What is your field and level of study?
I am in the final year of my Ph.D. in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. I study immigration, health, and income inequality in the early twentieth century. I have been using the individual records of the Irish and American historical censuses with new record-linkage techniques to study how places produce inequality in life outcomes. Among other topics, this includes trying to understand religious differences in infant mortality in Dublin in the early twentieth century; how growing up in a particular place in Ireland shaped individual and family decisions around emigration; and how Irish immigrants’ decisions on where to move in the United States affected the future class mobility of their children. I have been fortunate to receive funding through a Travelling Studentship and the Phelan Scholarship from the National University of Ireland and various other fellowships in the United States.
Tell us why you decided to pursue your chosen field of study.
As academics we are lucky to have latitude in deciding what we research. I study topics which I find intellectually puzzling and help advance my commitment to social and environmental justice. I grew up in Ballybrack in south County Dublin, which, for a long time, has been a social and economically disadvantaged place. As a result of growing up there, and in my subsequent moves, I have seen how circumstance can produce great cleavages in directing the courses of people’s lives. Thus, trying to understand how circumstances and places influence life outcomes is a complicated but important process to grapple with.
What have been your most rewarding experiences during your studies? Your most challenging?
One of my most rewarding experiences came earlier this year, when I had the opportunity to have coffee with former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson (now working on climate justice), in Los Angeles. We spent an hour conversing on two of the greatest challenges of the next century: climate change and human migration. While neither of these topics is new, we are at a key juncture in history and it is difficult to feel optimistic after the recent presidential election. Nonetheless, talking through these issues helped me reflect on how much we can learn and offer through historical insight, and more specifically, the Irish experience. In terms of challenges, I believe it is fair to say that scholarship is tough. It can be lonely and overwhelming. Recognizing this, and having the support of our friends and colleagues, is important to our personal and professional well-being.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am writing up a study where I examine if the economic outcomes of the children of Irish immigrants in the United States were mainly determined by their parents’ class backgrounds in Ireland or their experiences and interactions in the United States. I am using new data that tracks Irish immigrant families across three generations and four decades from Ireland to the United States. The basic idea is, if you take two people growing up in Ireland in the early twentieth century and they both moved to the United States, how much do their children’s life outcomes depend on the types of places they moved to (e.g. Boston versus San Francisco), and how much do they depend on their (grand)parents’ initial starting position in Ireland?
What are you currently reading?
For fun, I have been making up for neglecting Kurt Vonnegut. I just read Slaughterhouse-Five and I’m now in the middle of Cat’s Cradle. I’m also looking forward to reading In the Red by Sarah Smarsh. In terms of academic books, I just ordered Leah Boustan’s new book Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.
How do you hope to contribute to Irish Studies?
I plan to contribute to growing interests in using new micro-data and geographical perspectives of place and scale to reinterpret Irish economic and social history. The last five years have seen great progress in the availability of historical complete-count census data and the development of techniques to follow people across space and through time. We can use these approaches to study how geographical processes have shaped the unique histories of Ireland and Irish America.
What are your future plans?
I will complete my Ph.D. this year and at the moment I’m considering where I might continue to build my research agenda.