Female Irish Immigration in the 19th Century

Female Irish Immigration in the 19th Century

 

Irish immigration is of major significance to United States history in the 19th century. However, the misrepresented history omits an important group that greatly impacted both the United States and Ireland. The years 1845-1855 was a period of massive Irish immigration into the United States, due to the devastation of the Great Famine. Over a million Irish immigrated to the United States, in which more than half consisted of women. Up until the 1980’s, Irish women were excluded from the scholarship of the Irish diaspora, until historians began to significate the experiences and the impacts that Irish-American women had on the historiography. The literature on 19th century female Irish immigration introduces the crucial themes of migration patterns, gender, and identity into the historiography of immigration history and women’s and gender studies. The inclusion of Irish women into the field changes the understanding of Irish immigration and its effects on both nineteenth century Irish and American societies.

Some of the biggest contributions to the field of women’s immigration studies, women and gender studies, and Irish immigration studies are from historians, Hasia Diner, Donna Gabaccia, and Janet Nolan. Hasia Diner’s work in Erin’s Daughters in America establishes the foundation of the field of Irish-American women, which before Diner, had little scholarship or historiography.[1] Hasia Diner explores the ignored or forgotten history of female Irish immigrants in nineteenth century America. Diner’s work illustrates the social restrictions of women in Ireland, their purpose of emigrating to the United States, Irish women in the labor force, their social issues in America, and the scholarship on Irish-American women.[2] Diner’s work remains to be the most used and referenced foundation source of female Irish immigration history that historians such as Nolan and Gabaccia build and challenge their scholarship. Historian Donna Gabaccia published her work: “Immigrant Women: Nowhere at Home?” To the Journal of American Ethnic History in 1991.[3] In this article, Gabaccia explores the studies of women in gender studies in comparison to the studies of immigrant women in immigration history studies.[4] Women’s studies usually disassociate that women had positive experiences in the strictly patriarchal confines of family life. However, Gabaccia argues, that immigrant women actually had positive experiences within their roles in the family due to the notion that families in the 1970’s were women centered which gave women in the families a sense of authority.[5] Women’s sense of identity was within the family and that the world outside made women vulnerable to economic exploitation and cultural alienation.[6] Building off this assertion, historian Janet Nolan works with Gabaccia’s scholarship in order to place Irish women in the study of immigrant women. Nolan’s “Women’s Place in the History of Irish Diaspora” discusses the importance of fully introducing the effects Irish women had on both Ireland and the United States during the Irish Diaspora.[7] Since many of the women who immigrated to the United States were unmarried, they were able to enter the work field whether it be as domestic servants or as workers in the urban and industrial eras.[8] Women were facing the same economic and physical challenges as men and earning wages that would be extremely beneficial for both the United States and Ireland.[9] With their wages, women were able to bring their families from Ireland to America or even send their families money to help after the Great Famine.[10] Nolan argues that without acknowledging the extreme contribution Irish women had on Irish national and ethnic identity as well as forging Irish America, the Irish Diaspora would be distorted until women are fully integrated into the history.[11]

The Great Famine in Ireland was a period of severe disease and starvation that greatly impacted economic and political society in Ireland.[12] Due to the loss of inadequate farm land, massive forms of land redistribution occurred at this time in order to repair agriculture.[13] The Great Famine caused a tremendous amount of stress to the people of Ireland, particularly the middle and lower classes.[14] Only the wealthy, upper class Irish citizens could afford farm property following the land redistribution as well as live comfortably and securely.[15] Due to the strict patriarchal society based on traditional Gaelic customs, first born sons received benefits of the family.[16] This meant that any other sons of the family were not given any property or business rights from the family. Daughters would be arranged to marry off to men of families that would most benefit the daughter’s family.[17] However, following the Great Famine, the right for women to marry was greatly reduced due to the inability of many families to afford marriage from the lack of opportunities such as well-paying jobs. Since Ireland provided very little opportunities or a safe and secure environment for its citizens, 19th century Irish immigration began. It is estimated that over one million Irish fled to the United states in the years following the Great Famine.

