They Flicker Like Shadows
The story of Irish migration is both long and far reaching. For centuries, men and women have departed from Ireland, some hoping to one day return and others knowing they never would. In the years that followed the devastating Irish famine of the mid-nineteenth century, ever-increasing rents, ongoing hunger and widespread poverty led millions to set sail across the Atlantic for a new life in America.
This period is particularly interesting for its high numbers of young single female emigrants. Of the nearly 700,000 women who emigrated to the United States in the period 1885-1920, 89% were reported to be single. (1) The reasons for their departure are the subject of debate; some arguing that they were seeking independence and others suggesting that they left hoping to find a husband. (2) However, no one model can be applied to all female Irish emigrants. Even though the majority fled impoverished rural Catholic Ireland, others would have been from both the Catholic and Protestant middle classes, and their experiences would have differed greatly. What we do know is that in rural Ireland changes in farming techniques and the decline of domestic industries led to the deterioration of many women’s lives in the post-famine years. The dowry system and arranged marriages led many girls to became ‘closely guarded property’ (3) and for those not needed in marriage arrangements, opportunities were severely limited. It is many of these ‘superfluous daughters’ (4) who left Ireland for the long journey across the ocean.
Information on these women’s thoughts and feelings can often be elusive. Grace Neville stated that they, ‘flicker like shadows at the edges of [historian’s] perception’ (5) and so, hoping to discover more, Neville looked instead to folklore from The National Folklore Collection of Ireland. The collection is an invaluable resource when studying Irish people of this period, with a wealth of information collected from the first half of the twentieth century from over 40,000 informants all over Ireland. However, one must remember that the majority of collectors and informants were male, meaning that, although there is much to be discovered, one is still struck, ‘by the silence surrounding these female emigrants, all seven hundred thousand of them’. (6) Another consideration is that only a fraction of the archive is digitised, and that much of the information was collected and written in Irish. Other primary resources available to study folkloric materials of this period are the Irish Emigration Database which contains letters, poems and song lyrics, and the Irish Traditional Music Archive which has collections of lyrics as well as recordings of many traditional songs. Both contain a wealth of information on people’s thoughts and feelings, but, yet again, consideration must be taken about who is writing letters or lyrics, and why.
The songs transmitted by mouth and by ear from generation to generation express communal sentiments; they are the voice of the people commenting on themselves and upon their history. (7)
This quote from Monique Gallagher reflects how folk music can be a rich source of information on the thoughts and feelings of people in any period of history. However, although the Irish songs of this time definitely reflect their migration story, what is missing from them are the women who also departed. Despite roughly half of all emigrants at this time being women, the songs are almost always about men leaving for ‘Sweet Americay’, and women being left behind, either as weeping mothers or lost loves. When women did appear as emigrants themselves, they did not fare well, as the lyrics of Noreen Bawn show.
It seems that in songs, much like in history books, the stories of emigrant women’s lives are again flickering like shadows. Lyrics show a fictional doting lost love, waiting at home for her man to return, not the women sailing away to start new lives themselves. The subject of thousands of women leaving villages all around Ireland must have been a difficult one for such a patriarchal society. The women who left were often thought of as dowry hunters, and many informants in the folklore archive suggested that women often returned to marry once they had saved for their dowry. However, as Neville points out, the elderly people of Ireland in the 1930s would only remember those who did return and not those who stayed away for good. (8) Perhaps acknowledging that young single women were departing in just as high numbers as men was not something the predominantly male song writers were keen to record, and when they did, it was easier to give them a heartbreaking outcome than one of happiness and prosperity.
Once in America, music stayed important to the Irish, as songs of migration continued to be written and shared across both sides of the Atlantic. The new songs began to tell of a mythical Ireland, ‘with the distance of time and space, the real image of the beloved land is transmuted, transfigured’. (9) The harshness of the famine and the following years became replaced by a ‘lost paradise’ of green fields and golden sands, of Irish roses and sweet Colleens. (10) However, as can be seen from Bridget Donahue and the Famous Irish Songs songsheet, the emigrant women, who lived alongside these Irish American songwriters, are still missing, they remain as shadows, it is still only the women in Ireland who are spoken of.
