The Myth of The Strong Irish Immigrant Servant Woman

An Analysis of Novels by Sadlier, McElgun and Atwood

Master's Thesis, 2006

100 Pages, Grade: 80



1. Acknowledgements

2. Introduction: “Far at sea”

3. The “Devine Providence”: The Irish Servant Girl and Religion

4. “Morning makes you look prettier”: The Irish Servant Girl and Gender

5. Reinforcing Stereotypes: The Irish Servant Girl, Class and Ethnicity

6. Conclusion: “Success, slow but sure”

7. Appendix

8. Bibliography

1. Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Dr. Marguérite Corporaal who, with enormous patience, read through my draft versions and motivated me to improve every page.

2. Introduction: “Far at Sea”

“Emigrants were well aware of … the suffering with which they had paid and they were proud: they stated as much in the bittersweetness of their songs: ‘how many tears this America costs.”[1]

History of a conquered country

Ireland has been a troubled nation for many centuries. Over the centuries it has dealt with conquerors, loss of culture, poverty, hunger and political strife. The emerald isle was entirely conquered and colonized by the British in the second part of the sixteenth century. Before this period there had also been some British settlements, but not enough to speak of true colonization.[2] After the colonization Ireland’s inhabitants were labeled as savages by their English colonizers and were denied their national identity and any basic (democratic) rights.[3] Furthermore, they were overtly ridiculed for being Catholic. Many Irish abandoned their language and their culture, for adapting to the British could mean a method to find work and therefore surviving poverty and unemployment. However, as sociologist John Ardagh argues “British colonizers sucked it [Ireland] for its farm produce but did little to promote its economy.”[4] In other words, Irish economy in those days depended largely on agriculture. An agricultural society is of course fully acceptable, but as Ardagh explains later on in his rhetoric: “much of the [Irish] soil is too stony and infertile to offer its farmers a decent living.”[5]

The best proof for Ardagh’s statement is the well-known Irish potato famine during the 1840’s. This dreadful famine prolonged the Irish suffering and brought it to new lows. Moreover, it was not only the native Irish who were duped in the nineteenth century by poverty and hunger. Irish Protestants in the North, often descendants from early Scottish colonists, were experiencing the same inconveniences as the Catholic natives. They too had problems because of the bad crops and were experiencing poverty and famine.[6] These problems which were therefore applicable to both Catholic and Protestant Irish - the unemployment rate, the oppressive rule of the British and the potato famine – caused various enormous emigration waves from all over Ireland in the nineteenth century.

Most emigrants chose to try their luck in America, hiring themselves as indentured servants, so their crossing would be paid for, or they took their last pieces of money to pay for it themselves.[7] Many had no idea what they would meet or do once on the other side of the ocean. The numbers of Irish immigrants coming to America was enormous, and this massive exodus left Ireland half empty. As Lynette Kelly ironically notes: “Between 1841 and 1922, the number of sheep and cattle in Ireland was doubled, but [because of emigration] the population halved.”[8] Of the total number of immigrants coming into the U.S. between 1820 and 1840 the percentage of Irish was forty-three percent, and by 1860 the Irish-born population in America consisted of about 1.5 million people.[9] As can be expected this enormous influx of Irish into America caused problems, both for the Americans as for the Irish themselves.

Most new Irish immigrants did not move further into America but lingered in the east. This resulted in tremendous groups of Irish clinging together. For example a third of Boston’s inhabitants was of Irish descent by 1860.[10] Moreover, as Christine Bolt and A. Robert Lee write, many of these numerous newcomers were very poor, unschooled and Catholic. These characteristics caused a strain on their environment as they needed housing, welfare or at least aid, and fitting jobs for unskilled workers. Furthermore, Catholicism was not a majority religion in Protestant and formally British America. According to Kevin Kenny the American Catholic Church was dominated by the newly immigrated Irish, and in fact only had a great increase in members because of the Irish immigrants.[11] This all caused a lot of trouble and strife in a society which had just formed itself. The American Catholic church rejected public schools and established parish schools for all Catholic Irish immigrant children. According to American nativists, things like parish schools showed that the Catholic Irish immigrants had no desire to integrate into American society.[12] Furthermore, the Catholic Irish immigrants were still on bad footage with their Protestant peers. For example, the Catholic Irish immigrant community tried to stop an Orange march in New York City in 1871. When the mayor did permit the march anyway a part of the Catholic Irish community attacked the small group of Protestant Irish during the march.[13] This variety of reasons influenced American popular opinion and because of all these problems popular opinion on these new inhabitants soon became negative. At some point Irish immigrants were viewed by a myriad of Americans as a “mass of ignorance and intemperance which disgraces our cities.”[14] A result of these anti-Irish feeling was the fact that the Americans tried to take away certain rights from the Irish newcomers, for example their right to vote or to have a say in politics at all.[15]

