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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

The Early Irish-American Women



The Early Irish-American Women

By
John William Tuohy

Having crossed, what Joyce called "The bitter bowl of tears" to arrive in America, they were now desperate, shocked refugees from a dying country. They would become a rural people converted to a race of city dwellers overnight. They would never, they swore, never, forget what had been done to them and what had been taken from them, their land, their culture and language.

They despised what they had become, and what those in the new world thought of them. For generation parents narrated their children the small parts of the stories that they knew, and those children would tell their children. Sickness, alcohol addiction, and the diseases that had leveled them in Ireland, took their toll among them in America as well. The Irish man became known as the perishing class, with a death rate, twice that of the general American population, a sad legacy that would follow for two more generations. In the decades that covered the 1850's, 60's and 70's.

A full 80% of all Irish children died at birth. Death of the Irish male was twice that of the American born male and for Irish women, the statistics were about the same.
"Irish wages" was a term that originated out of the appalling low rates of pay given to the generally unskilled menial Irish immigrants when they entered the American work force in large numbers in the mid nineteenth century.

By 1880, the term was usually associated with railroad workers pay rates. But low wages and its resulting poverty, followed them in to the new American slums they created in the cities. Researcher Philip Bagnal, pointed to a link between poverty and drinking, a new theory back then, stating that "as long as 50% of the Irish are poorly paid and ill fed, so long they will be intemperate". In conducting his research, Bagnal asked an old Irish women who lived in the slum, why she drank. The old women replied "If you lived here, would you be sober?"
For many of young Irish women, life in America was a confined nightmare. Mental disorders, breakdowns and alcohol took their deadly toll among them.
Desertion by husbands, themselves defeated and disgraced by the hardships of the new world, unheard of in Ireland reached alarming proportions in America.

Undaunted, these young women, most of them still in their mid-teens, took whatever work they could find to feed their families, mostly as chamber maids, barkeepers and House cleaners.

Slowly, with a dignity and grace, they did arise. Pulling themselves up from hopeless poverty and despair, sending what small amounts of money they could spare back to Ireland, within a twenty year period over fifty million dollars would find its way back to families in Ireland helping the exodus from that dying country.

By the end of the 19th century, having a daughter in America was the best form of credit available in Ireland.

For many of them, America was, for all its hardships, was a liberating experience. If, in Ireland they had always been relegated to the status of second class citizens in America they found themselves earning a small but respectable income and enjoying a new status in a new land.

Because there was a real need for their services, it brought the Irish women in to the American mainstream faster than the Irish man.

In fairness, Irish women tended to face a little less discrimination and hostility then did the men, who were also terrifying sight to the Yankee. The Irish women tended to be more docile and less likely to speak their mind.

Working in the homes of the countries well-heeled elite, gave these Irish mothers a peek at what made these people successful and they copied it in their own families which, for all given purposes, they ran.

They mimicked the Yankees accents, their manners and their aspirations. Always the "pushers" in the matter of her children, it was the Irish women who spearheaded the charge of the Irish climb up the social ladder.

In so many ways, America was also a step up for the Irish women, who for untold centuries had always taken a back seat to the Irish man in Europe. In some parts of Ireland the women was a nonentity.

However, in America things were in reverse. Irish women owned land and received education’s and in most cases stayed in school longer then Irish males.

But all of these things came with a price. The conservative nature of the Irish male and the male dominated Catholic church frowned upon their public schools education’s, they resented the little bit of change that dangled in their aprons and they could be hostile to their success and the freedom of thought that came with it.

But no matter how much America changed them, Irish women never completed rebelled from what they had been or from the mode of thinking or morals that Ireland had impressed upon them.

The American Women's suffrage movement tried to bring them within their fold but every effort failed miserably.

The Irish women was already liberated in every way they knew by simply arriving in America alone and single and living long enough to tell tales about it.

It would be decades before the great mass of Irish, men or women would find a substantial footing in to the middle class. However, when the Irish did get there, it was the Irish women who got there first. But it was not without a price.

As a people, they brought with them to America Irish sexual pathos. It was a sub cultural divided along gender segregation with late or infrequent marriages and high rates of celibacy.