One of the main themes found in the literature of 19th female Irish immigration is the unique attributes of the female Irish migration to the United States. Irish immigration contained some of the highest population numbers in United States immigration history. Historian Janet Nolan argues that, unlike any other immigrant group, the number of female Irish immigrants were substantially higher than the male Irish immigrants.[18] In the book Ourselves Alone, Janet Nolan asserts that this was due in large part to the lack of opportunities available to women in Irish society.[19] However, the reason these numbers were significantly different was due to the difference of responsibility and roles following the Great Famine. Irish males felt it was their responsibility to reconstruct Irish society and agriculture.[20] While as the Irish females felt it was their role and opportunity to migrate to America and exhaust their efforts in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families[21]. This argument builds on the work of Hasia Diner, the first historian to truly acknowledge the presence of women in the Irish diaspora. In Diner’s book Erin’s Daughters in America, one of Diner’s main argument is that: “appearance of autonomy and independence however relied heavily on family and catholic relationships. Moving to America did not mean a search for a new identity.”[22] The female Irish immigrants desire to move to America in order to support their family provides valuable evidence into the historiography of Irish immigration history due to the reversal of roles. Most other immigrant groups in the United States contained similar patterns in which the males of the family migrated in order to work and establish a setting in which they could eventually bring their families to America. However, in the case of the Irish, the literature shows the opposite. Since there were more females than males, it was the women who took on this accustomed male role. The women immigrated in order to work and either send money back to their families which helped in part to recover the Irish economy, and they would sponsor and provide the opportunities for their families to move to America.[23] However, what is not mentioned by historians such as Diner, Gabaccia, Nolan, Catherine Burns, and Deidre Moloney, is how the lives of Irish immigrant women differed across the United States. These historians all focus predominantly on examples of female Irish immigrants in East coast cities. It is not until Patricia Kelleher’s “Young Irish Workers: Class Implications of Men’s and Women’s Experiences in Gilded Age of Chicago” that an examination or female Irish immigrants moves inland toward the city of Chicago.[24] Regardless, these arguments in overall migration patterns of Irish immigrant women further complicate the historiography on Irish immigration by providing a complex story of migration patterns that are unique through any other immigrant group by example of the Irish women immigrants.

Another key theme found in the 19th century literature of female Irish immigrants, is the apparent role of gender. The role of gender is a tremendous complication of the history of Irish immigration in that women were largely left out of the history until Hasia Diner’s Erin’s Daughters in America. One way that gender can be seen is through the labor force. Given that the Irish women immigrants were determined to help recover Ireland and provide for their families, women were willing to accept all forms of labor.[25] Women in Ireland typically were not granted the opportunity to work outside of the home and church.[26] In America, women were able to work and earn wages, even if they were low-labor and low-paying jobs. Some Irish women participated in physical labor jobs alongside their male counterparts, however that was rare.[27] Instead, Irish women were more likely to participate in domestic based jobs such as servants, maids, nannies, etc. The reason these women took these roles was due in large part to the fact that no other female immigrant groups did not wish to accept these jobs as they were considered low-class and required unmanageable hours.[28] Irish women when they immigrated to the United States, remained largely unmarried and without families which allowed for them to accept jobs that required lived-in services such as the domestic work.[29] The image and name of the “Irish Bridget” arises from the growing number of Irish women who dominated the domestic based job field.[30] This adds to the historiography in that it establishes the difference between Irish women in the work force to other female immigrant groups. A critique of the time that arose from the large number of single, working Irish women was the concern that the undomesticated and undisciplined nature of Irish women would corrupt the ideal, quiet passivity of American womanhood.[31] The way to deal with this “Irish issue” can be seen through Deidre Moloney’s work on looking at the creation of certain programs such as the Boston Port Program.[32] Such programs, Moloney argues highlight the discriminations that Irish women experienced due to their marital statuses as well as the implications of race and class.[33] A further component on the theme of gender is the overall misrepresentation of women in the history of Irish immigration. Hasia Diner’s first work in the field was published in 1983, almost a hundred years following the large movement of Irish across the Atlantic in the 19th century. The scholarship on Irish American immigration only ever contained the contributions of men or the assimilation of the Irish into American society, a narrative that hardly ever mentioned women. If women were included in the history, it was as the “Irish Bridget” or as a representative of the catholic church. The scholarship only began to develop following the work of Hasia Diner and later from historians such as Janet Nolan, Donna Gobaccia, Danielle Taylor Phillips, and several others. Gender is an important aspect of the historiography of Irish immigration as it explains the social parameters at which Irish immigrant women were discriminated and misrepresented.