Yet, according to Richard Jensen it is difficult to prove whether the Irish were actually discriminated against.[16] In his essay “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of
Victimization” Jensen tries to get to the bottom of the myth whether Irish-Catholic immigrants were actually refused work because of their background through “No Irish Need Apply” signs, or whether these ideas are just a myth. His conclusion is that, though these signs come back in popular Irish-American songs and poetry, they probably were a myth. He thinks that “[t]he NINA slogan had the effect of reinforcing political, social and religious solidarity.”[17] In other words, the idea that the Catholic Irish immigrants were discriminated against made sure the group clung together. The illusion of discrimination made the Irish a homogeneous group against the Protestant Anglo-American culture. Furthermore, Jensen argues that this myth of discrimination had an financial function as well. He argues that “[i]t had a major economic role as well, strengthening the politicized work-gang outlook of Irish workers who had to stick together at all times. It warned the Irish against looking for jobs outside their community, and it explained away their low individual rates of upward social mobility.”[18] In other words, the Irish thought that if they stuck together in American society they had a stronger position, and at the same time it again preserved the unity within the Irish American community.

Yet at the same time there is enough evidence to contradict Jensen’s positive anti-discriminatory stand. Kerby Miller argues that there were indeed signs urging Irish laborers not to apply; in fact, he even argues that Irish were sometimes refused entrance to American establishments such as hotels and restaurants.[19] Moreover, in contemporary literature of the period the Irish are sometimes depicted in a very stereotypical manner. In Stephen Crane’s classic novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets an Irish immigrant family is described. The way in which this family is portrayed is not very positive, for they are shown to speak coarse English and act rudely towards each other and other Americans. For example, one of the family members screams in his fury: “I’ll kill deh jay! Dat’s what I’ll do! I’ll kill deh jay!”[20] The Irish also seem to return the courtesy of discrimination to ethnic groups which could at that time be placed below them. For instance, Italian-American writer Gay Talese is negative about the Irish in his novel. He argues that at his Catholic-Irish school he was bullied for being olive skinned and of Italian descent, instead of being an Irish-Catholic.[21] Thus, all in all, it can be concluded that the Irish held an awkward position within American society. At the same time they were an opposed group to the majority and the oppressor to other minorities.

A rriving in the New World as an Irish immigrant girl

The number of female and male Irish immigrants was unequal. According to Alan Brinkley “[m]any Irish immigrants were young, single women.”[22] This statement raises many questions which Brinkley unfortunately does not answer. According to the sources there could be various reasons for the vast number of female Irish immigrants. For example Donna Gabaccia argues that “[g]iven a high degree of gender hostility in Irish culture, Irish women weighed wage-earning spinsterhood and convent life against marriage and sometimes found the latter too risky.”[23] In other words, for some of these girls the escape to America meant their own individual freedom from the patriarchal Irish society they were born into. Social scientist Robert E. Kennedy comes with a similar conclusion, arguing that women in Ireland were subjected to discrimination. Sons were treated better than daughters; for example sons were given more food. He explains: “Daughters would have been unaware of these indices, but they were not unaware of their low status vis-à-vis their brothers and of their future low status as wives …. The uncommonly high number of single women in the Irish immigration may be seen as an early Women’s Liberation Movement.”[24] The ideas alive in the nineteenth century on why so many Irish girls left for America were quite different, though. Maxime Schwartz Seller explains that, for example, a nineteenth-century Irish priest described in great detail the sacrifices Irish immigrant women made to help their families back in Ireland. The priest argues that though the Irish girls are far away they are still first and foremost thinking of their families back home. Yet, perhaps this can still go hand in hand with for example Kennedy’s argument, for Seller explains that the immigrant girl’s family was now depending on her. In other words, the family had to treat the girl better as they were relying on her financial status. So this means that finding work as an immigrant girl meant upward mobility within the family hierarchy.

