Daughters of Ireland: Understanding Why Irish Women Left

In last week’s blog post, we explored the various waves of emigration from Ireland and the socio-economic triggers. If you missed it, you can find it here. This week, we turn our focus to a particularly intriguing aspect of this historical migration: the emigration of Irish women and the periods when more women than men left Ireland to seek new opportunities overseas.

Economic Necessity and Opportunity

When considering the primary reasons Irish women packed their bags for America in the mid-19th century, we find they did so for the same reasons as men: opportunity and freedom. After the crisis of the Famine passed and Irish emigration slowed, Irish women continued to migrate in increasing numbers. Why? Picture Ireland at that time: profound poverty, scant job opportunities, and for women, diminished marriage prospects.

Home for Irish immigrant girls in New York
Residents and staff of the Home for Irish Immigrant Girls in New York pose for a photo around 1908. The home served as a mission for young women who emigrated from Ireland to the United States from 1883 to 1954. (CNS photo/courtesy of the Irish Mission at Watson House).

Chain Migration

Social networks played a crucial role in facilitating the migration of Irish women. Those who had already settled in America often sent back money, information, and tickets to sisters, cousins, and friends, thus supporting further migration. The existence of these networks provided a sense of security and the promise of a support system upon their arrival in the United States, making the decision to immigrate more feasible. Once in the United States, women were instrumental in maintaining Irish cultural practices, from religious traditions to music and dance. Their involvement in community-building activities, such as church groups and charitable organizations, helped solidify the cohesion and identity of Irish enclaves.

Adapting and Thriving through Domestic Work

Irish women who migrated to the U.S. typically established themselves in urban areas and found employment in household roles such as maids, cooks, nannies, and housekeepers. By 1900, sixty percent of all Irish-born women who worked in America had done so in domestic service. Many among this cohort were named Brigid or Bridget, in fact, that the name came to represent this entire population. Residing with affluent or middle-class American families, these Irish women gained insights into American lifestyle and culture, which facilitated quicker assimilation. Financially, domestic work proved advantageous as well. The earnings were generally higher compared to factory jobs, and since accommodation was provided, these women had the opportunity to save a substantial portion of their income. For additional reading on this interesting topic I recommend these two books: Erin’s Daughter’s in America and/or The Irish Bridget.

Understanding the motivations behind their migration illuminates this aspect of Irish women’s history and the challenges and opportunities they encountered. This historical insight underscores the resilience of Irish women who sought to redefine their destinies in the New World, contributing to the rich mosaic of American society.


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