Interpreting Irish Immigration: An Interview with Jackie Dinas

Today on Gotham,editor Katie Uva interviews Jackie Dinas, a docent at the Merchant's House Museum, about the process of researching Irish immigration and interpreting the lives of Irish servants in New York.

What is the Merchant's House Museum?

The Merchant’s House Museum is a historic house museum dedicated to the early 19th century domestic life of a wealthy merchant family and their servants in New York City. It is one of the finest surviving examples of the architecture of this period in the city and it is unique among house museums because the museum’s collection of over 3,000 items belonged to the Tredwell family, who lived there for almost 100 years. Most of it has never left the house!

How did the idea for an Irish servants tour come to be?

There had always been an interest among visitors in the servants but for a long time the servants’ quarters had been closed to visitors. So when the museum decided to reopen that space, it seemed like a perfect time to create a tour that would highlight what life was like living and working in the Tredwell home. So the museum staff and volunteers came together to try and create a tour that would speak both to the daily life of the servants but also to the greater role that Irish immigrants played in the development of New York City. We are mostly telling the story of Irish immigration from the 1830s-50s from the perspective of young women.

Why were so many Irish women servants? What other things were they likely to do in New York?

There are a lot of complex reasons why Irish women were in demand as servants as well as why they wanted jobs as live-in servants; we have a whole tour surrounding these reasons! The primary motivator for these women was money. They were new immigrants to America, most often coming from rural poverty, and so the average wages provided by a service job could be an enormous amount of money for them. That is in addition to having room and board included at a time when safe living conditions and quality of food were not a guarantee in New York City. They used this money to provide not only for themselves but often for their entire families, both here in America and back home in Ireland. Wages provided from a service job could often make a young woman the breadwinner for her entire family.

Opportunities for working women outside of service at this time were scarce. There was seamstress work, laundry work, factory work — all of which would have been much lower paid than service work and would not have included room and board or much job mobility.

Was being a servant something Irish women typically did as a starting point before moving on to something else, or did a lot of Irish women work as servants for their whole lives?

This is something that has been contested among historians. Certainly a common misconception about the culture of servants in America is that they were devoted lifelong servants such as people see on tv shows like Downton Abbey. That simply was not the case in New York. Service was mostly a means to an end for these women, not a lifelong career. We do know from historical records that there was a lot of job mobility; even women who did stay in service their whole lives did not stay with one family for significant periods of time.

Many women stayed in service just long enough to save enough money to get married. Marriage was the most common reason women left service since you could not be married and be a live-in servant. But many women saved money to try and advance their own status in society and as the 19th century progressed you saw many women going from service to careers as teachers, nurses, shop girls, and newly created nonprofit jobs.

Living and working in the houses of wealthy New Yorkers did allow servants who left the profession to bring with them an understanding of an upper class lifestyle and often modeled their own home lives after what they saw in the houses they once worked in.

What kinds of challenges did Irish servants face in New York?

Well, that last question was a good segue to this one! As the 19th century progressed and industrialization allowed for mass production, there was a lot of class tension between servants and their employers over consumer goods. Servants wanted to emulate an upper class lifestyle by wearing similar fashion styles or buying similar home goods and many employers felt this was preventing servants from “knowing their place” and was one of the reasons uniforms began to be implemented later in the 19th century for servants.

But easily the biggest challenge Irish servants faced in New York was prejudice. Prejudice against the Irish in this period has been well documented in all factors of life; many people particularly associate that with the difficulty men had finding work and have seen images of “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in books or museums. Negative stereotypes of the Irish were easily found in magazines and newspapers of the day and those negative connotations certainly would have affected the lives of servants as well.

For Irish women, particularly those working in the houses of wealthy Protestant employers, much of the prejudice they faced focused on their Catholicism. There was a strong fear that these young women living in your home and taking care of your children would somehow indoctrinate them with their Catholic ways! There were plenty of magazine articles warning women about how to prevent your children from becoming secret papists.

Servants' quarters at the Merchant's House.

Servants' quarters at the Merchant's House.

Did most Irish immigrants speak English? Do we know how many Irish immigrants could read and write?