After arriving in America Irish immigrant girls usually had two work options. Either they became factory workers or they became domestic servants. Factory work was often very hard labor. The factories were dirty, dangerous and the women were often badly paid. Many factories held “piecework systems”, which meant that the women were paid for every item of, for example, clothing they finished. Mathew Carey writes about factories in Boston and New York where these practices were standard: “They [Irish women] were paid between 6-10 cents a shirt and worked about 13-14 hours a day. Since they could only make nine shirts a week, the maximum pay was about 90 cents a week.”[25] The women working in such factories were also much more prone to being hassled by their superiors and male co-workers as the working environment was often unprotected.[26] This work was thus heavy and dangerous and not fit for everybody. Being a domestic servant could thus sound much more appealing; it was thought that this was a safe environment for women and that it was a job they were already used to. In the nineteenth century, and sometimes still now, the household was in fact seen as a woman’s business. Furthermore, as Gabaccia argues, “Irish Catholicism and traditions of sex segregation made domestic service particularly attractive to Irish women, who saw work in middle-class homes as a protection against undesired contacts with men.”[27] It is perhaps for this reason that at some point there were many Irish immigrant girls working as servants in the various North American homes. According to Gabaccia about 81 percent of employed Irish immigrants was working as a domestic servant.[28] Interestingly enough, the fact that Irish immigrant girls so massively became domestic servants is not something typical for all females among the various immigrant groups. Elizabeth Ewen, for example, recounts the story of a Jewish mother saying: “Is this what I came to America for, that my children should become servants?”[29] In other words, for Jewish families letting their children work as servants was a cause to frown upon. But, Gabaccia argues, “Irish girls saw work in a middle-class urban kitchen as a step up from farm labor. It introduced women to bourgeois domestic practices and to the rudiments of genteel womanhood.”[30]

Still, not everything was as ideal as it seems. Marilyn Barber distinguishes three major problems the nineteenth-century Irish immigrant servants encountered in North America (especially Canada).[31] First of all, these women had no official training for being servants. This means they had a lot of difficulties learning the trade and the behavior of a domestic servant. Their lack of knowledge often led their masters and mistresses to believe they were inept. Secondly, employers often saw these girls as lower-class Catholic women, and thus treated them accordingly. This meant the girls often led isolated lives within the household. They were given the lower jobs, such as doing the dishes, and were ignored or put down by the other servants.[32] Thirdly, many of these Irish immigrant girls came from rural Irish areas where they had little experience with extensive kitchens, and they often had problems adapting to their new often urban North American lifestyle. They were not used to the grandeur of the big cities, and had no idea about how to function in their new social setting. Moreover, they did not know how to run a typical North American household. This could cause stress and various other problems to the Irish immigrant servant girls.

Barber and McClean discovered that many Irish immigrant women who worked as domestic servants in North American homes ended up in institutions such as asylums and prison.[33] The most important reasons why Irish domestic servants ended up in such institutions were: drunkenness, vagrancy, larceny and insanity. Barber especially relates the problem of insanity to the stressful lives these servant girls lived in North American domestic positions. Nina Milner summarizes Barber’s point saying that: “although domestic service offered an opportunity for Irish women to save for a better life, it could also lead to downward mobility for those who were unable to adapt.”[34]

About this project

In this thesis I aim to look especially at one specific group of Irish immigrants from the many that took the crossing, namely nineteenth-century young Irish women who found work as servants in the New World. These girls and women encountered many hardships. As explained in the previous section, they were dislocated, and thus vulnerable to abuse and loneliness.

Of course, there are many ways in which this segment of Irish immigrants can be analyzed. It can be done by looking at historic documents, photographs or the occasional letters which were written. Yet, the way in which I shall analyze this group is through the use of three novels that deal with the Irish immigrant servant girl as a protagonist. The novels studied will be two novels from the latter half of the nineteenth century and one contemporary novel, which will give very diverse perspectives. The modern novel is looking back on an era and thus manages to put the immigration of the Famine and post Famine generation into a modern perspective while the novels written in the latter half of the nineteenth century present the view of the writers and people back then. The novels that will be used for this study are Mary Anne Madden Sadlier’s novel Bessy Conway; or, the Irish girl in America (1862), John McElgun’s Annie Reilly: The Fortunes of an Irish Girl in New York (1873) and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996).