For the Irish man and his Church, it all made sense. Each of the sexes would have its own role, its own jobs and the world would be an orderly place.

In Ireland, among the city people and the middle class, it was the boys who were sent off to school to ready themselves for careers, but America would change that too.
In the new country, Irish Women who entered and graduated from grammar and high school far outnumbered Irish boys. It wasn't easy for them.

The Church went out of its way to condemn public school education, linking it with every evil known to mankind. Irish men, generally, were suspicious of the Irish females rush to educate themselves and no doubt resentful of the rewards it brought them afterwards.
It didn't help that the Irish women used her new found but hard earned prosperity to dress themselves in the style of the Yankee women of the day that they admired so much.

Catholic and Irish books and newspapers chastised their spending as self-indulgent boarding on selfishness. Some Irish men saw it all as just another sign that America had ruined the Irish women although its more than probable that what they really feared was that the next logic step for the Irish American women would be directly in to the ranks of what they saw as that Yankee inspired nightmare, women’s movement of the late 19th century.

John Boyle O'Reilly, a liberal’s liberal, called the women’s movement "degeneracy of the times

The Irish World wrote that "a Brooklyn women’s rights women named her three boys Susan, Mary and Kate"

On the other side of the fence, the Yankee Women Rights activists "New Women" they were called then, seemed to be constantly lecturing the Irish women about her role.

To that, O’Neill’s Irish Pictorial responded that "Society as now organized, takes them by the hand and embraces them, while the Irish women earning bread by labor, attending their religious duties and paying a portion of their wages to the building of churches and supporting schools, are despised and lectured against as dangerous"

The unsung heroes of Irish migration, the experiences of the Irish women were only slightly different from that of the men, and more then often, it was the Irish women who felt the greatest brunt of poverty and desperation that now cloaked the Irish across America.
Most of them had been farm girls in Ireland and they came to America without even the slightest notion of what to expect.

Few of them had ever seen a building taller than a simple country house, fewer still had ever been in a city.

For many of these young women, life in America was a confined nightmare. Mental disorders, breakdowns and alcohol took their deadly toll among them. In the decades that covered the 1850's, 60's and 70's. A full 80% of all Irish children died at birth. Death of the Irish male was twice that of the American born male and for Irish women, the statistics were about the same.

It was more or less the same all over the country. New York's Belview hospital reported that 85% of its inmate patients were Irish born, the numbers changed little or at all in Boston and New Orleans. Schizophrenia and alcohol related problems were the biggest killers that led the long list of disorders that took their toll on them well in to the 20th century
Desertion by husbands, themselves defeated and disgraced by the hardships of the new world, unheard of in Ireland reached alarming proportions in America.

But most of them stayed and eventually, ever so slowly, they prospered, taking whatever work they could find to feed their families, mostly as chamber maids, bar keepers and House cleaners.

For many of them, America was, for all its hardships, was a liberating experience. If, in Ireland they had always been relegated to the status of second class citizens (if even that) in America they found themselves earning a small but respectable income and enjoying a new status in a new land.

Because there was a real need for their services, it brought the Irish women in to the American mainstream faster than the Irish man.

In fairness, Irish women tended to face a little less discrimination and hostility then did the men, who were also terrifying sight to the Yankee. The Irish women tended to be more docile and less likely to speak their mind.

Working in the homes of the countries well-heeled elite, gave these Irish mothers a peek at what made these people successful and they copied it in their own families which, for all given purposes, they ran.

They mimicked the Yankees accents, their manners and their aspirations. Always the "pushers" in the matter of her children, it was the Irish women who spearheaded the charge of the Irish climb up the social ladder.

In so many ways, America was also a step up for the Irish women, who for untold centuries had always taken a back seat to the Irish man in Europe. In some parts of Ireland the women was a nonentity.

However, in America things were in reverse. Irish women owned land and received education’s (and in most cases stayed in school longer then Irish males)
But all of these things came with a price. The conservative nature of the Irish male and the male dominated Catholic church frowned upon their public schools education’s, they resented the little bit of change that dangled in their aprons and they could be hostile to their success and the freedom of thought that came with it.

But no matter how much America changed them, Irish women never completed rebelled from what they had been or from the mode of thinking or morals that Ireland had impressed upon them.

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