The conventional wisdom is that immigrants jumping into the melting pot of 19th-century America banded tightly together, keeping a wary eye on other ethnic clans and interacting only to protect their turf.

That may have been true with the recently arrived working classes, says Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan ’96, but for the upper classes—and yes, there were immigrants in those ranks—it was a very different story.

“A lot of it was played up, ethnic antagonisms through politics, that sort of thing,” Dwyer-Ryan said, “whereas with the upper classes, particularly in the late nineteenth century, there seemed to be much more room for negotiation. There’s a lot more working together.”

As a historian specializing in immigrant history, she peels away preconceptions and stereotypes, trying to determine how things happened and why.

Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan ’96
Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan ’96

Trained as an archivist (master’s degree, NYU) and a historian (Ph.D., Boston College), Dwyer-Ryan has the tools to revive and analyze the past. She found, for example, that two influential Bostonians, Jewish merchant and philanthropist Abraham Shuman and Irish journalist and poet John Boyle O’Reilly, had much in common—in particular an interest in Irish nationalism. “Fascinating,” she said.

Speaking with Dwyer-Ryan reinforces the notion of historian as detective. She’s worked at the New York Historical Society and combed the archives at Ellis Island. As an Irish-American (her parents were pleased when she studied abroad in Cork, she said, because her Irish cousins could look out for her), she has focused on that ethnic group—comparing the Irish to Jewish immigrants of the time.

Dwyer-Ryan, who teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State, plunged into the study of Irish-American culture knowing she’d have to convince some that there is more to examine than “shamrocks and shillelaghs.” She considers ethnic consciousness as it overlaps with acculturation as immigrants tried to figure out how to become Americans.

That’s the subject of her dissertation, completed in 2010. That followed by a year the publication of Becoming American Jews (Brandeis University Press), which Dwyer-Ryan cowrote. Next up? She said she wants to explore the idea of ethnic authenticity and ethnicity as a conscious choice. “What does it mean to be really Irish?’ she said. “Can you be Irish if you’re born American? … How can I prove my Irishness, Jewishness? That sort of transition is something I’m really interested in pursuing.”

The daughter of a high school social studies teacher, Dwyer-Ryan was raised to ask questions and to make inquiry part of her life and university teaching. At Colby she took a wide variety of history classes, from medieval to African history. She and her Irish-born husband, Anthony Ryan, recently had their first child, a son named Cian (Irish for “ancient”), but she said she’s continuing to publish articles and is looking for a publisher for a book based on her doctoral research.

Her work is a living reminder of a saying often applied to immigrants. Said Dwyer-Ryan, “The first generation remembers, the second wants to forget, the third remembers again.”