According to Charles Fanning both Mary Anne Madden Sadlier’s novel and John McElgun’s novel could be typified as “Famine generation fiction.”[35] He explains that these sort of novels for Irish-American immigrants written during and just after the Famine depict trials and tribulations caused by the Great Hunger. Fanning explains that there were three archetypical sorts of Irish immigrant novels during that period. First of all, fiction to promote immigrants to keep their (Catholic) faith; secondly fiction on how to survive in America and thirdly novels with a nationalistic theme. Some of these novels contain traits of all three themes. Yet, all these sorts of novels were written for practical and didactic use. Furthermore, Fanning argues that they all have a similar structure;

1. The novel starts by describing the suffering in Ireland which causes the decision to emigrate
2. The novel describes the journey to the New World
3. The novel describes the initial dislocation of the immigrant after arriving in North America
4. The novel shows differences between the “good” Catholic immigrants who kept to their faith and compares their situation to that of the “bad” immigrants who did not keep their faith
5. The novel ends by giving an explicit moral.[36]

If this structure is compared to the structures of both Sadlier’s and McElgun’s novels it can indeed be noticed that this outline could be applied to their two novels.

Sadlier and McElgun have more in common. Both authors made the crossing to America as adults, and thus consciously experienced the problems that the newcomers had. Unfortunately not much is known about McElgun. Fanning points out that “[a]ll that is known about John McElgun is that he wrote this novel.”[37] Sadlier, on the other hand, is a well-known and well-documented woman. She was a publisher’s wife and wrote and published an extensive body of predominantly Catholic-oriented and moralizing literature. She could in fact be considered the “first important woman in Irish-American publishing.”[38]

Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is looking back on a generation with which she has no first-hand experience. She was born in 1939 and finished Alias Grace in 1996. It is thus obvious and logical that she is looking back on an era. She does this in an interesting way. Her book is a fictionalized account of the historical story of Grace Marks. Atwood uses newspaper articles and historical accounts to base her fictional story upon. As she writes in her afterword: “I have of course fictionalized historical events (as did many commentators on this case who claimed to be writing history). I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few fact emerges as unequivocally ‘known.’”[39]

Additionally, as her novel is written a mere ten years ago it cannot be typified according to Fanning’s framework. Neither the theme nor the structure of the novel match Sadlier’s and McElgun’s. Yet, there are comparible patterns and themes to be found. Atwood does not represent a Catholic, but a Protestant Irish girl. However, she still shows the importance of religion in the era in which the character lives. Atwood’s novel does not use Fanning’s structure precisely, but she does handle the themes that Fanning mentions. She describes the difficulties in pre-Famine Ireland and the journey, she shows the dislocation of the characters and the importance of religion. However, she does this without implementing a strong moral on her grim story. Her work could be seen as a modern – perhaps even postmodern – version of Irish nineteenth-century immigrant Famine literature. This contrast between the nineteenth-century novels and the modern novel renders an interesting and varied perspective on the life of an Irish immigrant servant girl in the nineteenth century.

In the following three chapters of this study I will analyze the nineteenth-century Irish immigrant servant girl by examining the representations of these girls in the mentioned novels. More specifically, the way in which I shall do this is by analyzing the heroines, their foils, and the novels themselves in relation to religion, gender, class and ethnicity.[40] I will examine how these things influence the character’s behavior and life. I will also argue that many of these aspects, for example religion, gender and class, in fact support the heroines on their adventure in North America by making them stronger characters and providing guidelines, for example in the form of help from their community. In the concluding chapter of this project I will analyze how North America, the New World, creates more opportunities, causes gender subversion, encourages emancipation, but is a dangerous place for women at the same time. Furthermore, I will also explore in this final chapter how the nineteenth-century novels’ portrayal of the immigrant servant girl can be compared to the contemporary novel by Atwood. I will come to the conclusion that the heroines of the famine novels represent the Catholic non-materialistic values of the homeland, while Grace proves to be the exception. Yet, I will also argue that there are enough other points on which Sadlier, McElgun and Atwood do have a similar vision. Of course I realize that this study is only a limited method of analyzing the representation of the nineteenth-century Irish immigrant servant girls, but it is a good way of investigating how they were depicted in novels of the nineteenth century and seeing how that may or may not differ with how they are reviewed by a historical novelist today. Besides, it will show the differences in attitude between Irish immigrants and established Northern Americans towards issues such as religion, gender, class and ethnicity back then.

