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.
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:
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.
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.