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Maiden voyages: How Irish women conquered America

Photo of Immigrant Sadie O’Connell arrives in Boston in 1921. BY MAUREEN DEZELL

Midway through the first act of Frank McCourt's The Irish . . . And How They Got That Way, a pair of players speak briefly of the Irish male in love. "An Englishman who wants to propose says, 'Darling, I love you, will you marry me?'" observes one to the other, who ripostes, "An Irishman asks, 'Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?'"

The punch line usually gets a laugh, layered as it is with allusion to the quirkiness of gender relations among the Irish, their preoccupation with death, and the recognition that romance renders many among this poetic people laconic. All such subtleties were lost on a woman who saw the Irish Repertory Theatre perform McCourt's play in Boston and complained in the lobby of the Wilbur Theatre during intermission that the joke was "just another example of how women are oppressed in Irish culture." Irish women are powerless in this retrograde realm, she explained to a clutch of earnest-looking men and women dressed in rumpled natural fibers and sensible shoes. They, in turn, nodded sagely at the stereotype of the only major ethnic group it remains safe to caricature in polite company.

Sexism, to be certain, flows as freely as fine talk and a sense of impending doom among the Irish. But there is much more to Mary's story. Social scientists describe Irish culture as matriarchal, and mothers hold considerable if not singular sway in Irish-American families. Unmarried Irish women command far more respect than do unmarried women in other ethnic groups. Irish girls are raised to be respectable, responsible, resilient--and rarely with any expectation that they're going to be taken care of. For better or worse, there is no such thing as an Irish-American princess.

"Few people realize it, [but] it was the women--the mothers and aunts, the teachers, the nuns--who brought the wild Irish into the modern world" and sustained the subsequent Irish rise into the middle class, retired University of Massachusetts historian Thomas N. Brown has observed. The Irish Catholic Church's phenomenal infrastructure of schools and social service organizations would never have existed were it not for the efforts of nuns, nurses, and laywomen.

Nevertheless, most religious, academic, and popular chronicles of the Irish in America have been written as if females were in purdah. "There is virtually no mention of women in the standard texts of American Catholic history," notes Indiana University professor of religious studies Mary Jo Weaver. In James Hennessey's 1981 book American Catholics, "fewer than 50 of the nearly 1,300 index items refer to women in any way," according to Weaver. "In 331 pages of text, the material about women [nuns included] adds up to approximately 10 pages." A handful of women warrant more than a paragraph in William Shannon's The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait (1990), mostly by virtue of their relationship to men. (There is a paragraph-and-a-half panegyric to the selflessness of Al Smith's mother, Catherine Mulvihill Smith, for example.)

But just as Irish-American and Catholic historians have failed to pay attention to Irish-American women because they are female, feminists and other "progressives" ignore them because they are Irish and Catholic. In academe, in particular, those traits are synonyms for conservative, and are therefore undeserving of high-minded liberals' attentions. Yet the history of Irish women in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a story of women breaking new ground.

In late-19th-century American theater, the stage Irishman's opposite was Bridget, the immigrant maid: a bumbling but warmhearted girl who broke dishes in the kitchen and variously disrupted order in well-appointed dining rooms and parlors of the Gilded Age. In a sketch that dates to the time, a lady of the house points out that she can write her name in the dust that the maid has let build up on the furniture. "It's a wonderful thing to have an education, isn't it, missus?" Bridget replies.

The Irish servant girl was a sociocultural phenomenon. The typical European immigrant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a single man or male head of household, often a transient--a sizable number of Italians, Swedes, and Greeks in particular returned to their native lands. Most women who migrated from European countries came as daughters and wives. Two features distinguished Irish immigration: It was largely female, and most Irish who came to the United States between 1850 and 1925 intended to stay. At the turn of the 20th century, 60 percent or more of the Irish who immigrated to the United States were single women.

Irish immigrant women usually were young and unmarried; they migrated with sisters or female cousins or emerged from steerage alone. These Bridgets--and Noras and Kathleens--had no recourse but to find work. Their occupation of choice was domestic service. Household labor was difficult, poorly paid, and sometimes so degrading that most "native Americans" simply refused to do it, says New York University history professor Hasia Diner, one of a handful of social historians who have written about Irish women. But the work offered better benefits than factory work did, because it gave girls a place to live and regular meals along with their wages. In 1850, three-quarters of Irish immigrant women in New York were employed as domestic servants. As late as 1900, some 60 percent of Irish-born women in the United States were "in service." These peasants' daughters were serving squab from Limoges china in Boston's Back Bay or polishing silver in Fifth Avenue homes.