3. The “Devine Providence”; The Irish Servant Girl and Religion The Irish, religion and America

Catholicism has been an important part of Irish history and culture ever since Saint Patrick “saved the country” and converted the population in the fifth century A.D. Yet, when Ireland was under British rule the predominantly Catholic Irish were mocked by their colonizers for their religion. This suppression of Catholic religion by the enemy perhaps influenced the Irish to be even more faithful to the Catholic church and church doctrine. In that view it could be argued that it is no wonder that the Irish stuck so much to their faith.[41] It was a convenient way to create a united group opposing the oppressor. An example of the unification of the Catholic Irish is the erection of the Catholic Association by Daniel O’Connell of Derrynane. By 1829 this organization managed to pressure “the English into restoring most of the freedoms [Catholics] lost under the Penal Laws, including the right to sit in Parliament.”[42] Therefore, the Catholics were indeed organizing against “the other”, in this case the Anglo-Irish and British rulers.

Two of the core novels read for this study belong to Famine literature. This literature was especially aimed at the Catholic Irish emigrants that had to leave the south of Ireland that was tormented by the famine. In fact, much of the Famine literature also promoted Irish independence, and was often “nationalist-political.”[43] The theme of Catholic religion was an important part of this “nationalist-political” view.

However, for this study it is especially interesting to see how Irish-American (female) immigrants dealt with their religion while being abroad. The question is whether the Irish immigrants retained their faith and culture or if they sold out to the new predominantly Protestant culture which constantly surrounded them. The three core novels deal with this issue of religion in different ways. As said, the older novels seem to have, in the introduction, didactic qualities and try to give moralizing accounts of good and bad, whereas Atwood analyses the matter from a much more modern perspective.

On the other hand, the way in which young Irish immigrant women in nineteenth-century North America related to religion should perhaps be analyzed to acquire a more nuanced and coherent view. The only trouble in doing this is that it is very difficult to read or obtain any first hand sources from North American Irish servant girls themselves on religion. Unfortunately, letters, photos, diaries and other such sources by immigrant women themselves are scarce. In other words, an image has to be build up from fictional secondary literature. There are useful fictional Famine texts such as Peter McCorry’s The Lost Rosary (1870) and Father Hugh Quigley’s The Cross and The Shamrock (1853), and of course the core novels Bessy Conway and Annie Reilly used for this research, to build up an image of the Irish servant girl and religion. Because it is fiction, it is difficult to say whether the truth is established, and one can wonder whether this is important. Though these texts might give the view from the writer instead of the view from a true servant girl, the fictional texts do give a representation of opinion on such matters in the nineteenth century. One can imagine that it is hard for a priest, a man or a publisher’s wife to give a correct description of the emotions and lives of Irish immigrant servants; yet, on the other hand they did live in the period and were very much aware of their position and that of their fellow immigrants.

Quigley, for example, could observe his parish in writing his story. Therefore their views probably do give some sort of accurate picture on how servant girls lived and how they were treated. The Cross and The Shamrock explains how the Irish Catholic servants have to suffer under their Protestant masters and mistresses. Though the text is openly anti-Protestant it does give an interesting view. Quigley is quite negative in his ranting on how the Catholic Irish suffer: “Catholic soldiers are punished by fine and severe corporal chastisements for refusing to attend the service of an heretical chaplain.”[44] In other words, Quigley opposes the Protestant American community and depicts it as very anti-Catholic. Peter McCorry was a nationalist who moved to the New World. His novel The Lost Rosary deals with how Irish girls should behave in America. According to Fanning, the novel “is a classic novel of instruction in the pitfalls of America and exhortation toward keeping the Catholic faith.”[45] In his novel McCorry even gives a list of ‘exemplary virtues’ ranging from chastity to modesty. Moreover, McCorry warns the servant girls about America and advises the girls not to be tempted into a mixed marriage or other sins. In other words, through examination of these two texts it can be concluded that the ideas about American lifestyle were grim: both Quigley and McCorry warn the Irish Catholic servant girls about the danger of losing the Catholic faith in Protestant America.

