mad in pursuit ancestry notes

about me


Home> Family History> this page

Women: Irish Emigration's Bold Leading Edge

The Irish have a matriarchal society -- the women are in charge. I didn't need a book to tell me this but it's nice to have your observations validated. I'm reading Irish America by Maureen Dezell, who compares the Irish-American mythology with the data.

Tin Pan Alley and Chauney Olcott's sentimentalized songs about Irish mothers would have us believe that the ideal Irish woman was a meek carbon copy of the Blessed Mother.

Olcott's pop culture paeans to wide-eyed feminine duty and devotion captivated the American imagination in the early twentieth century. By that point, Irish American womanhood had been honed by a generation of dauntless single women, immigrant widows, mother superiors and superior mothers -- any number of whom had more in common with the fearsome labor leader Mary Harris ("Mother") Jones than Mother Machree.

Social scientists describe Irish culture as matriarchal, and mothers hold considerable if not singular sway in Irish American families. Unmarried women command far more respect than 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.

there is no such thing as an Irish American princess

Dezell also makes the point that what distinguishes the Irish immigration was that it was largely female. By 1900, 60 percent or more of the Irish who immigrated to the United States were single women. Immigrants from other European nations (Italy, Sweden, Greece) were dominated by men who often returned to their native lands. Irish women had enough of their repressive native culture. They picked up and they came to stay. Then they sent for their sisters.

I see this pattern in my own family. Mary Gardiner Barrett, Ellen Gibbons Barrett, Maggie Keville Flanagan, Bridget Dunne Price. Mary came with her brother to New Orleans in the mid-1800s. When he died of yellow fever, instead of returning to Ireland, she made her way north to the boomtown of St. Louis. Ellen and Maggie got off the boat in New York and kept heading west for Chicago and its new opportunities. Bridget was sent for by her sister and arrived in St. Louis ready to work. I knew my grandmother Price and Dezell describes her perfectly:

...the Irish servant girl was a sociocultural phenomenon. Tens of thousand of peasant farmers' daughters who had spent their lives in peat-heated cottages [my grandmother hated the peat] bid their families good-bye, sailed across the Atlantic in steerage, and months later were serving squab from Limoges china in Boston's Back Bay or polishing silver in Fifth Avenue homes.

Women who came over alone had no choice but to go to work. Domestic service was backbreaking labor but the Irish women were diligent. They saved their money, they sent for their sisters or supported their parents, and they contributed generously to the Catholic Church, which built a huge infrastructure of schools and social services agencies. The side benefit was learning how to leave behind their culture of poverty.

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.

Maggie Keville Flanagan spawned the most tragic story of the group. Her death at the age of 37 left 7 young children behind. Given what I'm learning about the guiding hand of Irish women, it makes more sense that the father would be overwhelmed and let his family drift into chaos.  My grandmother was able to pull herself away from the chaos and make a good life for herself. She was older -- 12 -- when her mother died, so maybe she'd been exposed to the strength of her mother's female immigrant values. That plus an exuberant personality and a love of learning got her far.


More on Theme of Exiles & Expatriates

more on EXIT theme