Many immigrants lived in tenements on the Lower East Side like this one to the left. In Sadlier's Bessy Conway, Paul Brannigan and Dolly Sheehan live poorly but comfortably in their tenement. But the tenement where Mary Murphy is forced to live -- after her husband deserts her -- burns down, with their cripped infant daughter asleep inside.
Life uptown was not necessarily any easier, judging from the photograph to the right, in what is now the Central Park area. This Harlem shanty-town is a far cry from the streets paved with gold, as Paul Branigan had predicted on the ocean journey from Ireland.
Many Irish women, like Bessy Conway, immigrated to the United States alone. A large number, like these women to the left, found work as domestic servants. As live-in servants, women could save enough money to pay for a dowry, help their families back home -- or simply keep up with the latest fashions.
Other immigrant women found work as laundry washers. This advertisement for detergent draws on the image of Irish laundry maids to sell soap.
For many immigrants, the neighborhood pub was a popular gathering place. In both The Blakes and the Flanagans and Bessy Conway, Sadlier suggests that alcoholism was a serious social problem in numerous immigrant families. In Sadlier's novels, it is the men who take up drinking, while their wives, children and mothers bear the heartbreak of poverty, domestic violence and disease so often associated with alcoholism.
The following excerpt from Chapter Seven of Bessy Conway paints a scene of life after quitting-time in a working-class pub.
One cold frosty evening towards the end of January, Ned was sanding behind the counter dealing out a something which he called brandy to three men whose begrimed faces indicated craftsmen, most probably workers in iron. These were taking "a standing dram" and as yet they were sober, but from the room adjoining the shop came sounds which indicated that men were there who had taken more than "a standing dram." Paul Brannigan shuddered as the sounds from within smote his ear and he shrank back in disgust from the fumes of whiskey and tobacco which filled the place, but he wanted to speak with Ned and so made up his mind to wait awhile in hopes that "mine host" would be disengaged. Not sorry to perceive that his entrance was unnoticed by Ned, he quietly retired to a corner where a low bench ran along the wall, and there established himself for the purpose of general observation.
He soon found that Ned's brandy was working wonders on the men at the bar. The calm and rational way in which they had been talking very soon gave way to louder tones and more excited gestures, together with a certain incoherence of sense which struck Paul forcibly. As their heads grew muddled their hearts grew softer; sundry expressions of goodwill were exchanged, and hands were shook ever so often with wonderful cordiality. They waxed generous, too, and must needs treat the landlord, ay! every one of them, for sure when one asked Ned to drink, another could be no worse, and, of coarse, Ned could refuse none without giving offense. So he took a small drop with each, just for good fellowship, cracking jokes the while with a fullness of good humor and pleasantry that won all hear s and went to establish his character as "a real jolly fellow."
Meanwhile others came in, some passing on into the room, some taking their stand at the counter. What with the influx of customers and the silver stream flowing therefrom into his drawer, and the various "treats" which he had been sharing, Ned was growing quite merry on it, and his big heart expanding in the warmth of the hour, he talked right and left with a superabundance of cordiality that would have been quite refreshing had his entertainment been nowise connected with dollars and cents. . . . As he proceeded in his brief narrative, Cassidy's face lighted up under the coat of coal dust that made his origin very questionable.