Historic Places in South Jersey

Historic Places in South Jersey

A discussion of historic sites, and events, with the purpose of sharing, encouraging participation, and networking.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Irish Girls

Once, when touring Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, I passed the servants' staircase and the guide said, "Alice Paul used to call the servants "the Irish Girls." It was an innocent comment, and who knows if Alice Paul really said it or what the context was. Anyhow, every time I toured a historic mansion such as the Wharton mansion at Batsto, for example, and saw the servants' staircase and their cramped little quarters in the attic, I imagined those young girls, full of hope, gossiping, laughing, and, I hope, getting married, leaving service, and having families of their own.

I suppose what bothered me about the comment in the proximity of the servants' staircase was the idea of these young women cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and raising the children of these families and being referred to in a generic term like the Irish girls, rather than by their names. Maybe there was a high turnover rate.

Anyhow, for Women's History Month and St. Patrick's Day, I decided to find out who the Irish girls were who were domestic servants for the family of Alice Paul, the tireless Suffragist who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. This isn't going to be about the Paul family, or their farm, though if you check back in my blog entries, you'll find some information on those topics. This is only about the Irish girls!

My search began and ended with ancestry.com and a big surprise. The first of the Irish girls I found living with the Pauls was Bridget Mulkerm. She was listed on the 1900 census. Naturally, I tried to find out more about Bridget, but you can't imagine how many Bridget Mulkern, Mukerrin, Mukearne and many other variations on the name there are and with the same birth year! You could almost hear the brogue in the spellings. One, whom I found particularly intriguing was a Bridget Mulkern who was a "prisoner" at Maine General Hospital, along with 98 other people listed. She, too, had been born in 1881 in Ireland and had emigrated 2 years before the census of 1900. But, I can't digress into the fascinating stories of all the other Bridget Mulkearnes I found.

Bridget's predecessors were listed on the 1895 census as Mary Kerrigan and Mary Harrison. I found local families with the same surname, and it may be that these girls were hired out by their parents.

Along the route, I found out some interesting observations such as that domestic service was the largest category of Irish female employment in the US at the turn of the last century (19th to 20th). Until I read up a bit on this situation, I felt kind of sorry for these young women, however, as it turns out, domestics earned 50% more than saleswomen and 25% more than girls working in textile mills and factories. Added to that is the benefit that they didn't have to pay for their lodgings or transportation AND they lived in nice houses, not squalid tenements. That made it possible for them to save up and send money to Ireland to help their families still reeling from the devastation of the Great Hunger and the barbarous evictions.

The unexpected bonus of my attempt at honoring these young women who cleaned and cooked and took care of the children, and saved and sent the money home to help their families, was that I found an ancestor of my own.

As is often the case, a little clue from searching for the Irish girls took me to Lavinia Johnston, born in 1810 in Ireland, and living in the 1880 census, two doors down from her daughter, Lavinia Johnston McQuiston, son-in-law Hiram McQuiston, and their children, Mary Lavinia, William J., Sarah A., Effie, and Hiram, Jr. Lavinia and Hiram McQuiston were the great-grandparents of my mother, and Lavinia Johnston was her great-great-grandmother. My mother's name was Mary Lavinia and my daughter's name is Lavinia. By the way, although Hiram McQuiston was born in Ohio, his parents were born in Ireland also.

A web site where I found some interesting facts was the Mayo County Library web site. The web site that provided the photos was:
xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/SADLIER/Domestic.htm
The photographs aren't of the Paul family servants, but they are of Irish domestics, and the photo of the Paul farm is from the period.

To all of you out there who have Irish ancestors, Eirinn Go Brach! Jo Ann

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