1.Grace Neville, ‘She Never Then After That Forgot Him”: Irishwomen and Emigration to the United States in Irish Folklore’, Mid-America, vol. 74, no. 3, (1992), 271-289, (p. 271)
2. For further reading on this debate, see Kerby A. Miller, ‘For Love and liberty’: Irish Women, migration and domesticity in Ireland and America, 1815-1920 in Kerby A. Miller, David N. Doyle and Patrick Ed. O’Sullivan (eds), Irish women and Irish migration (London, 1995), pp. 41-65.
3. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, (New York, 1985), (p. 406)
4. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, (New York, 1985), (p. 407)
5. Grace Neville, ‘She Never Then After That Forgot Him”: Irishwomen and Emigration to the United States in Irish Folklore’, Mid-America, vol. 74, no. 3, (1992), 271-289, (p. 272)
6. Grace Neville, ‘She Never Then After That Forgot Him”: Irishwomen and Emigration to the United States in Irish Folklore’, Mid-America, vol. 74, no. 3, (1992), 271-289, (p. 287)
7.Monique Gallagher, ‘Images of Ireland in Songs of Exile and Emigration’, Études irlandaises, Hors-Série (1994), 145-165, (p. 145)
8. Grace Neville, ‘She Never Then After That Forgot Him”: Irishwomen and Emigration to the United States in Irish Folklore’, Mid-America, vol. 74, no. 3, (1992), 271-289
9.& 10. Monique Gallagher, ‘Images of Ireland in Songs of Exile and Emigration’, Études irlandaises, Hors-Série (1994), 145-165, (p. 163)
Further Reading and Research
Erick Falc’her-Poyroux, ‘The Great Irish Famine in Songs’, French Journal of British Studies, XIX-2, (2014), 157-172,
Grace Neville, ‘Rites de passage. Rituals of separation in Irish oral tradition‘ in Charles Fanning (ed.), New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora (Illinois, 2000), pp 117-30
I Got the Shamrock, Glad to Get It
In the nineteenth century, many people in rural Ireland would still have had a belief in fairies (the Sí or ‘good people’), who had lived alongside them in the countryside throughout time. Alongside this, many would also have had a healthy regard for local folk healers or wise women (mná feasa) (1), who offered protections and cures to local communities. It seems that folk medicine and charms happily sat alongside an at least nominal Catholicism in rural Ireland, with amulets and talismans being as important to some as crosses and holy water. Women were closely linked to the old remedies, cures and protections, and some of them, such as Biddy Early, had a mythical fame that lasted beyond her lifetime and spread far from her home in County Clare. With this ongoing belief in folk remedies, charms and talismans, it is little wonder that some of the items listed as being taken to America with Irish emigrants included objects of popular belief.
Items of luck and protection mentioned in the folklore archive include shamrocks, dried cauls for protection at sea and Irish turf to place in shoes so that the emigrant would always walk on Irish soil. (2) There is also an account of pubic hair being sewn in to hems of underclothes, to ‘offer protection when going into immigration’. (3) These tokens must have held great significance for both giver and recipient for them to have been taken on the long journey ahead, and it worth exploring the beliefs behind some of them.
A baby born in its caul (amniotic membrane) was widely thought to be not just lucky, but also to be immune from drowning. (4) This immunity would be transferred to those it was given to, or sold to, and this protective association made it a popular talisman for sailors or for anyone embarking on a long voyage. The gift of a piece of caul for protection during the emigrant’s weeks at sea would have been well received by those who had heard tell of the dreadful voyage ahead.
It is an old belief that hair should be disposed of carefully when cut, as it would still hold a sympathetic connection to the body and thus could be used for harm against a person. (5) In the right hands, though, this sympathetic connection could also be used for cures or protection. It is hard to say what the actual thinking was behind the pubic hair sewn in to a hem, but it is likely that it was thought to have a protective quality through this sympathetic connection, that it was pubic hair suggests protection from unwanted advances.
