Illustration: An illustration of an Irish rebellion in 1848 taken from the Illustrated London News.
As her work suggests, Sadlier, like many Irish-Americans, was intensely invested in Irish nationalism. Her Irish historical romances -- fictionalized accounts of actual battles -- were written to instill in immigrants the same kind of cultural and ethnic pride that many African-American writers and critics have cultivated in recent decades. Sadlier viewed herself as a historian of the Irish people, as well as the contemporary immigrant, and sought to educate the "sons and daughters or Ireland in foreign countries" about their nation's past, in order to give them a sense of pride in the face of the hostility and prejudice immigrants often faced in the United States. Sadlier articulated her goals as a writer of historical romances in her preface to The Confederate Chieftains: A Tale of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 (1860): "We of Irish race owe a debt to our departed worthies which we cannot to soon set about paying. . . . shall we not avail ourselves of it to ennoble our country and give her that place amongst the nations to which the glory of her sons entitles her?" (Chieftains 3). Sadlier stressed, however, that she was not interested in writing standard historical texts. She admitted that Irish histories are often dry, and so crafted romantic fictions based on factual accounts in order to attract and hold Irish readers. The sheer number of Irish novels she produced suggests she was single-handedly trying to provide immigrants with the kind of literature she felt was lacking. In addition to the histories already mentioned, Sadlier also penned The Daughter of Tyrconnell: A Tale of the Reign of James the First (1863) and MacCarthy More; or, the Fortunes of an Irish Chief in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1868).
Sadlier's cultural pride, ethnic antagonisms and love of Irish history plays major roles in her non-historical works, as well. Her detailed descriptions of the educational debates in The Blakes and Flanagans, for example, provides the twentieth-century reader with a contemporary history, however biased. She often plays historian in this novel: "'The year 1841,' say the historian of Catholicity in New York, 'was made famous, in New York, by the agitation of the 'Schools Question,' as it was then called" (Blakes and Flanagans, 249). Sadlier also chronicled the central tragedy of Irish life in the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest tragedy in Irish history, in her stories of the Famine. Her rather muted descriptions of the Great Hunger in Bessy Conway also paint a vivid picture of Irish peasant life under landlord oppression:
The same look of desolation was everywhere visible, but its saddest imprint was on the people. Famine and disease had found their way into that happy household, and misery sat on the threshold. The aged father and mother sat opposite each other in their old straw chairs, by the dull flickering fire, watching with distended eyes the unsavory mess which Nancy was making for the family supper, consisting of water and nettles, with a handful or so of oatmeal. Nancy herself as she bent over the pot was a living picture of hunger, and the low suppressed moans which came at irregular intervals from a straw "shake-down" in the corner indicated the presence of one who suffered bodily pain. It was Ellen, the bright-eyed, darkhaired fairy, whose laugh used to ring the loudest . . . But the terrible pangs of hunger had fastened on her vitals, and disease was wearing her young life away. -- Bessy Conway, 259Perhaps even more harrowing is Sadlier's description of Bessy's father as he stands helplessly at the door, watching the bailiffs approach his house to evict him. Denis Conway agonizes as the bailiffs draw closer and closer, briefly becoming hopeful when they appear to take a turn in the road toward a neighbor's house -- any house but his -- then becomes ashamed of himself for wishing ill on his neighbors, finally realizing that they have come for his own family (Bessy Conway 266-9). Such gripping realism is a record of contemporary history with which Sadlier's immigrants would have identified. Again in Bessy Conway, when Sadlier wanted to create a grievous sin to blacken the past of the errant landlord's son -- a rake destined to be reformed by Bessy's pious virtue and shining example -- his dark secret, his most horrid sin, is not murder or rape, but religious and cultural sacrilege. He played cards over the bones of the ancient monks of Ardfinnan Abbey, defiling the sanctity of a church as well as the memory of Irish patriots. Henry Herbert, the son of a greedy and corrupt British landlord, mocks a symbol of Irish Catholic resistance, where Cromwell allegedly made his last stand and where the noble ancestors of the contemporary townsfolk beat back the British invader. Bessy Conway had already decided to avoid his tempting offers, but the news of this most egregious sin makes her shun him forever -- or at least, until he returns at the end, chastened, humbled and a convert to Catholicism, asking for her hand in marriage. Sadier's nationalist pride thus colors all of her works, either in tone or plot.
