CLIO TALKS BACK: Why did so many young Irish women leave Ireland?

Early Irish Immigrants
In the years 1885-1920 nearly 700,000 mostly single women under the age of 24 left family farms in Ireland to seek a better life in the cities of North America. They travelled by themselves across the Atlantic Ocean. No family members – no fathers, mothers, husbands or brothers accompanied them. Single women emigrants from Ireland in these years outnumbered male emigrants – exceptional among European migrants to the New World.

Why did so many young Irish women emigrate? In those years of great deprivation following the famine years when Ireland’s potato crops collapsed, they simply sought a better life, one which would – according to Janet Nolan – allow them to reclaim their earlier status, to earn their keep, to marry as they chose, and – most of all – to create lives free of severe hardship. Many (well over two-thirds) first sought employment as domestic servants in the cities of the eastern United States. They generally married after a few years and often bore large numbers of children. Upwardly mobile, many of the offspring of the families these young women founded, obtained an education and became wildly successful by the standards of the land their mothers had abandoned.

What is striking in Nolan’s account of this emigration in her book, “Ourselves Alone,” was that, very unusual for the times, the young women’s travel was mostly financed by female relatives. Networks of older women helping younger women. Older women sending back money to help their little sisters and nieces emigrate as they had. In Nolan’s words (p. 95),“They were the first generation of Irish women to realize fully their own social and economic modernization as women.”

Then, when the emigrant women were settled in their new country, many of them sent money home to assist those who had remained behind – for example, to purchase a horse to replace the one that had died. Ironically, “the most expendable group in post-Famine Ireland – dependent daughters and sisters – became the saviors of a society that could not have remained intact save by their emigration and their remittances” (p. 71).

Some of these emigrant women and their daughters became prominent labor organizers in the U.S. Nolan names Kate Mullany, organizer of the laundry workers in Troy, New York; Leonora Barry, head of the women’s work committee for the Knights of Labor; Mary Kenny O’Sullivan, of the A. F. L. [American Federation of Labor]; Leonora O’Reilly, of the Women’s Trade Union League; and Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, respectively founder and leader of the Industrial Workers of the World. All these women activists supported equal pay for equal work and the rights of laboring women.

Clio celebrates the courage and initiative of these thousands of Irish emigrant women to bettering their condition by “packing up and leaving,” to create new lives in a new country.

Source: Janet Ann Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration From Ireland, 1885-1920 (University of Kentucky Press, 1989).