Radical Objects

Radical Objects: Irish Women Emigrants’ Letters

At the end of a long day of physical domestic work, Margaret Nagle, an Irish-born domestic servant living in 1860s New York, was finally able to sit down and compose a letter to her father John back home in County Cork.  A few weeks later, John read the letter aloud to Margaret’s mother and her younger sister and brother, the family reassured that Margaret was ‘so far very well pleased that I came over here.’ Most of her letters included cash, and one included a pair of earrings for her sister, Mary.

Margaret was one of millions of Irish women who emigrated to the United States. The ‘migration decision’ was, by the second half of the nineteenth century, embedded in the life cycle of young Irish people, and poorer women from the west of Ireland became the predominant group of emigrants. From 1871 onwards, the proportion of female migrants arriving in the US from Ireland equalled, and then surpassed, that of men.

The propensity of Irish women to leave their homeland has been explained in multiple ways. Some view women’s emigration as not only a ‘mere flight from poverty’ but ‘an escape’ from a patriarchal society: the United States provided an opportunity to free oneself familial obligations and forge an independent life. Others, however, view young Irish women’s emigration as a chance to prove their value to their families as both kin and workers, with much of their earnings sent home as remittances, often in the form of prepaid passenger fares.

While the remittances provided the financial means to travel, the emigrant letter itself relayed information those ‘left behind’ in Ireland, and to later historians. Margaret Nagle was semi-literate and dictated her letters to a professional letter-writer in New York City; the drafts stayed in America while the finished versions were sent onto her family in Cork. Scans and transcripts of her letters are now held at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University. The nature and contents of Margaret’s letters, both to her family back in Ireland and to the relatives who followed her to the United States, reveal how young Irish women forged their own distinct, if often contradictory and complex, sense of self in an ever-changing diasporic world.

Letter to Margaret Nagle. Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University.

Letters between Margaret and her cousin Bessie (who also lived in New York), for example, at first suggest the importance of family networks abroad, and how young women migrants relied on one another. Bessie directed her cousin where to go for medicine, how to write (or dictate) letters and send them to Ireland, as well as providing guidance on accommodation and jobs. Bessie’s confidence in knowing the ‘dos and don’ts’ of New York was matched only by her anxiety for her newly-arrived family member. She wrote Margaret, ‘Please don’t fail to write up to me if there is any thing to prevent your comin up as I am very anxious to hear from you’.

Yet, having relatives and friends already settled in their destination of choice was not always perceived as a help by new arrivals. Margaret herself declared that she did not need help finding service work and had ‘no trouble getting places… I have not been out of place but a few days and need not be at any time’. Despite our assumptions that family aid was always forthcoming and appreciated, Margaret found that her relatives abroad ‘have not been of very much assistance to me so far.’ Indeed sometimes their help was more of a hindrance, and Margaret’s relatives were ‘not to be relied upon and sometimes do more harm than good.’ Rather than rely on her family, Margaret was staunch in her independence, wanting to ‘get along as well without them or the helps of relatives, as thousands of others have to do who come here.’

In his reply to his daughter Margaret, John Nagle emphasised how emigration sometimes heightened pre-existing familial tensions. He wrote ‘You did well not to trouble Yourself by enquiring about friends… Your uncle and family are well but does not care about any one else nor never asked about you since You left home… they consider their own business plenty and no more.’ John did, however, proffer some gentle advice to Margaret: ‘I hope you will not mind Bessie Fitzgerald or that you will be led by anyone but mind Yourself.’ Family conflict could be passed not only down generations, but also across oceans.

Despite moving abroad, Margaret’s sisterly and daughterly obligations had not diminished, but merely changed in nature. Her migrant status was relished, as she was now the familial source of information on the wider world and the migration experience. She was emphatic in telling her family that ‘when you want any information about anything wait to hear from me’. Margaret told her brother that if he wanted to come over, he must have some kind of schooling beforehand so that ‘he can take Some good Kind of places instead of anything and everything as so many have to do.’ Margaret was also desperate for him to wait until she has saved some more money, so ‘perhaps I can have him come and live with me, instead of going to and being dependent upon relations who perhaps (wouldn’t) care anything about him, only to get rid of him…. I don’t think it good policy for children or old people to come over unless they have money or a plan.’ Her brother was not to ‘come over depending upon relatives and luck and chance for a living’. Letters were information and information mattered in making a tangible impact on decisions-making, including the decision to leave. Margaret purposefully and carefully selected her facts and words, knowing the consequences they held for their recipients.

