By Lauren Byrne for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on March 15, 2010
It wasn’t until I’d read Margaret Lynch-Brennan’s book about Irish women in domestic service in America that I realized how indifferent I’d been to my mother’s past. Her father was the cow herder on an Anglo-Irish estate in County Kildare in Ireland, and at age 12, my mother went to work there, probably considering it a piece of luck to find employment so easily in 1930s Ireland.
The work was grueling and even dangerous—cobwebs to be dislodged from the highest ceilings, jugs of hot water to be ferried up flights of stairs. When, still a teenager, she headed for the city of Dublin, she had hopes of going to night school, but as Lynch-Brennan points out, a domestic servant was paid for her time and not her skills, and my mother’s dreams soon faded.
“Whatever you do,” she used to say to me, “your life will never be as hard as mine was.”
It wasn’t said to guilt-trip me; it was a simple statement of fact. The only surprise is in how unwarped she was, despite her life of drudgery. The spirited Irish women servants in nineteenth-century America’s growing middle-class households seemed a remarkably cheerful lot, too, buoyed up by the novelty and the freedom that America repaid them with.
It is Alison Light in her masterly portraits of the women who served in the households of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set (Mrs. Woolf and the Servants) who reveals how damaging were the attitudes enshrined in domestic service and how easily they led to exploitation. Staunch socialists though they were, Leonard and Virginia Woolf never appeared to notice the contradictions between their egalitarian beliefs and their treatment of servants.
I remember an acquaintance telling me that his first job after college had been with the Hogarth Press, founded by the Woolfs, and how an aged Leonard Woolf had raged against him (this was in the 1960s) for using the main staircase, when the staff had their own, meaner, staircase. There was still a cruel joy in my acquaintance’s voice when he added that Woolf had died a week later.
But my mother, more than seventy years later, remained in the thrall of her subservience, refusing to enter the front door of the house where she first went to work, even though it was now a hotel and restaurant.
Lauren Byrne, a native of Dublin, Ireland, has been living in the Boston area for over twenty years, where she has worked as a freelance writer for Irish and Irish-American publications and as a freelance editor in book and magazine publishing. Most recently, a fascination with the immigrant experience has led her to teach English to non-native students. For fun, she’s begun work on a series of portraits (in pastel and pencil) of immigrant women
Read Lauren Byrne’s review of The Irish Bridget in the March/April 2010 issue of WRB.
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