Another crucial theme shared among historians in the literature is the focus of identity among Irish immigrant women. This can be seen through many different aspects of social life in American immigration, such as the “Irish Bridget” in the work force.[34] However, another important aspect is the prominence of family life. Historian Donna Gabaccia argues that family life to all immigrant women was an essential part of immigrant experience.[35] Gabaccia builds off the foundations that Diner had laid for the understanding that Irish women immigrated for the main purpose of helping and serving their families back home in Ireland.[36] Marie O’Brien in The Search for Identity by Irish American Women Writers uses the voices of female Irish American writers to explain the experiences these women had as immigrants in America.[37] O’Brien’s work further builds on this argument and utilizes primary source examples in order to assert the importance of family life to the average female Irish immigrant.[38] Another important aspect of identity was through the Catholic church. The catholic church provided many opportunities for female immigrants in America in numerous ways. For one, the Catholic church influenced Irish immigrant societal roles. This can be seen in historian Catherine Burns article: “The Courtship of John Rooney and Katharine Cusack, 1887-93.”[39] Burns evaluates the rigid description of Irish American roles in marriage and the household, to deal with the large numbers of unmarried, problematic Irish immigrants.[40] The creation of the title and role of True Catholic Irish men and True Catholic Irish women were in close association with the catholic church.[41] This is represented in female Irish immigrant identity by the pressures placed on young Irish immigrants into the roles of marriage, the differences in social classes of the Irish, and the importance of duty among Irish immigrants. Another the way the catholic church impacted immigrant identity is that, many catholic churches in America provided job and housing opportunities for these women as nuns and associates of the church. This can be seen in historian Mary Peckham Magray’s: The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750-1900. [42] An important opportunity that the church provided was the sense of national pride and Irish nationalism.[43] Remaining affiliated to the catholic church allowed women to ignore the pressures of assimilation into American culture and to forge their own sense of “home” in America.[44] This connection to their mother country gave women a stronger sense of Irish nationalism and a desire for political involvement through certain institutions.[45] Institutions such as the Ladies Land Leagues, which according to historian Ely Janis, strongly encouraged a large number of Irish-American women to gain a public voice and public position in Irish nationalist views as well as American concerns.[46] Janis further distinguishes that the two main divisions of the Ladies Land Leagues consisted of women who wished to reform social class and constrictions in Ireland and those who believed the United States and Ireland should both be reformed socially and politically.[47] Other historians such as Tara McCarthy work alongside Janis’s argument to impose the argument that Irish-American women’s involvement in such political organizations encouraged the American women’s suffrage movement as well as giving women in Ireland a beginning voice and stance in politics.[48]

The historiography provides strong evidence that women were strongly present in the history of Irish immigration. These historians assert the importance of subjective assimilation experiences and how sentimentalism impacts the historical lens of Irish-American immigrant women. This provides a valuable historiographical lens into one of the reasons why female Irish American women have distorted historical significance on American society. The presence and significance of Irish immigrant women can be seen through migration patterns, gender, and identity in the literature of 19th century female Irish immigration, immigration history, and women’s and gender studies. While great strides have been made by historians to push for the inclusion of female Irish immigrants in the history of Irish immigration into the United States, the history itself will remain distorted and inaccurate until the significance of Irish women is acknowledged in both nineteenth century Irish and American societies.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Hasia, Diner. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant women in the Nineteenth Century. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Diner, xiii-xvi.

[3] Donna Gabaccia, “Immigrant women: Nowhere at home?” Journal of American Ethnic History, 61-86.

[4] Gabaccia, 62.

[5] Gabaccia, 63.

[6] Gabaccia, 64.

[7] Janet Nolan, “Women’s Place in the History of the Irish Diaspora: A Snapshot”, 77.

[8] Nolan, “Women’s Place…”,77.

[9] Nolan, “Women’s Place…”, 77.

[10] Nolan, ‘“Women’s Place…”, 79.

[11] Nolan, “Women’s Place…”, 79.

[12] Diner, 2.

[13] Diner, 4-9.

[14] Diner, 2-4.

[15] Diner, 4-9.

[16] Diner, 14-17.

[17] Diner, 4.

[18] Nolan, “Women’s Place...” 77.

[19] Janet Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland 1885-192 Lexington: University Kentucky Press

[20] Nolan, “Ourselves Alone…”, 13-16.