There is truth in these negative ideas on the Irish in relation to religion and America, yet the distrust did not only come from the Irish side. Social scientist James Davison Hunter, for example, argues that there was a large degree of ethnic distrust between the Irish immigrants and other segments of the North American population. He writes that “although much of the anti-Catholic hostility was born out of economic rivalry and ethnic distrust, it took expression primarily as religious hostility – as a quarrel over religious doctrine, practice, and authority.”[46] This hostility of course proved to be a big problem for Irish servant girls in a position in North America. The fact that they themselves and their religion were looked down upon could mean they had a insecure position within the household. As Milner writes, “While conditions varied among employers and from rural to urban society, Irish domestic servants often worked in isolation, and the treatment they received in the households where they lived confirmed their low social status.”[47] But at the same time, many new support groups and other services were established for Irish and especially Irish Catholics. For example, Robert Hueston argues: “a new era in Catholic apologetics began, as public lectures, sponsored by the increasing number of Catholic educational and social societies, became popular.”[48] In other words, though the Irish were perhaps oppressed in some ways and situations, they managed to work together and establish their own (religious) institutions.

Of course nineteenth-century Irish immigrant women and religion is yet another topic. The way in which these girls were portrayed and idealized back in that period is almost sentimental. Seller for example quotes nineteenth-century Reverend John Francis Maguire about the nature of Irish immigrants women: “they regard the sacrifices they make as the most ordinary matter in the world, for which they merit neither praise nor approval.”[49] Historian Maureen Murphy confirms this created illusion of almost Biblical self-sacrifice in the nineteenth-century: “[v]isual representation of Irish servant girls offer as much idealized imagery as do the portrayals of the girls in literature.”[50] In other words, these girls were often seen and depicted as saviors of their families.

Still, it is debatable whether this sacrificing element is realistic. Of course there will have been girls who complied with this idealized picture, but there were also girls who did not. Murphy explains that there were nineteenth-century cartoons in which the servants are “portrayed as generous and hospitable to their families and friends, but they are not the self-sacrificing heroines of fiction; the resources of the household subsidize their kind impulses.”[51] Perhaps this contemporary depiction is also not a full truth, but it at least shows that there may have been more sides to the story. Besides, it was the Gilded Age, and Ewen explains that to many new immigrants “[m]oney was the secular God of the new metropolis.”[52] Therefore, it we can safely assume that at least a part of these immigrant girls forgot their Irish Catholic background, and examples of these girls will also be seen in the novels analyzed. Besides, there seems to be discontinuity between history and the novels. Gabaccia explains that a large portion of Catholic Irish women did not marry once in America and even stayed celibate or took a vow into the sisterhood. In fact she argues that “ambitious girls with no prospects for marriage or self-support ‘took the veil.’”[53] Nuns of course have no earthly possessions and are not capable of sending much money to their family back in Ireland. Therefore, it can once more be said that the novels picture an idealized situation in relation to the level of support Irish immigrant girls could give. Also, it is debatable to what degree it is realistic to assume that the heroines manage to get married in a fairly well off manner.

In this chapter I will analyze how the subject of religion comes back in the three novels. I will look at how religion impacts the main character and the characters around her, and whether the heroine’s faith or lack of faith makes her a stronger and independent character.

