Monday, March 10, 2008

Irish women in America: our grandmothers' stories

I have observed that in various branches of my family the daughters often have had better collections of family photographs, heirlooms and keepsakes than the sons. To me (the eager family historian looking for clues to the lives of my ancestors several generations back) these collections have been a treasure trove of information: drawers and boxes full of items giving me glimpses into a history that would otherwise have been lost.

I have appreciated collections saved lovingly by dear great aunts and beloved grandmothers (and sometimes not so much saved lovingly as just stored deep enough down so as not to become the victim of the trash can!). I have often wished that the men in the family had the same interest in collecting - or that I could find the long lost women relations who did collect items for that side of the family.

These wishes can only go back so far, however. I know for a fact that the chances of finding a photograph of a family member taken in the 19th century get slimmer and slimmer the further back I go with my family tree. And what are the odds that family letters or mementos, even if they were saved by a nostalgic great-aunt, would have survived the wear and tear of more than a century?

So, sadly, for the stories of the lives of many of my family members over a century ago, I must turn to government documents and other records (when I can find them). More often than not, these focus on the male members of the family. Information on the lives of the women in my family is often harder to come by.

That's where works of social history come in. Pondering the lives of many of the women who came before me, I was looking for insights into the world of Irish immigrant women in America when I came across an interesting list of titles. As far back as 1996, Helen Fallon compiled and placed on the web a list of books dealing with 19th-century Irish emigrant women. Her assortment of annotated bibliographical references includes not only full books dealing with Irish emigrant women, but references to specific chapters of interest in more general volumes.

Here are a few titles that I plan to look further into:

Irish Women & Irish Migration edited by Patrick O'Sullivan - Two chapters of particular interest to women's history include Dymphna McLoughlin's essay Superfluous and Unwanted Deadweight: The Emigration of 19th-century Pauper Women and Miller, Doyle and Kelleher's For Love & Liberty: Irish Women, Migration and Domesticity in Ireland and America, 1815-1920.

Ourselves Alone: Women's Emigration from Ireland 1885-1920 by Janet Nolan - According to Fallon's annotated bibliography, the book includes descripions of the life of Irish women in the United States during this period.

The Irish in America: A Guide to the Literature and Manuscript Collections by Patrick Blessing - This resource includes twelve pages of sources focused on women in addition to many pages of other interesting topics on Irish-American history.

Erin's Daughters in America by Hasia Diner - This is a book that I had actually begun to read but had not yet finished. Diner's book, which attempts to cover many aspects of the lives of Irish-American women, often negatively focuses on the failures of the Irish but is interesting reading.

Immigrant Women in the United States: A Selectively Annotated Multidisciplinary Bibliography by Donna Gabaccia - A reference work for serious students of women's history, this book's country of origin index lists over 200 entries for Ireland.

Check out Helen Fallon's full annotated bibliography entitled The Emigration of Irish Women in the Nineteenth Century.

Another book not noted on the list that I found while searching for Irish women's history is Women in Ireland 1800-1919: A Documentary History. Using actual letters and documents of the time period (the kind I would like to discover handed down in my family) the book gives a glimpse into the world and lives of Irish women within the last two centuries.

In light of my search for the stories of my great-grandmothers and mothers many generations back I particularly enjoyed reading the admonishments to women written by Margaret Cusack (known as the Nun of Kenmare) as reprinted in Women in Ireland 1800-1918. She wrote in 1874:

"...Every mother is forming the future generation,...every mother is affixing her stamp and seal to the society which will be when she perhaps has gone to her account.

It is an awful thing to think how far we can control and influence the destinies of an entire race, of a race preparing for its future life.

Mothers! arise in the greatness of your power, in the splendour of your strength, and be the regenerators of the world. You have in your hands the making or marring of immortal destinies; do not, I beg you, be content with anything less."

In this month with its focus both on Irish-American heritage and women's history, Small-leaved Shamrock remembers and honors the life of each daughter of Erin who has gone before us and "affixed her stamp and seal" on her society and her family.

Though I may never learn the details of the life stories of many of my women ancestors, I know that they will always be a part of me and that their influence on the history of my family has helped to make me who I am today.

Have additional suggested reading that might open our eyes to the lives and times of the women in our Irish family trees? Please post a comment or send an email to Small-leaved Shamrock.

1 comment:

barbara said...

Happy St Patrick's Day !!

Thank you for dedicating this post to the women of Erin.
Have you been able to get far with oral histories of your female relatives? That is what I would loved to do with "Nan Nan" (my paternal Grandma), if she were with us longer.
That's what builds the bonds between the generations.

Have a nice day.

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