The Famine immigrants, for the most part, remained deeply attached to their native country. Many Irish immigrants were deeply bitter toward the British as the cause of what they saw as their forced migration or exile (Miller, 14), and were often homesick about for their native country. In Sadlier's Elinor Preston; or, Scenes at Home and Abroad (1861), the heroine settles in a remote Canadian village after losing her brother to sickness, and pines away -- alone and friendless -- eternally longing to return home to Ireland and eventually dying of grief. Sadlier shared the homesickness of the Irish immigrant who wrote to his brother, "I was never better in my life, but in spite of all I can never forget home" (Miller, 8). Charles Fanning, in describing the common tone of Sadlier's fiction, remarks that her "expression of fatalism and piety corroborates the world view in nineteenth-century Ireland and Irish America. These attitudes were crucial to the Famine Generation writers. The identification of Irishness with both Catholicism and suffering helped make them sense of their world and its central tragedy" (Fanning, 117-8). For all their homesickness, seen in popular Irish ballads such as "The Exiles of Erin," mentioned in The Blakes and the Flanagans, and their loyalty to their homeland, strikingly few Irish did return. Whereas 60 percent of Greek immigrants returned and 40 percent of Italians returned, only 10 percent of Irish immigrants ever went back to Ireland (Miller, 125).
Committed to their new country, Irish-Americans did, however, firmly and lavishly support their homeland. The Tablet and Pilot often ran news from Ireland on their front pages to keep immigrants up to date on the latest events. The Irish nationalist organization Fenians attracted millions of supporters in the United States, and raised an American military force of 50,000 men (Miller, 111). As early as 1855, McGee estimated at least 25 or 30 Irish military companies throughout North America whose primary motivation was "preparation for hostilities against Great Britain" (Hueston, 146-7). The Fenians planned to fight alongside Stephens against the British. But American Fenian incursions in British Canada in 1866 and 1870 proved, once again, futile (Miller, 111). It was a member of the Fenians who assassinated Sadlier's friend McGee in 1868, who came out against the Fenians because he believed they undermined his goal of Canadian confederation. Irish Americans continued to support the cause of home rule, and the Easter Rising of 1916 was in fact financed by Clan na Gael, an Irish-American organization (Miller, 111).
Thus Sadlier was not alone in attempting to vindicate her native country. As one historian has written, "The Irish Catholic immigrant of that day and for many years had a triple battle: to establish himself as an American, to preserve his faith in a subtly antagonistic setting and to continue to fight for the freedom of his homeland" (Healey, 14). Centuries of antagonism between Catholics and Protestants -- prejudice on both sides -- carried over into the United States. The descendants of British Protestants comprised a large part of the United States population and who controlled most social and economic structures. Native-born Americans, to a great extent, prided themselves on their British ancestry and their liberal Protestantism, and retained many British stereotypes of the Irish. Many Americans "believed that Irish poverty was a sign of laziness and immorality, of ignorance and superstition -- traits they considered inseparable from Irishness and Catholicism. Because of such beliefs, the newspapers in New York, Boston and elsewhere often depicted the Irish as violent and drunken, even as subhuman, more akin to apes than native-born Americans" (Miller, 54). Employers also posted the now-infamous "No Irish Need Apply" signs in their doors (Miller, 54). Thomas Nast's cartoons for magazines such as Harpers typically depicted the Irish as ape-like brutes prone to wife-beating, drunkenness and general anarchy (see Illustration 2). Ethnic tensions grew violent in 1837, when a mob of Protestant workmen from Boston burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown, and in 1844 -- the year Sadlier emigrated to Canada -- when native-born Americans in Philadelphia rioted for a week, destroying many Catholic churches and neighborhoods and killing at least a dozen immigrants (Miller, 54-5).
Return to the Sadlier Critical Introduction
Return to the Sadlier Home Page
Return to the Sadlier Biography