Religion in Sadlier

The fact that there are many references to religion in Bessie Conway is quite obvious. There are many references in the book to God and how God helps the good. For example there are clear sentences in the text like “’I defy you!’ said Paul calmly and firmly, ‘you can do me no harm while I walk in the way of God’s commandments!’”[54] when he is harassed by Henry Herbert in Ned’s bar. In the following manner Bessy’s mother reflects on the situation after Bessy’s return: “’I think it’s all along of the faith that Denis had,’ she [mother Conway] said within herself, ‘like Job’” (285). Sadlier’s work thus seems to be a highly moralizing account. It tries to show exactly the path one should walk to end up rewarded by God both on earth and in heaven. In fact, Sadlier already mentions that her book will show this religious emphasis in her preface. As critic Marjorie Howes concludes, “[t]he preface announces that its purpose is ‘to point out to Irish girls in America— especially that numerous class whose lot it is to hire themselves out for work, the true and never-failing path to success in this world, and happiness in the next.’”[55] Furthermore, the importance given to Catholicism can also be deducted from the description of the lives and actions of the characters in the book. Those characters who always work hard, follow Catholic doctrine and show Christian charity are rewarded by happiness and wealth. Those characters who chase wealth, defy God and seek materialism are punished in Sadlier’s book, often in the form of misery and death. In this subsection I will analyze how religion is used in regard to the other character and I will analyze how religion makes Bessy a stronger person.

In the novel only Bessy and Paul manage to build themselves a better life out of all characters who were taking the crossing with them. These two people are both depicted as hard working, have a Christian devotion to others and are never ‘immoral’. Examples of this would be the fact that Bessy serves her employers as she “serves God.” Furthermore she goes to church every Sunday and shows the Catholic charitable spirit by helping beggars in need by giving bread and meat. However, the reader actually already knows that Bessy will do excellently. As Howes argues, we learn that “[t]he beginning of the novel explicitly casts Bessy as an instrument of divine providence, a woman who accomplishes God’s purposes in the world.”[56] Bessy is even shown praying to Virgin Mary during the crossing, which sets the tone for the appraisal of Catholicism in the novel. Paul, though this is less noticeably pronounced by the omniscient narrator in the book, has a similar attitude. He works hard, tries to convert various paperboys to the Catholic faith, and he takes in old widow Sheenan. For example, Paul is shown to go over Catholic dogma with the paperboys and the good paperboys do their best to please Paul: “yes! They remembered: one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost” (113). This behavior of both Bessy and Paul seems to be rewarded by God. Bessy gets to marry a devout (rich) Catholic, while Paul inherits a considerable amount of money which gives him the means to open his own shop. Of course, there is the extra symbolical function of Paul as he bears the name of one of the apostles in the Bible. As the apostles did before him, Paul carries out the message of God and lives by God’s rules.

Many of the other characters, such as Mary, Sally and Ned, have less luck in their lives, though. It seems to be suggested by Sadlier that this is because they are making decisions which are incompatible with Catholic dogma and morality. Mary is shown to develop one of the seven deadly sins, vanity; and she secretly marries someone of the lower classes against the wishes of her family. Her punishment is ending up as a single mother of a backward child and eventual death. For example in an encounter with Paul, before her marriage, when she is very much taken in with expensive fashion, she is shown to behave in a cold manner towards hunchback Paul: “’[w]ell! I thank you!’ said Mary very stiffly, for Paul’s appearance was not such as warranted familiarity, especially before strangers” (101). This coldness toward a ‘hunchback’ because of public opinion shows the evil streak in Mary’s character. Paul is in fact taken aback by her coldhearted behavior and wonders about her newly developed habits. He asks Mary’s sister whether this truly is Mary and by doing so shows that he finds Mary’s behavior unsolicited. Interestingly enough, Mary’s family is more troubled by the shame she brought to her family than by her death: “‘[h]er death!’ repeated Ally in high disdain, ‘her death! Oh! If it was only her death that troubled us we’d soon get over that. … the shame and disgrace she has brought on us all’” (191).

Maid Sally, on the other hand, acts as if she is an important person, yet she is more interested in going out, expensive clothes and men than doing her work. Bessy speaks about Sally losing her working place in chapter 9: “[y]ou know as well as I do that it wasn’t Sally’s work was in her head, but visitin’ and cosherin’ about, and raffles, and dances, and everything of the sort. If she had minded her business, and let such fooleries alone, she’d be here yet” (121).


[1] Grazie Dore, “Some Social and Historical Aspects of Italian Emigration to America” in Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), 113.

N.B. though this quote is specifically aimed at the Italian American immigrants, it could just as easily apply to the Irish immigrant group in America.

