ACIS Logo Digging into the Laborer’s Poetry

Utilizing a micro-historical lens to explore the archive of an Irish immigrant laborer, Charles Biggie, in the late 19th century,  I explore how the individual act of writing poetry served as a performative path to negotiating Irish identity within the United States.  By examining the published and unpublished poems of a single man, one primarily employed as a grave digger, I contend that the newly arrived Irish in the U.S. looked to community leaders as models for developing their own practice of identity. Figures such as John Boyle O’Reilly served as a model for how the newly arrived Irish immigrant could perform their Irishness and that a major part of this performance was in the labor of writing and occasional publishing of poetry. Newspapers allowed for the dissemination of poetry that would allow readers to participate in this performance through the act of reading, but more importantly the process of writing itself served as a performative labor for negotiating belonging to a new Irish-American identity.   What can we learn about the social and cultural need of the diaspora from this poetry? What benefit comes from analyzing unpublished pieces of mediocre poetic value?  Does the examination of the work of a grave digger attempt to join a published conversation on identity reveal greater importance for this kind of Irish poetry?  What do we gain by thinking of published poetry as a performance venue that was accessible to the average laborer?

Published on: March 23, 2019