"In general," according to historian Lawrence J. McCaffrey, professor emeritus at Loyola University of Chicago, Irish women were "more sober and responsible than Irish men. They saved their money, sending it home in the form of ship passages for siblings or in cash or bank drafts to help their parents. . . . And they contributed a significant amount of their income to the Catholic Church."

Agnes Morley left County Mayo in 1904 at age 13, because some cousins sent her an "American ticket"--they paid her passage and promised they would help her find a job. On the boat to New York, she met a young man, and the two of them had such a grand time they agreed to meet again once they settled into their respective lodgings in Manhattan. When they docked, Agnes assured him: "I'll see you at Mass on Sunday."

"Can you imagine the innocence?" marveled her granddaughter, Chicago public school teacher Mary Jo George. "She had no idea" what New York was like. Wide-eyed though she may have been, Agnes Morley made her way to Chicago, where she worked as a back-parlor maid in a home on Superior Street until she married Tom O'Reilly, a public transit worker. Like most Irish women of her era, she stopped working when she became a wife and mother, and, like all too many of her peers, she was widowed; her husband was killed in a train accident when her children were young. She took the small settlement she got from the transit authority and bought a "two-flat" on Chicago's South Side, where she lived with her children in one apartment and rented the other for income. Eventually, she remarried. She never went back to Ireland.

Irish women immigrants left behind a motherland that offered them little in the way of love or work. Ireland was destitute and defeated in the years after the Great Famine (1845-49). Marriages were arranged, and a system of inheritance in which fathers willed the farm to a single son and provided a dowry for one daughter discouraged many young men and women from marrying. Young men could still work the land, but often their unskilled sisters were faced with the prospect of spending their adult lives at home, entering the convent, or emigrating.

Irish society paradoxically expected that women should be either "sweet good mothers" or "young women out in the world doing their duty," notes Catholic University historian Timothy Meagher. After the famine, the constitution adopted by the Irish Free State forbade most married women from working outside the home. Girls were schooled to model themselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, to be handmaidens and helpmates, except when duty called--as it often did. In that case, unmarried daughters were urged, if not "forced," to take jobs to help support the family, even if it meant traveling thousands of miles to do so.

Contradictory demands that made economic sense to struggling families in 19th-century Ireland persisted in the New World, even as the Irish worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder. According to Meagher, census figures from 1880 and 1900 in Worcester, Massachusetts, home to a fairly typical Irish community, show that fewer than 5 percent of married women worked outside the home but that nearly 80 percent of first- and second-generation single women did.

In the great house on Superior Street, Agnes Morley learned how to arrange a formal dining room. For the rest of her life, she always put damask cloths and napkin rings on her own table. Irish servant girls gleaned a sense of social currency along with the wages they earned in wealthy homes, learning what sort of books, music, and manners belonged in a respectable family's home--and, more significantly, just how much an American education could buy.

The Irish on both sides of the Atlantic put a premium on education, for daughters as well as for sons. Few of Bridget's daughters worked in service; they were secretaries, teachers, and nurses, who entered the white-collar world a generation before their brothers did, according to Janet Nolan, an historian at Loyola University of Chicago. Most better-paying jobs open to women in the late 19th century required at least a four-year high school education, and girls often stayed in school longer than their brothers. By 1910, one-fifth of all public school teachers in Northern cities--and one-third of those in Chicago--were Irish-American women. Miss Sweeneys, Miss Murphys, and Miss Sullivans would remain a prominent presence in urban school systems for decades.

Irish women could also be found at the vanguard of the American labor movement in the 19th century. In 1867, after her husband and four small children died in a yellow fever epidemic, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones supported herself as a Chicago dressmaker. "Sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on Lake Shore Drive" while "poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry" walked along the frozen lakefront in sight of their windows radicalized her, she wrote in her autobiography, and she soon became a formidable champion of the downtrodden. She once led a band of children to the steps of the New York governor's summer home on Long Island to draw attention to child labor practices; on another occasion, she rallied miners' wives wielding mops and brooms to protest conditions in the mines.

A fabled figure who lived to be 100, Mother Jones is the best known of a cohort of Irish women at the forefront of the labor movement: teachers' union organizers Kate Kennedy in San Francisco and Margaret Haley and Catharine Goggins in Chicago; Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, who was recruited by Samuel Gompers to be the first woman organizer of the American Federation of Labor; Leonora O'Reilly, who led the Women's Trade Union League's 1911 campaign for reform after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and whose public speaking skills were considered so extraordinary that one journalist compared her to the evangelist Billy Sunday.

