Sometimes it’s tough to read a historical monograph and keep my own training out of the mix. I’m simultaneously a professional historian, and not. I do not hold advanced degrees in History, but I work at bringing history alive for visitors at my museum job. I spend the winter reading and researching various topics to prepare for the oncoming season of programs. This year my main research thrust is immigration and domestic servants. That led me to reading Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times: Morristown New Jersey’s Irish Immigrant Past by Cheryl Turkington.
In her work Ms. Turkington covers approximately one hundred years of the Irish immigrant experience in Morristown. Morristown, if you aren’t familiar, is notable for being at the crossroads of the American Revolution and later for becoming a country escape for millionaires. There were 92 millionaires living in Morristown around the turn of the last century. Ms. Turkington generally turns from those two topics, and instead looks at what life looked like, and how the Irish neighborhood of ‘Dublin’ was born in this town.
While informative to me, Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times, left me wanting. Perhaps I expect too much, but let’s start with what worked well: the quality and variety of information provided. Ms. Turkington, a staff member of the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, conducted dozens of oral histories, scoured local records and couched the information in the larger context of the history of the Irish immigrant experience between 1840 and 1940. And she does so unflinchingly. The racism, the anti-Catholicism of the time are explored and place in historic perspective. I can appreciate it ever more so because it’s rare that a book or historian working in the Northeast to honestly explain the impact of institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan in our localities. Ms. Turkington brings this chapter of Morris County’s history to light.
Where Ms. Turkington loses me is in the style. Simultaneously she writes as if the reader is intimately familiar with the geography she is describing while also in cases using a lecturing style. In Ms. Turkington’s defense this book is only available for purchase at the library which published it (The Morristown and Morris Township Library) and it is natural for her to have written for a local audience. However, I feel she may have sold her research short by not aiming for a larger scope in the tone of the writing. In many ways I am her ideal audience being familiar with the area and its history, and interested to learn more and explore primary document research, I was also turned off because by the nature of being that audience, this work was written below my level.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of this work for me is the frequency of seeing familiar 19th century names from the area. It was in many cases like bumping into a friend on the street.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.