Of all the tokens gifted to the emigrant, it is the shamrock that is the most familiar for its association with Ireland and the Irish. A type of clover that grows freely in the meadows of the ‘Emerald Isle’, it became associated with the country’s patron saint, St. Patrick, and thus became an emblem of Ireland. A sprig of Shamrock was traditionally worn on St Patrick’s Day, alongside a cross and it was also dipped in drink and eaten, known as “wetting the shamrock”. A four leaved shamrock, was thought to be particularly lucky and also provided protection from witchcraft. (6)
This small plant was seen as a link to home, not only was it taken with emigrants when the left Ireland, but it was also regularly sent to relatives in America, especially around St Patrick’s Day.
The letters of Annie Carroll, living in Chicago, show that she received a shamrock in the post from her sister at least annually and that it was an important reminder of home. (1892: ‘I received your letter…with the shamrock in it. I was very glad to get it’; 1893 ‘I got the shamrock, glad to get it’; 1895 ‘The shamrock came all right’) (7)
The shamrock remained as an important symbol of home to the Irish in America, and can still be seen in abundance every 17th March on St Patrick’s Day. ‘The shamrock is one of the most widely recognised symbols in the English-speaking world, effectively connoting “Irishness”, and easily eclipsing Ireland’s official symbol, the harp’. (8)
If the shamrock remained as an important link to home, so did some of the popular beliefs of a past age. Kerby Miller reports that belief in fairies persisted in the eastern textile cities and western mining towns of America until at least the late nineteenth century. (9) Also, the name of the folk healer, Biddy Early, was still known among Irish Americans in the 1970s, ‘At the present time, she is as famous in North America as she is in Ireland, and knowledge of her legend (…) can be found among people of Irish descent in communities from Boston to California’.(10)
1. Marion Dowd, ‘Bewitched by an Elf Dart: Fairy Archaeology, Folk Magic and Traditional Medicine in Ireland‘, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol. 28, Issue 3, (2018), 451-73
2. Grace Neville, ‘Rites de passage. Rituals of separation in Irish oral tradition‘ in Charles Fanning (ed.), New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora (Illinois, 2000), pp 117-30
3. Grace Neville, ‘Rites de passage. Rituals of separation in Irish oral tradition‘ in Charles Fanning (ed.), New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora (Illinois, 2000), pp 117-30, (p. 128)
4. & 5. Steve Roud, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, (London, 2003)
6. Niall Mac Coitir, Ireland’s Wild Plants – Myths, Legends and Folklore, (Cork 2017)
7. Letters between Annie Carroll in Chicago and her sister Mary [Carroll] in Co. Louth, housed in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Ref: PRONI, T3258/58/1-10 https://apps.proni.gov.uk/eCatNI_IE/ResultDetails.aspx
8. Steve Roud, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, (London, 2003)
9. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, (New York, 1985), (p. 521)
10. Richard Jenkins, ‘The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies’, Folklore, Vol. 118, No. 2, (2007), 162-182, (p. 171)
Further Reading and Research
Annie Thwaite, ‘A History of Amulets in Ten Objects‘, Science Museum Group Journal, issue 11 (Spring 2019)
In This Way, She Raised Her Family “Up”
The young Irish women (…) entered America through the back door, arriving through the kitchens of Yankee homes (1)
After a long and often dangerous sea crossing, many immigrants would hope to be ‘claimed’ by family or friends at the port. Without having someone to meet them, young women could be particularly vulnerable at this point, with a life of prostitution an inevitable outcome for some. The task of finding work and lodgings in a time of widespread prejudice against the Irish would have been a difficult one. For women, job opportunities were limited and the vast majority of female Irish emigrants began their life working in domestic service, commonly known as ‘Bridgets’.