During the same period, congregations of Irish religious women were caring for destitute Irish immigrants, sheltering the poor and nursing the sick. As a rule, Irish nuns did less proselytizing than organizing. In Boston between 1850 and 1900, they created a veritable network of social services. Franciscans set up a home for servant girls who were sick or out of work. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur ran a girls' industrial school. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis established St. Elizabeth's Hospital for women. The Sisters of St. Joseph taught typing, bookkeeping, and accounting, and the Sisters of St. Francis ran a nursing school.

The American Catholic Church's 1884 directive that every Catholic parish build and operate its own school required the services of thousands of teaching nuns. Catholic religious women, a number of them Irish, also established what Sister Karen Kennelly, president of Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, has called the "most extensive and accessible system of higher education in the country." By 1918, more than a dozen congregations had opened Catholic women's colleges. These included Trinity College in Washington, D.C., Manhattanville College in New York, and St. Mary's in South Bend, Indiana--"pioneers," says Kennelly, "in educating women." Today, Kennelly notes, "a disproportionate number of seats in Congress held by women are held by graduates of Catholic women's colleges."

Irish-American women were also very active in supporting the Irish nationalist movement, from the time of Ireland's 1916 Easter Rebellion to the signing of the treaty establishing the Irish Free State in 1921. According to labor historian Joe Doyle's account in the 1996 book The New York Irish, an ad hoc group of suffragists, socialites, professional women, mothers of soldiers, and performers called the American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America's War Aims marched on the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., in April 1920. The well-dressed Irish women "bombed" the embassy with leaflets denouncing Britain's military campaign in Ireland and chained themselves to the embassy gates, ensuring that they would be arrested and that their pictures and cause would appear on the following day's front pages.

In the summer of 1920, the Women Pickets and the Irish Progressive League organized an unprecedented strike on the Chelsea Pier in Manhattan to protest the arrests of Irish Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney. Irish-born New York surgeon Dr. Gertrude Kelly, labor organizer Leonora O'Reilly, Irish activist Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and Eileen Curran of the drama troupe the Celtic Players organized women who dressed in white with green capes and carried signs that read: "There Can Be No Peace While British Militarism Rules the World."

Thousands joined the work stoppage directed at British ships docked in New York, including workers on a British passenger liner, Irish longshoremen, Italian coal passers, and African-American longshoremen. The protest lasted three and a half weeks. According to one newspaper account at the time, it was "the first purely political strike of workingmen in the history of the United States," spreading to Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Boston.

The action didn't save MacSwiney, who died on the 74th day of a hunger strike in London's Brixton Prison. But it raised American awareness of British suppression of republicanism in Ireland. And it gives a glimpse of the will and skills and political leanings of a group of middle-class Irish-American women whose role in the fight for Irish independence is a missing chapter in Irish-American history.

Viewed through the prism of today, some of these Irish pioneers certainly seem like feminists. It appears, though, that only a handful of turn-of-the-20th-century Irish-American activists rallied wholeheartedly to the cause of women's suffrage: activists like Lucy Burns, Alice Paul's deputy in the American Woman's Party (who claimed to have spent "more time in jail than any other American suffragist"), and Margaret Foley, known for chasing candidates opposed to voting rights around western Massachusetts while driving a car she called her "big suffrage machine." Mother Jones, by contrast, dismissed the suffragists' concerns as trivial compared with those of industrial workers.

Suffragism grew out of abolitionism, a movement that had demonstrated a strong anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic streak. Suffragism was "an upper-middle-class, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, self-conscious movement that didn't make a whole lot of sense" to Irish-American women, says the historian Janet Nolan. Its most visible organizers and supporters were well-educated, often well-to-do women whose families employed Irish "girls" as maids. What's more, some of feminism's founding mothers, including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, were active in the temperance movement, a reform effort particularly noxious to the Irish, who were so frequently the targets of 19th-century nativist Protestant social reform. The vote notwithstanding, feminist goals of property law reform meant little to women who had few tangible assets. And efforts to liberalize divorce laws and ease access to contraception flew in the face of Catholic religious beliefs.

Erin's daughters in America braved new worlds for their families--not for ideology but because by temperament and tradition Irish-American women did what they thought had to get done. Feminism's righteous rebellion against the Victorian cult of female frailty belonged to a world that they had first been introduced to as handmaidens. The right to work, on the other hand, was no abstract ideal. It was part of their inheritance.

Maureen Dezell '75 is a staff writer for the Boston Globe. This article is drawn from her book Irish America: Coming into Clover (Doubleday, 2001). © 2001 by Maureen Dezell.

Photo: Immigrant Sadie O'Connell arrives in Boston in 1921.
Bettmann Archives/Corbis Images

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