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Kerby Miller has achieved a level of fame that most university professors can only envy.

His scholarly works are used in countless university courses, and his popular histories have been embraced by both an enthusiastic public and influential critics. His research forms the basis for a feature-length film, narrated by movie stars, that has been shown on television and in movie theaters around the globe.

Miller admits, however, that the recognition has been something of a mixed blessing. These days, the MU professor of history finds himself a high-profile target for partisans about all things Irish.

The controversies involving Irish history and politics are so convoluted that Miller's critics cannot agree whether he is a supporter of the Irish Republican Army or an agent of British colonialism. Miller says he's neither, simply a scholar interpreting evidence to make sense of the Irish past.

"In Ireland, historically and currently, questions of ethnic, religious or national identities invariably have political connotations," Miller explained in a recent essay. Many historians mistakenly posit "the permanent existence of only two Irish groups, whose adherents have totally distinct historical experiences, antagonistic political cultures and conflicting material interests." In this simplistic view, one group is characterized as Gaelic, Catholic, Nationalist and "Irish." The other group is characterized as English/Scottish, Protestant, Unionist and "British"— or, in the United States, as "Scotch-Irish."

Wrong, Miller says. The "two traditions" paradigm "ignores or de-emphasizes similarities, common interests and instances of cooperation between Protestants and Catholics."

The controversy over Miller's place in the highly emotional discourse began with publication of his first book, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, by the Oxford University Press in 1985. It became a surprise best seller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. William V. Shannon, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, praised the book lavishly in the New York Times, calling it "a major work of scholarship and analysis, rich in information, trenchant in argument and broad in its grasp."

J.J. Lee, a Miller partisan, has watched the debate from his perch as a history professor at University College, Cork, Ireland, and Irish Studies professor at New York University. Lee says Emigrants and Exiles has "unrivaled status as a seminal study," and thus is "still generating lively debate nearly 20 years after publication."

The book, Lee says, "is invoked as an endless source of knowledge and insight -- even by those who do not accept its stimulating but controversial central thesis: that the material success and emotional integration of Irish Catholic immigrants in the United States was severely hindered by a [culture] that valued communal solidarity over individual achievement. However debated the thesis, all workers in this particular vineyard drink deeply of the fruits of Miller's prodigious research, digging through layer after layer of the Irish psyche."

       
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