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Reading Under the Hawthorn Tree as a child, the first title in Marita Conlon McKenna’s Children of the Famine trilogy, I found myself initially drawn to the character of Eily. Her selflessness in caring for her younger siblings impressed me, and I admired her courage as she led them to safety across famine-ravaged Ireland. My attachment would prove fickle as the series progressed, however, and Peggy, the younger sister, pushed her way to the heart of the story.
Wildflower Girl, the second book in the series, moved readers along seven years, and Peggy was now 13; several years older than I was reading the book, and commanding of my respect as a result. She was now someone to look up to, the latest fictional character to strive to emulate. I empathised with her struggle to carve out an identity for herself, and admired her audacity to dream despite the hardship of her situation. When a letter confirming paid passage to America arrived in her name, I read with relish and excitement for all that lay ahead.
That Great-Aunt Nano had described the business of emigrating as ‘being put on a coffin ship to the New World’ was inconsequential, as I could only see what Peggy saw; hope, opportunity and adventure ahead. Nothing sounded grander than boarding a great ship like the Fortunata, working as a skivvy in Boston, and rising through the ranks as the characters of Mrs Halligan and Miss Madden had. Peggy had the world at her feet, I thought, and I was eager to see her succeed.
Living in Boston today, I am reminded of Wildflower Girl and Peggy’s adventures. I wonder how her life unfolded here, if her dreams were realised. It leads me to wonder, too, about the lives of the real Irish women her character represented. As many as 700,000 of them are said to have migrated to America between the years 1885 and 1920 alone, the majority of them single, unaccompanied and under the age of 24.
Who were these women, and what was their experience of the New World?
Mary McKeon’s is a story that already sounds familiar. Like Peggy, she set sail for America at 13, arriving in Connecticut and working as a skivvy in multiple households before marrying. Originally from County Leitrim, Mary emigrated in search of opportunity after the famine, staying with her aunt and uncle before securing employment in a house. Diary entries examined by Patricia Ann Pawlak give insight into the sometimes lonely, but generally contented life she led in America; she worked for a kind family who treated and fed her well, and allowed her to have guests to the house.
Mary’s experience is noted by Pawlak as being unusually positive, however, and such a level of kindness and support from employers was likely the exception to the rule. A more common reaction from employers probably resembled that of the writer, Louisa May Alcott, towards her maid, Biddy.
In an 1874 column for The Boston Evening Transcript, Alcott wrote about her ‘servant-girl problem’, namely the ‘Irish incapables’ who reigned in her household. She noted that Biddy, although ‘unusually intelligent’, could not overcome ‘the faults of her race’. Alcott’s solution, upon firing Biddy and not wishing the cycle to continue, was to state in her next advertisement that ‘No Irish Need Apply’.
Alcott’s attitude is reflective of the disdain towards Irish people in American society at the time, and her description of Irish domestics is in keeping with the stereotype of ‘Bridget’, the incompetent and ill-mannered maid frequently lampooned in the press. Pawlak notes it was the poor Catholic background and ‘lack of understanding of American middle-class values’ Irish women had that gave rise to this cruel stereotype, perpetuating the notion among American employers that they were more trouble than they were worth.
There is no denying the prejudice and discrimination the Irish faced at this time, but Carolyn R. Maibor asserts it was not a one-way street. In her academic work on the subject, she states that ‘no class had a monopoly on prejudice’, and references the story of an Irish cook who refused to work for a family, despite them being ‘nice appearing people’, when she discovered they were Jewish. Margaret Lynch-Brennan further examines anti-Semitic and racist attitudes of Irish women in her book, The Irish Bridget, and references a letter sent from an Irish maid, with the means to hire her own help, to a friend:
‘What do you supose I got a Collored maid she is black as the ace of spades but a good worker … the only thing about them is they smell so bad and steal all the eye can see but mine is a cathelick’
Lynch-Brennan notes many Irish were quick to adapt the hostile and racist attitudes held by American society towards African-Americans at the time, participating in their oppression because they viewed them as competitors. Her findings echo the sentiments of Frederick Douglass on the matter:
‘The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. The cruel lie is told them, that we deprive them of labor and receive the money which would otherwise make its way into their pockets. Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake’
In the context of my beloved Peggy, and the young Irish women who inspired her character, these insights are all the more troubling. Knowing the names of some of these women, what personal hopes and dreams they harboured and even what their handwriting looked like, they feel familiar to me now. In turn, I feel protective of them. I can’t imagine them treating fellow immigrants and other marginalised groups as inferior, or actively seeking to maintain their oppression to get ahead.
Or maybe I just don’t want to. After all, it is much more pleasant to think of them caught up in the excitement of sending a daguerreotype home for the first time, or saving enough of a modest income to buy a new winter coat in a well-to-do ladies’ shop. It is more pleasant to think of them working hard, persevering in the face of adversity and negotiating the terms of their new home with integrity. It is more pleasant to think of them as I thought of Peggy when reading Wildflower Girl as a child.
Here in Boston, I regularly encounter Irish-Americans who excitedly inform me of their heritage, right down to the port their ancestors set sail from. They tell me of trips they have made to the Old Country, or hope to one day. They are proud of their heritage and of the achievements of their ancestors, and it would be easy to get swept up in their excitement. But I mustn’t let myself, at least not entirely.
The tale of the triumphant Irish immigrant is, undoubtedly, a valid narrative, but it isn’t the only one. Though it is uncomfortable to think about, to deny or diminish the oppression many Irish inflicted on marginalised groups in order to rise themselves would be to erase the pain and hurt and suffering they caused. It is not a pleasant narrative, but it is real, and we must confront it as much as any other. We have a responsibility to question and examine it, however shameful it might be, in order to truly understand and learn from it.
I will always think fondly of Peggy, twirling playfully among the wildflowers, stockings damp with dew as she imagined her new life in America. Her story was an honourable starting point in the history of Irish-America, but there is more to learn, more stories to be heard. It’s time to look more closely.