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Women Who Left Ireland

More than a year ago I reported what I was reading about Irish-American women and their emigrant experience.

Now I'm reading "Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century" by Hasia R Diner.

It interested me because most of my female ancestors arrived in America as single women. They were part of a phenomenon — a mass exodus of single women from Ireland, greatly outnumbering the male emigrants. This phenomenon is unparalleled in any other ethnic group.

I guess the topic intrigues me too because I, like my ancestors, was the daughter who got up and went.

The Famine, of course, had changed everything. But it wasn't just about starvation and politics. It was a profound wake-up call to the Irish to get their act together.

Before the Famine, Irish kids married like rabbits and the family farm kept subdividing to accommodate them. As long as their little plots could yield potatoes, life was grand.

After the Famine, life was no longer romantic. They adopted the British custom of passing the farm down to one child only. And marriage became a matter of economics, not love. Parents picked a son to inherit — and to care for them in their old age — and picked a wife with a dowry. They used that dowry to marry off one of their daughters. All the other siblings were left to their own devices. And to put it simply, they stopped getting married. Just like that — marriage was about getting ahead in life — forget love.

Irish women were known for their industriousness and innovation when it came to money. While the husband/father had to use his farm income to support the family (market day proceeds handed immediately over to his wife, minus drinking money), the women raised chickens and did weaving to earn money of their own. ("What's yours in ours, what's mine is mine.") Daughters too had their own little businesses. Mothers and daughters were the ones to pay for passages to America.

The closest relationship in Irish society was between siblings and especially between sisters. If one got to America, she immediately started saving up to bring a sister over. Brothers were much the same. (It's a good genealogy tip, I think, to look for the trail of siblings.)

According to Diner, Irish boys tended to be overwhelmed by the relationship with their idealized mothers, who put a lot of expectations on her sons. Daughters were less important. This second-class status was actually liberating to the girls. The young men who emigrated were filled with emotional pining (all those sentimental songs!). But the young women left Ireland with a light heart, optimistic about life ahead of them.



Emigration of Irish Women in the 19th Century: An Annotated Bibliography.