - this element has always existed. Enfranchisement would merely be another tool with which the diaspora can continue to shape politics across the island. Irish emigrants have, throughout history, placed their careers, lives and wages at the service of their home. Often, they have received little in return. In recognising this historical context, the conversation on voting rights for emigrants can move from one of ‘emigrants’ owing something to those at home (usually framed as taxes) and begin exploring how those at home may already owe emigrants a debt.
The political history of the Irish abroad also tells us that the diaspora is not homogenous in its identity or politics. Because the diaspora reflects the diversity of Ireland itself, it has never spoken with one ideological inflection. Even among Irish nationalists making the case for Irish independence in the diaspora across the 19th and 20th centuries, there was always a plurality of opinion on the question of Ireland’s future. What does Ireland look like when the entirety of its citizens become empowered to refashion its future? Granting the vote to Irish emigrants would bring us one step closer to answering this important question.
Dr Maurice J Casey is the DFA Historian in Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.