The Irish Domestic Servant

Sadlier's Bessy Conway focuses on one of the central narratives in Irish immigrant life: the role of single Irish women and the domestic servant. The Irish were the only immigrant group in which women, especially single women, outnumbered men (Diner, 30), and the only group that chose to migrate in primarily female cliques (Diner, xiv). Domestic service was by far the most popular career choice for these immigrants; more than 60 percent of all Irish-born working women labored as servants (Diner, 89). The attraction of "living out" or "going into service" was great: Irish domestics could earn 50 percent more than saleswomen, 25 percent more than textile works; had no expenses for food, housing, shelter, heat, water, or transportation; as well as live in pleasant, middle-class neighborhoods, as opposed to the tenements occupied by factory workers. Most importantly, Irish women could save up to several thousand dollars as domestics, which they invariably sent home to their impoverished families (Diner, 90). Most of the money that flowed east across the Atlantic to post-Famine Ireland came, in fact, not from Irish men but from women, many of were still able to put enough aside to create their own dowries and establish families in the New World (Miller, 76-77).

By contrast, women in post-Famine Ireland had little opportunity to find work -- or a husband. Irish priests, however, did not view the wave of single women departing for the States as positively as many of the women did themselves. The Catholic Church, and Sadlier along with it, came out strongly against women immigrating alone, fearing that America was a godless land ready to devour the innocence of Irish "colleens." Sadlier broaches both these trends -- the amazing financial success of Irish women in the United States, as well as the dangers to their morality.

As Bessy Conway illustrates, Irish domestic servants still had to contend with anti-Catholic prejudice. While Sadlier's anti-Protestant writings sound bigoted today, she and other Catholic political leaders were not entirely groundless in their fears that Protestants were using the schools as a religious battlefield. Lyman and Catharine Beecher were motivated to leave Protestant New England for the western frontier of Cincinnati by a desire to halt the spread of Catholicism, due largely to the influx of poor Irish and German immigrants: "Just as Lyman Beecher had viewed Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary as a fortress against Episcopalianism in Connecticut, so her female college and his male seminary would be bastions against infidelism and Roman Catholicism in Ohio" (Hedrick, 68). Harriet Beecher Stowe, who relied on immigrants for domestic labor, used a German servant as the basis for a short story lampooning the ignorance of an immigrant servant. In "Trials of a Housekeeper," Stowe mocks a Dutch servant's physique and ignorance of American housekeeping practices. It was common for middle-class women to hire Irish women as domestics, while lamenting their unsuitability for the job. That some of the leading American writers showed this kind of antagonism to Irish Catholics illustrates why so much Irish immigrant writing is defensive and suspicious about American society. When Eliza Blake remarks, "How tiresome these Irish servants are!" she shows that she has appropriated dominant Nativist stereotypes of immigrants (Blakes and Flanagans, 302).

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