[2] John Ardagh, Ireland and the Irish: Portrait of a Changing Society (England: Penguin Books, 1995), 69.

[3] Fanning, 1997, 2.

[4] Ardagh, 69.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] Kerby A. Miller, Bruce D. Boling, and Liam Kennedy, “The Famine’s Scars” Eire-Ireland: Journal of Irish Studies 36:1-2 (2001), 98-123.

[7] Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999), 327.

[8] Lynette Kelly, “The Politics of Immigration in Ireland,” Migpol online. < >

[9] Brinkley, 327.

[10] Christine Bolt and A. Robert Lee, “New England in the Nation,” in Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Temperley, eds., Introduction to American Studies (England: Longman, 1998), 69.

[11] Kevin Kenny The American Irish (Boston: Longman, 2000) 114.

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Richard J. Jensen, “’No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization” Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002), 405.

[14] Bolt and Lee, 69.

[15] Jensen, 405.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] Jensen, 419.

[18] Ibidem.

[19] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 319.

[20] Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of The Streets and Other Tales of New York (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 45.

[21] Gay Talese, Unto the Sons (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1995).

[22] Brinkley, 330.

[23] Donna Gabaccia, From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 19.

[24] Robert E. Kennedy, Jr., The Irish: Emigration, Marriage, and Fertility in Maxime Schwartz Seller, Ed., Immigrant Women (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 127.

[25] Mathew Carey, “Appeal to the Wealthy of the Land” in William D. Griffin, Editor, The Irish In America—1550-1972 (New York: Oceana, 1973), 46.

[26] Gabaccia, 19.

[27] Gabaccia, 19.

[28] Ibid, 47.

[29] Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), 191.

[30] Gabaccia, 19.

[31] Barber in Nina Milner, “Savoir Faire: Documenting the Immigrant Experience,” Bulletin : National Library of Canada 33.1 (2001), online. <>

[32] Ibidem

[33] Barber and McClean in Milner, online.

[34] Nina Milner, “Savoir Faire: Documenting the Immigrant Experience,” Bulletin : National Library of Canada 33.1 (2001), online. <>

[35] Charles Fanning, Exiles of Erin: Nineteenth-Century Irish-American Fiction (Chester Springs: Dufour Edition, 1997) 97.

[36] Ibid, 99.

[37] Fanning, 1997, 161.

[38] Ibid, 97.

[39] Margaret Atwood Alias Grace. (London: Virago, 2002) 541.

[40] Ethnicity is important to this thesis as Ireland had a lot of national issues in the nineteenth century; native Catholic Irish were dominated by Protestant British colonizers. These problems continued, though in a different matter, in North America. Catholic Irish immigrants formed communities – like in fact most immigrant groups in America – and sometimes depicted the WASP community as dishonest figures.

[41] Kenny, 114, refers to a similar process in America, he shows how back then it could be perceived there was Protestant America on one side and the Catholic Irish on the other hand.

[42] Fanning, 1997, 3.

[43] Ibid, 97

[44] Father Hugh Quigley in Fanning, 1997, 124.

[45] Fanning, 1997, 154.

[46] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (USA: Basic Books, 1991), 71.

[47] Milner, 3.

[48] Robert Francis Hueston, The Catholic Press and Nativism, 1840-1860 (New York: Arno Press, 1976), 37.

[49] Seller, 139.

[50] Maureen Murphy, “Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons, 1880-1890,” in Charles Fanning (Ed.) New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 152.

[51] Murphy, 166.

[52] Ewen, 23.

[53] Seller, 83.

[54] Sadlier, Mary Anne Madden. Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America. (Virginia:, 1862) Chapter 17, 9. All subsequent references to this text will be noted parenthetically in the text.

[55] Marjorie Howes, “Discipline, Sentiment and the American public,” Éire-Ireland 40:1&2 (2005) 159.

[56] Howes, 161.

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The Myth of The Strong Irish Immigrant Servant Woman
An Analysis of Novels by Sadlier, McElgun and Atwood
Leiden University  (Leiden University)
English language and culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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myth, strong, irish, immigrant, servant, woman, analysis, novels, sadlier, mcelgun, atwood
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Rosamaria Giammanco (Author), 2006, The Myth of The Strong Irish Immigrant Servant Woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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