This is also something that historians seem to disagree on, or at least it isn’t clear enough to make a generalized statement. Irish was the predominant language in Ireland until the 19th century. With the introduction of the National School system in the 1830s and the forced education of English in Ireland throughout the 19th century that changed dramatically and English became the dominant language.

At the Merchant’s House we are mostly telling the story of young women who immigrated to America in the 1830s-50s at which point there was definitely a case to be made for mixed language. However, we also know from historical documents that servants who spoke English were in high demand, and Irish women were counted among that group, so I think it’s safe to say some did, and some didn’t.

As for reading and writing, it’s a similar story. We know that at this time there was formalized education in Ireland that provided these skills for children, but considering most schools were far from the rural communities where most of these women came from and children would be expected to work in the home or on farms, you would probably get a mixed bag here as well.

We do know that cooks, who were often the most senior servants, would usually be expected to be able to read and write in order to keep track of deliveries, house inventory, menu planning, things like that.

Was there a particular part of Ireland that most Irish immigrants came from? Are there ways that the region they came from in Ireland affected what jobs they worked or where they lived in the city?

During the time period we focus on at the Merchant’s House we are looking at most immigration stemming from the potato famine that devastated Ireland in the 19th century. The origins of this are too complex to really get into here but the famine sparked mass immigration to America, particularly from communities hit the hardest, which were often poor and rural, many in the Western counties of Ireland. Immigration to America and New York had already begun before the famine; so many people immigrating already had friends, family, or neighbors that connected them to New York. These connections were the biggest drivers of where people lived in the city or what jobs they got. Often people lived in New York with people from their home counties back in Ireland, and word of mouth was an extremely common way that service jobs were acquired.

But one of the most important parts of the story of young Irish servant women is that they were responsible for a lot of the chain migration we think of in this period. Their employment and wages paid for thousands of their friends and family to come to America, to find housing and jobs, and even if they were unaware of it, they were reshaping New York City as a result.

Were there particular ways Irish servants brought their own customs into the households they worked in?

Definitely! Cultural exchange was a big part of service. Not only were the servants learning from their employers as mentioned above, but their employers were learning from their servants as well. Music was one of the big ways that this cultural exchange manifested. Irish songs and ballads became popular throughout the city and one of the Tredwell daughters could easily be playing a song on the piano in the parlor that one of their servants might have been singing on the stairs.

Of course, there was this festering prejudice as mentioned, but there was a strong sense of pride in being Irish and being Catholic, and servants specifically clung to these customs being in not only a foreign country but in a home where all the customs would have been foreign to them. As a result, employers would have been exposed to many different pieces of Irish culture and as they say, exposure is the antidote to prejudice.

How did the Irish celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the 19th century?

St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect example of a custom that was really adopted by the Irish community in America as a way of expressing cultural pride at a time when they were often looked down upon for their heritage. In 19th century New York the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a massive full day experience. Many servants would have been given (or demanded) the day off to attend the parade as well as the parties and church gatherings that went along with it.

Another important custom, particularly for servants who were alone in America or far from home, would be writing home asking their families to send some dirt or shamrocks back from Ireland, to have a piece of their home with them to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

What sources were particularly valuable as you assembled this story? What should a person read if they want to find out more about the Irish in New York?

We did use what we know about the servants who worked in the Merchant’s House specifically as a starting point for the tour. We don’t have too much information but census reports give us a good idea of the basics. Then we used primary sources of the day like letters and diaries as well as ladies home journals to understand what the work would have been like but most importantly we used the work of some wonderful historians to build in the cultural context.

For general reading about Irish women in this time and particularly servants, I would recommend the following:

Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century by Hasia Diner
The Irish Bridget by Margaret Lynch-Brennan
Serving Women: Household Service in 19th Century America by Faye Dudden

For a comprehensive look at Irish immigration I would recommend the anthology:

Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States by J.J. Lee and Marion Casey

And for a history of the Merchant’s House, I would recommend:

The Old Merchant’s House by Mary Knapp

Of course to learn more, you can join us on any of our Irish Tours! The upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebrations will feature tours the whole week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day at 2 pm on Monday 3/12, Thursday 3/15 (including a 6:30pm tour) & Friday 3/16 and then on St. Patrick's Day (Saturday) tours at 12:30, 2:00, and 3:30 pm. A full listing of events can be found on our website.