Letter from Margaret Nagle to her parents. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University.

The emigrant letter reveals the complex, transnational nature of Irish womanhood in the late nineteenth century. Margaret was constantly juggling her desire to support her family with her ambition to make her own way in the United States. She sought approval in New York, and was particularly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends and hoped to save up enough to buy new dresses. Shewas able to take advantage of her position as the urban daughter abroad, to enact small forms of resistance to patriarchal domesticity of rural Ireland. John Nagle wrote to Margaret that he will not let her younger sister Mary pierce her ears. The arrival of a small parcel of earrings from America suggests that the sisters may have overruled their father.

While Margaret’s letters often suggest a confident and assertive young woman, there are, however, moments where that confidence perhaps faltered. Memories of, and obligations to, her immediate family in Cork sometimes weighed heavily. She wrote home concerned about her ability to send money, and sometimes appeared homesick, impatient for news. She wrote that ‘I am sure I can make a good living and besides send you a little p[re]sent…once in a while, and without the assistance of relatives either.’ Margaret’s openness of her anxieties and obligations are in stark contrast with her male compatriots. For example, John Nolan’s (outwards) nonchalance was verging on irritation with his mother and father in Ireland, complaining ‘I don’t see what yous need to be fretting about as long as you hear from us occasionally.’

Was Margaret actually more anxious than John Nolan, or did John feel unable to reveal his emotions? Were Irish daughters –as I suspect is the case – put under more pressure from their families to stay in touch? Gendered expectations permeate emigrants’ letter writing. Margaret might have wanted to go out and socialise, and indeed find romance, in the city, but if she were to marry, that might have necessitated writing home for approval. One letter tentatively approached the question: ‘What would you say to my getting married if I had a chum?’

While Margaret’s family ties abroad were fraying, she remained embedded in the lives of those she left behind. Her letters reveal the anxieties emigration wrought on those remaining in Ireland. John Nagle wrote to Margaret that he and his wife were ‘very uneasy at not hearing from you for so long a time and you may be sure we were most contented when we at least heard from you’. Margaret’s mother ‘very much rejoiced at your letter and She Says that when you will have a house of your own yet that she will see you…Your mother always Said that you were doing something good if You were in health and she was not very well herself as she was fretting about you… Your poor Mother also, with the greatest anxiety, thinks a week a month until she hears from you.’ In a later letter, John thanked Margaret ‘for the nice ribbon you sent me which will bring you to my memory every time I shall look at it during My life time. Your brother Johnny Kissed it Several times when he saw it.’ Leaving Ireland might have been an overwhelmingly common occurrence in the nineteenth century, but we should not diminish its emotional repercussions on individuals and their families.

Letters and gifts from America had importance far beyond monetary value. They enabled Irish women to continue their connection to their homeland while they forged a new life. They were a means through which women could simultaneously fulfil, negotiate and temper familial obligations, personal ambition, and collective identity-formation. The letters were more than mere correspondence, they were channels of intimacy and proximity for Irish women living far from home. The act of letter-writing also gave a voice to women so often dismissed from accounts of activism and resistance. ‘Radicals’ could be domestics and domestic acts could be radical.

I will leave the final words for Margaret, who was determined to have the final say in how her life was to be lived:

‘I must close for the present, by cautioning you not to allow yourselves to be worri(e)d in any way about me, as I can now take good care of myself, and believe I shall do better than You thought I could yet.’

One Comment

  1. This is an excellent insight into the sometimes complex relationship between irish emigrants and their families at home.emigration offered a release for women from the patriarchal society that existed dominated by the Catholic Church.
    Apart from the economic side of this, where contributions from us/England
    Kept ireland afloat in the 30,s 40s&50’s,the independence from the
    Constraints of irish society was also significant.
    Emigration was a hugely important and positive influence on irish society&has to be viewed as such.
    Mike costello

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