[21] Nolan, “Ourselves Alone…”, 13-16.

[22] Diner, xiv.

[23] Margaret Lynch-Brennan, The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America 1840-1930, xi.

[24] Patricia Kelleher, “Young Irish Workers: Class Implications of Men’s and Women’s Experiences in Gilded Age of Chicago.” Journal of Irish Studies, 141-165.

[25] Lynch-Brennan, xi.

[26] Nolan, “Women’s Place...”, 78.

[27] Lynch-Brennan, 84-85.

[28] Janet Nolan, Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America, 5.

[29] Lynch-Brennan, 93-95.

[30] Lynch-Brennan, 84-121.

[31] Diedre Moloney, “A Transatlantic reform: Boston’s Port Protection Program and Irish Women Immigrants” Journal of American Ethnic History, 50.

[32] Moloney, 50-66.

[33] Moloney, 50.

[34] Lynch-Brennan, xviii.

[35] Gabaccia, 61-86.

[36] Diner, xiv.

[37] Marie O’Brien, Scribbling Brigid’s: The search for identity by Irish-American women writers 1847-1911, ProQuest dissertations Publishing, 1-223.

[38] O’Brien, 1-223.

[39] Catherine Burns, “The Courtship of John Rooney and Katharine Cusack, 1887-93. New Hibernia Review 16, No. 4 (2012): 43-63.

[40] Burns, 43-63.

[41] Burns, 44.

[42] Mary Peckham Magray, The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750-1900. Oxford University Press.

[43] William Jenkins, “In Search of the Lace Curtain: Residential Mobility, Class Transformation, and Everyday Practice among Buffalo’s Irish, 1880-1910”, 970-997.

[44] Jenkins, 970-971.

[45] Ely Janis, “Petticoat Revolutionaries: Gender, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Irish Ladies’ Land League in the United States”, 5.

[46] Janis, 5.

[47] Janis, 17-20.

[48] Tara McCarthy, “Woman Suffrage and Irish Nationalism: ethnic appeals and alliances in America”, 1-16.

 

Citations:

Burns, Catherine. “The Courtship of John Rooney and Katharine Cusack, 1887-93. New Hibernia Review 16, No. 4 (2012): 43-63

Diner, Hasia. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant women in the Nineteenth Century. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983

Gabaccia, Donna. “Immigrant women: Nowhere at home?” Journal of American Ethnic History 10, No. 4 (1991), 61-86

Janis, Ely. “Petticoat Revolutionaries: Gender, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Irish Ladies’ Land League in the United States.” Journal of American Ethnic History 27, No. 2 (2008): 5-27.

Jenkins, William. “In Search of the Lace Curtain: Residential Mobility, Class Transformation, and Everyday Practice among Buffalo’s Irish, 1880-1910.”  Journal of Urban History 35, No. 7 (2009): 970-997.

Kelleher, Patricia. “Young Irish Workers: Class Implications of Men’s and Women’s Experiences in Gilded Age of Chicago.” Journal of Irish Studies (2001):141-165.

Lynch-Brennan, Margaret. The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America 1840-1930. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009.

McCarthy, Tara. “Woman Suffrage and Irish Nationalism: ethnic appeals and alliances in America.” Women’s History Review 23, No. 2 (2014): 1-16.

Meagher, Timothy. “Sweet Good Mothers and Young Women Out in the World: The Roles of Irish American Women in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Worcester, Massachusetts.” U.S Catholic Historian 5 (1986): 325-344.

Moloney, Deirdre. “A Transatlantic reform: Boston’s Port Protection Program and Irish Women Immigrants.” Journal of American Ethnic History 19, No. 1 (1999): 50-66

Nolan, Janet. Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland 1885-1920. Lexington: University Kentucky Press, 1989.

Nolan, Janet. Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America

Nolan, Janet. “Women’s Place in the History of the Irish Diaspora: A Snapshot.Journal of American Ethnic History 28, No. 4 (2009): 76-81.

O’Brien, Marie. Scribbling Brigid’s: The search for identity by Irish-American women writers 1847-1911. ProQuest dissertations Publishing, 2001

Peckham Magray, Mary. The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750-1900. Oxford University Press, 1998

Phillips, Danielle Taylor. “Moving with the Women: Tracing Racialization, Migration, and Domestic Workers in the Archive. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38, No. 2 2013: 379-404.