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They were called 'dirty Irish bloodhounds'. Life as an emigrant servant in the early 20th Century

Catherine Healy is hoping to gather the stories of domestic servants who worked abroad in the lead up to WW II.

Catherine Healy

WORKING IN INTER-WAR London, Ellen Ryan paid little heed to the rules laid down for her as a live-in maid. Ryan was only 15 leaving Tipperary for England in 1929, but her independent spirit came through from an early age.

In an oral history interview held at the Archive of the Irish in Britain, she described disobeying her first employers, a Jewish family in Cricklewood, after being told to restrict her eating during Passover along with the rest of the household.

Defying instructions, Ryan went out to buy bread, butter, jam, tea, sugar and ham and hid the food in a bag on her return. It soon became custom for her to have her sister and a friend over for an afternoon snack once her mistress had left the house. “Mary and Margaret McKenzie would come down and we’d sit out in the garden and have a feed,” as she put it. “I boiled the water, and we’d make the tea outside.”

servant national library Portrait of an elderly woman, possibly a servant, at Clonbrock House in Galway. 1870-1900 Source: The National Library of Ireland

Like so many other servants, Ryan took small pleasure in carving out a space free from employer surveillance. She resisted authority not through open rebellion or sabotage but by maintaining a sense of her own self – a sense of worth entirely separate from the workplace.

It was no mean feat given the treatment she put up with while in domestic service. In a later job as a servant at an English boarding school, she remembered having to repeatedly endure taunts from her co-workers:

When I went into the dining room in the morning for my breakfast it was all about the ‘dirty Irish’; I got that from the time I sat down at the table to the time I stood up … It was the dirty Irish this and the dirty Irish that, and we shouldn’t be allowed in this country and we should all be sent back home to where we belong. It was driving me nuts. 

After the cook one day called her a “dirty Irish bloodhound”, she finally snapped:

“I stood up from the table and I walked out and I went down to the scullery, and I looked around to see what I could find and I found a big saucepan. And the first one that left the dining room and came down got a clout of the saucepan on top of their head.

“You believe me, I went to town with that saucepan. I belted the cook; I belted the butler; I belted everybody with the saucepan – until they overpowered me and took the saucepan off me … The cook was pouring blood, and the maids were pouring blood, and the butler was pouring blood. I didn’t care … I’d had enough of it.”

A servant’s lot

We tend to imagine domestic servants as quietly standing to the side of a dining room or hallway, or scrubbing over a sink. Women who accepted their lot. However, the story was often more complicated. While few actually resorted to violence, plenty aired their grievances by gossiping, answering back or simply refusing to work. Some just quit their jobs as soon as they could.

Domestic service was the most readily available form of employment for generations of Irish female emigrants like Ellen Ryan. Leaving Ireland as young women in the 19th and early 20th century, many spent their first few years in America or Britain working long hours in family homes.

The job typically came with free bed and board, allowing money to be saved up to send back to the family. In most cases, though, it was a far cry from the kind of glamour presented in shows like Downton Abbey.

img2.thejournal.ie Source: ITV/TV3

Etiquette guides, social surveys and employers’ writings all provide a window into the gruelling routines expected of servants in the age before vacuum cleaners and ready meals. Work began in the early morning and wrapped up just before bedtime, and it would have been rare to get even one full day off a week. 

Along with low pay and poor conditions were the small humiliations of service: having to put up with digs, wear a uniform, call your mistress and master “madam” and “sir”. No doubt some were also aware of how frequently the kind of newspapers and magazines read by their employers poked fun at women like themselves. Particularly in the United States, “Bridget” – as Irish domestics were often generically called – was central to discussions of the so-called servant problem.

Uncovering their stories

We have no shortage of sources on how Irish female emigrants were treated in their new places of residence. More difficult to track down are the perspectives of those many working-class women who made a living as maids, nannies and cooks.

Some revealing testimonies do survive – including letters collected by historians Kerby Miller and Arnold Schrier, audio interviews recorded as part of the Ellis Island Oral History Project, and life stories gathered in Britain by researchers such as Louise Ryan – but much remains to be learned about how Anglo-Americans bourgeois ideals were received by the legion of Irish women who went into service. 

First-hand accounts by Irish servants in Britain are especially tricky to find. This is partly because of there being far fewer Irish in domestic service there: British employers were much less reliant on immigrant labour than their American counterparts, and they often preferred to avoid having Catholic workers in such close proximity. Being only a short boat journey away from Ireland possibly also reduced the impulse to write home. 

8124267819_dae54bb456_c Indoor Servants at Bessborough House, Kilkenny in 1908. Source: National Library of Ireland

Another factor is that British publishers and oral history projects have not been anywhere near as eager to solicit the stories of Irish female workers – a reflection of their marginalisation in Britain more generally.

As the scholar Bronwen Walter has written, Irish women have tended to be historically rendered invisible by “their submergence within an overarching masculine ‘Paddy’ stereotype”.

Of course, there are broader challenges to unearthing the voices of those who worked as domestics. Firstly, a lot of what was written all those years ago has probably since been lost or thrown away. Then there’s the reality that a letter or diary entry would hardly have been the most appealing task after a day of hard physical labour. For some, illiteracy ruled out writing altogether. 

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‘Adventures of an Irish Girl’

As for pursuing publication? The idea of there being a wider audience for their stories would likely have been inconceivable to many. Those interviewed about their time in service have often doubted that anybody would want to hear about their experience, or quickly skipped over details of their working lives as if they were of no importance.

In one of few memoirs penned by an Irish servant, Adventures of an Irish Girl at Home and Abroad (1906), Maureen Hamish asked for the “kindly indulgence” of readers in overlooking any mistakes in her account of working in Britain. “I have only received a National School education,” she wrote apologetically.

Other material can give us just as valuable an insight into the lives of that most common of Irish emigrants: her hopes and frustrations; her comforts and joys; her anger and sadness. As part of my PhD, funded by the Irish Research Council, I am hoping to now locate as many writings and recollections relating to the Irish emigrant experience in service as possible.

It might be a letter, diary or old photo, or even your own memory of a relative’s time in America or Britain – all kinds of sources help to shed light on the histories of these essential but often overlooked workers. Could you help? All relevant documents are of interest, but those dating to between the late 19th century and World War II would be particularly valuable for the purposes of this research. To discuss the project or find out more, please contact me at healyc7@tcd.ie. 

Catherine Healy is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar at the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin, supported by the Library of Trinity College. 

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Catherine Healy

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