Hasia Diner (3) argues that, even though they still faced prejudice and isolation in their domestic service roles, young Irish women fared better than young men in their adjustment to American life. They were able to learn about America through its food and cooking, observing what middle class Americans ate and how they ate it. They then took this back to their communities, ‘in this way, Irish women brought their families “up”’ – food becomes a story of aspiration. (4)
The idea of food as a vehicle for upward mobility can be seen in Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire and Pádraic Óg Gallagher’s study on Irish corned beef. (5) Although corned beef had long been exported from Ireland, it was an expensive dish only eaten by upper classes on special occasions. On arrival in America the Irish population soon realised that they could buy corned beef from local Jewish butchers at a reasonable price and so chose this exclusive meat to show their raised status, eating beef was a sign of bettering themselves. In James T. Farrell’s novel, Studs Lonigan (1932) the main character says that his father remembers his days as a ‘pauperized greenhorn’ and now he ate beef, proving that he had raised himself up in the world. (6)
The legacy of this choice remains today, as corned beef and cabbage has become a St Patrick’s Day staple for Irish Americans, and is considered by many to be a quintessential Irish food despite the fact that it is not a popular dish in Ireland itself. In an Irish Times interview, Irish American, Bob Brooks, explains his St Patrick’s Day routine, ‘we go to my sister’s house, and she has the corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner that we always used to have as kids’. Similarly, Beverley McDonald states, ‘We went to our grandmother’s in South Boston, and she would cook corned beef and cabbage’. (7) As we can see, it is also still the women who are cooking the St. Patrick’s Day meal.
Foodways can also show us the aspiration of the settled immigrants through how they chose to serve their food. An archaeological investigation of Irish tenement buildings in New York and individual houses in New Jersey shows how choice of tableware changed between 1850 and 1910, reflecting a cultural shift from Irish working class to American middle class. (8) The earlier shards found were of ceramic ware suitable for serving ‘tea’, over time glassware appeared, reflecting a more American dinner setting and finally the late nineteenth century choice of white graniteware showed the Irish women choosing exactly the same tableware as their middle class American contemporaries. Consumer culture based on material wealth was seen as symbolic of improved standards of living and outward expressions of social worth. This would be highly important to the immigrant trying to shrug off the famine era prejudice. These finds also fit in well with Historians’ assertion that 1880 was the beginning of an identity shift from Irish immigrant to Irish-American, a ‘slow process of blending values and behaviours from Ireland while adopting new ways from America.’ (9)
The scrapbook cookbooks (from the 1880s to 1920) of Ulsterwoman Agnes McCloskey show a settled Irish woman’s determination to cook ‘middle class’ food, with recipes cut from American newspapers and lovingly added to her scrapbook. Many of her recipes came from Maria Parloa, whose cookbooks and talks introduced French food to many well-to-do Americans. It was a ‘cuisine of social ambition’, of the type seen on trans-Atlantic steamships and Agnes’s collection of these recipes shows her desire to ‘raise her status’. (10) Like many female Irish immigrants to America, McCloskey started her new life in domestic service, before marrying in 1894 and then setting up a restaurant of her own. Her scrapbooks tell the story of a woman writing her own story through the food she cooked.
Through foodways, we get an insight in to the aspirations of many Irish women making new lives in America. When they had little voice of their own, due to position and gender, they found a way to raise their place in the world through the food they chose, how they cooked it and how they served it to their families and friends. With Agnes McCloskey, we have a true example of an Irish ‘Bridget’ learning about American middle class foodways during her years of domestic service and using them to raise her own family “up”.
1. Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, (Cambridge 2001), (p. 115)
2. For further reading on No Irish Need Apply, see, Richard Jensen, ‘”No Irish Need Apply”: A Myth of Victimization‘, Journal of Social History, Vol. 36, No. 2, (Winter 2002), 405-429 and Rebecca A. Fried, ‘No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA‘, Journal of Social History, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Summer 2016), 829-852
3. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, (New York, 1985), (p. 494)
4. Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, (Cambridge 2001), (p. 116)
5. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire and Pádraic Óg Gallagher, ‘Irish Corned Beef: A Culinary History‘, Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, vol. 9, no. 1, (2011), 27-43
6. Note: ‘Greenhorn’ was a name for the newly arrived Irish in America – in Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, (Cambridge 2001), (p. 124)
7. Rosita Boland, ‘How Irish-America Sees Ireland‘, The Irish Times, 21 October 2016
8. & 9. Stephen A. Brighton, ‘Middle-Class Ideologies and American Respectability: Archaeology and the Irish Immigrant Experience‘, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 15, no. 1, (2011), 30-50 (p.44)
10. Mary F. Wack, ‘Recipe Collecting, Embodied Imagination, and Transatlantic Connections in an Irish Emigrant’s Cooking’, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 41, (2018), 100-123
Further Reading and Research
Mark Bulik, 1854: No Irish Need Apply, New York Times, 08 September 2015