‘Glad to the heart to see any of my brothers’: exploring Irish family life through sibling relationships

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This article proposes using the sibling relationship as an historical lens into nineteenth-century Ireland. Often taken for granted in historiography, brothers and sisters influenced family financial decisions and provided emotional support to each other in childhood, adulthood, and into old age. They were members of each other’s social networks and could be a cause of worry, conflict, and tension within the home. As the longest-lasting relationship an individual experiences, siblings provide a unique vantage point for the historian to explore the role of family in society across the life cycle. Their presence, or lack thereof, is vital to a sibling’s identity. Whilst individuals shape their own identity in relation to their family and peers, people have their own ambitions, successes, and failures. Tracing these interactions allow the historian to similarly trace wider social and cultural change. This article uses two sets of siblings to explore how brothers and sisters consciously kept family connection, utilised it in times of crisis, and benefited from sibling support networks. Separated through migration, the migrant letters exchanged between the Sinclair family in County Tyrone and Philadelphia shed light on the emotional toll of migration and provide insight into everyday life in rural Ireland. Making use of genealogical methodologies and digitised collections, this article reveals how family stories can be pieced together using fragmentary sources across a diverse range of archives. A horizontal approach elucidates wider societal changes over generations of the family. This article uses the sibling relationship to unravel complex family networks and explore nineteenth-century Irish society through the family lens.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-61
Number of pages24
JournalThe History of the Family
Issue number1
Early online date7 Jan 2024
Publication statusPublished online - 7 Jan 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Siblings
  • Ireland
  • migration
  • grief
  • brothers
  • sisters
  • uncle


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