Jan 16, 2014
08:59 AM
History

Shades of Downton Abbey: Irish Domestics in Connecticut

Shades of Downton Abbey: Irish Domestics in Connecticut

Catherine O’Connell: One of three Irish sisters who worked in New Haven and Derby in early 20th century.

“We’re so used to hearing the history of presidents and generals and founders of towns, but far too little is heard about the average people who came to this country,” says Neil Hogan, who will be presenting the lecture “Irish Women in Domestic Service” at the New Haven Museum on Jan. 23 at 5:30 p.m. “Not just the Irish but any of them. The skills they brought with them, the customs, and so forth. There are so many interesting little stories about ethnic history in this country, and they sort of get passed over.”

Hogan, the editor of the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society's newsletter, The Shanachie, will be sharing a number of those stories, particularly about the young immigrants in Connecticut who were driven from their homeland by the intense poverty that pervaded Ireland through much of the 19th and early-20th centuries. “If you wanted to succeed in any way or wanted to have some economic stability or well being, you came to America,” he says, noting that many women were often forced into lowly jobs as domestics, having arrived on American shores with no family, no money and little—if any—education. “Most of them came from very rural places, so they didn’t have a lot of skills when they arrived. Most didn’t come here in families—one woman would come over, one man would come over, they’d make some money here and send it back, and then somebody else would come, and so forth.” Being a domestic servant was considered among the lowest of jobs, with most Americans feeling such menial work was well below them.

Hogan notes that the first Irish immigrants started arriving in 1653, only about 20 years after colonies were founded. Many of them would arrive in some state of indenture, needing to work a number of years to pay off their passage to the New World. By the mid-19th century, however, the Irish were arriving in larger numbers, but the majority of women were still finding employment as domestic servants. In “Connecticut’s Irish Domestics,” which Hogan wrote for Connecticut Explored, he shares how during the 1850 Norwalk census, 57 of 58 Irish women living in town who worked were employed as domestics (the other one was a home nurse).

According to Hogan, the 1880 census showed that there were 4,789 Irish-born women living in Connecticut and laboring as domestic servants; by 1900, that number would grow to 5,571, which would be the high point. He points out that more than half the women were under the age of 25.

Many of the working Irish women in Connecticut were employed by prominent families, including those of Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum and J.B. Sargent. And although the lives of domestic servants have been somewhat romanticized on the popular PBS program “Downton Abbey,” that portrayal isn’t exactly in line with real experiences.  

From Hogan’s “Connecticut’s Irish Domestics”: Work hours were long, averaging 10 hours a day and 60 to 70 hours per week. Hourly wages were lower than those for women in other occupations. Although the value of room and board increased the servant’s overall compensation, some servants lived in cellars or attics and had limited guest privileges. The duties of one middle-aged Hartford Irish woman who had been a domestic servant since she was a young girl included cooking, serving, cleaning, answering the phone, and helping to care for two children in a family of seven in a 16-room house."

Even in the midst of a large household, being a domestic could be a lonely life. Some women bonded with their employers, becoming like members of the family, but many more were treated poorly or as an afterthought. They usually didn’t get much time off, nor were they encouraged to mingle socially with the families they served. For a young woman an ocean away from home and family, it made for a very tough existence. But it wasn’t all bleak.

“One of the women I know submitted a story about her grandmother—a woman who started a boarding house in the Wooster Square area of New Haven for domestic servants,” says Hogan. “They would have like one day a week off, and on that one day off, they’d come to this house where they would be among their own, in a sense. Other Irish servants would be there, and that’s how they would spend their day off.”

He also mentions the story of Mary McKeon, who at 16 came from Cashcarrigan, County Leitrim, in 1883 and settled in New Haven, and kept a diary detailing her experiences. “One of the things she’d talk about over and over again in this diary is how [the Irish domestics] would go to Mass on Sunday and meet each other, or on an evening, they might walk downtown to New Haven. She would talk about her friends who were servants in other houses and how they’d meet. And that was their whole sort of recreation. They kind of clung together during any time they had off.”  

Like many of the immigrants, McKeon didn’t necessarily want to come to America, and missed her family—and Ireland—greatly. Unfortunately, in most cases, there was no turning back. “It was very tough to come here by yourself and take such a job,” says Hogan. “Especially in the early years—well, definitely up to 1900—most of them didn’t have a hope of getting back to Ireland. They didn’t think they’d ever have enough money, and they probably didn’t ever make enough to sail back. It wasn’t like you were coming over here on a lark and you went back for vacations. You were here to stay.”

And stay they did.

“Irish Women in Domestic Service” is part of “Connecticut at Work,” a year-long conversation about the past, present and future of work life in Connecticut. The program is supported by Connecticut Humanities. It is offered in conjunction with Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square, which runs through May 31, and is co-sponsored by the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society and Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University.

For more info, visit newhavenmuseum.org.
 

Shades of Downton Abbey: Irish Domestics in Connecticut

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