By Geoff Cobb
(Reading time text: 4 mins.)
In few countries in the world has emigration played a more important role than in Ireland. Even before the Famine, Irish men and women emigrated at far higher rates than in other countries and after the famine struck, emigration skyrocketed, with emigration becoming a matter of life and death. Over time, a culture of emigration took root there, and the more commonplace emigration became, the more firmly the expectation of emigrating became entrenched in Ireland’s economic and social system.
Ireland’s nineteenth century emigration was distinct from other countries in its gender ratio. In comparison to other European countries, the percentage of Irish women emigres was by far the highest and the unprecedented rate of single women emigrating distinguished the Irish from other Europeans to the United States during the nineteenth century. Already by 1845, women constituted nearly half of the total Irish immigration to America and that figure would continue to grow. The number of women who emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century has been put at three million and the major destination for these emigres was America. With few employable skills, many Irish immigrants worked in families as domestics. In 1900, 54% of Irish-born employed women were domestics and by 1913, some 87% of Irish emigrant women worked in some kind of domestic service. The massive number of Irish women working as American domestic workers would have profound, multiple effects both in America and at home in Ireland for generations.
Americans referred to the stereotypical Irish domestic worker as “Irish Bridget”, in part because Bridget is Ireland’s most popular female saint and many Irish named daughters in her honor. In America, Irish Bridget denoted the hundreds of thousands of Irish women laboring as domestic workers in American homes from 1840 for at least ninety years. Irish Bridget became a cliché for young Irish domestics who wreaked havoc, but also became indispensable, in American middle class homes for generations.
In the nineteenth century, having a live-in domestic servant who worked as a cook, cleaner, waitress and nanny was common amongst urban middle-class families. Up to a third of American households had live-in domestic workers in 1850 and Irish-born women constituted the largest group of domestic workers in the urban east. Living- in had both positive and negative sides for Irish domestic workers. These domestic workers freed married American women from many of the household and childcare duties that were expected of them. Freed from the obligation to pay rent, Irish domestics could save money to send to family in Ireland or for their own futures in America, but it also meant a lack of privacy, round-the-clock availability and the possibility of abuse from male members of the employer’s family.
American employer and Irish employee faced each other across a gulf of class, cultural, ethnic and religious differences. It was principally in the American home, not the political arena, or the factory floor where Irish immigrants and Native-born Americans first got to know one another. Americans’ views of the Irish and Irish views of Americans were forged by these intimate personal contacts.
Forging this relationship was hard in large part because of the poverty from which many Irish domestics came. The median age of these Irish girls was just twenty-one and the vast majority of these young women came from rural homes that were very different than the middle -class American homes where they worked. Many Irish women grew up in homes with dirt floors, with no knowledge of using brushes and buckets to scrub wooden floors. Another concern, many Irish homes also had no running water and no indoor toilets. Irish girls who became cooks often did not learn their culinary skills in Ireland. The food that they were raised on was vastly different than the cuisine eaten in the middle class American homes where they worked. It is not surprising that Irish servants in America were not known for their good cooking.
Americans often complained about Bridget’s lack of knowledge and her limitations. Americans spread negative stereotypes of Irish servants’ ignorance, rawness and stupidity. Many Irish had gone barefoot in Ireland and had to adapt to wearing shoes in America. Irish servants were sometimes even ignorant of the names and uses of kitchen utensils. One source noted, “these Irish servants are the plague of our lives.”
Even though Americans complained about their Irish domestics, they also needed them desperately. Because their work was in high demand, Irish domestics were able to negotiate their wages and conditions and they often left one family for another that offered better pay and improved conditions. There was a high turnover rate, which greatly displeased American employers.
Distained but Assertive
American employers quickly noticed the feistiness of the Irish Bridget, who quickly became infamous for her self-assertiveness. Americans complained that Brigid was insolent, defiant and had a temper. Employers also complained about Brigid’s uppishness or pretentiousness. Sharp-tongued anecdotes of Brigid’s repartees have become part of Irish American folklore and family histories. Self-confident Irish domestic servants did not believe that their work carried a stigma, though many Irish-Americans did. The opportunity to move their own families into the middle class mitigated Irish women’s concerns about any stigma tied to domestic work.
Irish Domestics demanded to be paid fairly and with good reason. American money greatly improved the material life of family members at home in Ireland. In the 1870s, amazingly about a third of all the money in circulation in Ireland came from remittances from Irish domestics. American money paid rural rents and built farmhouses. It provided dowries so that sisters at home could marry. It also allowed other family members to come to America. Prepaid passage tickets accounted for seventy-five percent of all the tickets used by the Irish to come to America.
Irish domestics spent freely on clothing and were criticized for dressing above their social station. They often spent most of their week’s wages on clothing and Irish Bridget could afford fine clothes that made her indistinguishable from middle class American women. Irish Bridget was often lampooned in cartoons which portrayed their over-the-top dressing in boas, boots and bangles.
The Catholic Church played a huge role in the lives of these women and figured not just in the social life of the Irish immigrants, but in their emotional life as well. Coming from a devout Catholic country, many lonely and homesick Irish women found consolation in the rosary and in prayer. Mass and devotions, though, were social as well as spiritual. Irish immigrants tended to identify themselves by their local parish and parishes organized important recreational outings such as boat trips, picnics and dances where Irish domestics could socialize with other Irish women and meet single men who were prospective marriage partners.
Religion, though was often a flashpoint. Many employers were Protestant, while Irish Bridget was almost overwhelmingly Catholic. Some domestics had to defy their employers who sought to convert them to Protestantism. Irish women even refused to join in Protestant family prayers and upset their employers when demanding fish on Fridays. Some potential employers refused to hire Catholics and stipulated in employment offers that only Protestant women need apply.
Through their personal interaction with Irish Bridget, native-born Americans came to see Irish immigrants less as ‘others’ and more as fellow human beings. Irish Bridget blazed a trail for the Irish to become accepted by native-born Americans and helped the Irish, as a group, move into the American middle class.
Thanks to Geoff for this interesting contribution. The first migrant ashore at Ellis Island, the immigrant-processing station opened by the USA in 1892 was Irish, though her name was not Brigid – Annie Moore was from Cork and she was not yet 18 years of age.1
Though native-born East Coast white UStaters2, especially middle-class and upwards, would have come to know the Irish migrants through domestic servant “Bridget”, she in turn came to know them in that exchange also. And to adopt their attitudes, at least in some regards and no doubt anti-black racism was one of those attitudes. While down at the bottom of white society Irish labourers had to compete with black, which helped promote racist attitudes in Irish males (becoming “white”), Irish Bridget was much more likely to pick up those attitudes from white upper-class white households.
Not all Irish migrants embraced racism of course and some actively campaigned against it3, yet viewing the screaming hordes, mostly women and many of Irish descent, protesting the forced de-segration of schooling in Boston in the mid-1970s for example is a repelling experience.
1 Ellis Island is no longer used to process migrants and is better known today as an island close to that which became the base for the Statue of Liberty
2 A term I use to describe people from the USA, as distinct from other parts of America such as Canada to the north and Latin America to the south.
3 And were instrumental in building the main US anti-slavery party, the Republican
The Irish Girl and the American Letter: Irish immigrants in 19th Century America: