Boston’s Irish maidservants – looking back

It would have been impossible to run a 19th-century urban home without domestic servants, and in Boston that usually included Irish women who found work as cooks and maids in houses belonging to wealthy families on Beacon Hill.

There are many factors to explain how this all came about and, of course, it was the Famine that initiated the mass migration of Irish people. The outward flow continued after the Famine and throughout the second half of the 19th century as the decline of the Irish domestic industry and farming as well as changes in inheritance laws contributed to draining the country of its “best and brightest.” Between 1850 and 1913, more than 4.5 million Irish people left their island homeland.

By the mid 1800’s, inheritance laws decreed that farmland would be passed on to the eldest son rather than being divided among all sons. For women, the dowry system is one of the reasons for the drop in population after the Great Hunger. A woman could only marry if she had a dowry in an arranged marriage and this was usually reserved only for the eldest daughter. The younger female siblings had fewer options – remain at home as unpaid labor, enter the convent, or emigrate. Even nursing and teaching religious orders required a dowry so, the choice was clear: The main attraction of America was, therefore - work.

By 1900, the number of female Irish immigrants exceeded male immigrants. Domestic service was the largest single category of Irish female employment in the United States – approximately 70 percent.

Most Irish maids were between the ages of 16 and 25 and unmarried. Many lived inside the homes in the servants’ quarters and enjoyed a standard of living far better by comparison to the life they had known in Ireland or in the tenement districts. There were advantages – a servant did not need to worry about buying food or fuel for heat, and most employers provided some form of medical care.

The hours were long and the wages were meager, but these thrifty women almost always managed to set some savings aside. Often, once settled and employed, a young woman’s first big expenditure was to have a formal photograph taken in a newly purchased frock. This picture would be sent home to take a place of honor above the family hearth for all of the neighbors to admire. Moreover, they always managed to save a little money out of their salary for those back in Ireland. From 1850 to 1900 an estimated $260 million was sent back to Ireland from America, money that in turn brought more family members over and helped those who remaining behind.

Irish Catholic staff in the service of fashionable Back Bay families appealed to Archbishop John J. Williams for a church nearer to their live-in employment. In 1888, he granted their request and many small contributions helped to pay for the building in 1894 of the so-called “Maids Church,” Saint Cecilia’s.

Most of the women left domestic service when they married and started to raise families. Their stories are the stuff of courage, hard work, and perseverance. They were the “bedrock” of the Irish community back then and an awesome inspiration to the many generations of their Irish-American descendants who followed.