Irish Women in Oswego, 1855 and 1915
by Laura Halferty
The following study is an updated version of the research I completed for my M.A. in History thesis (SUNY Oswego, 2000). In this latest incarnation, it is both a look at Irish women immigrants‟ lives in Oswego and a narrative of my own on-going
research process, which I hope will be useful to anyone else interested in tackling a difficult topic in local history.
This isn‟t the definitive work on Irish women in Oswego, nor is it intended to be, which is why I‟ve avoided making statements that read like ironclad theories. A study of this sort would certainly benefit from primary sources written by Irish women and a comprehensive analysis of larger census samples. My intent here, though, was simply to begin at the beginning: to use censuses and other local history resources as a way of sketching, in broad strokes, a portrait of Oswego‟s Irish women immigrants and how
their lives may have changed over time. With the discovery of new sources, this portrait will no doubt become more detailed in the decades to come.
Data Collection & Sources
I began my investigation into the lives of Oswego‟s Irish women immigrants by collecting data for a sample of one hundred Irish women appearing in the 1855 New York State Census for the City of Oswego (by “Irish women” I mean women born in
Ireland and at least eighteen years old when the census was taken). My choice of the 1855 census wasn‟t arbitrary: historians consider this census particularly useful because of the wealth of information it provides, including information regarding women‟s
occupations, which didn‟t appear in previous censuses.
I chose one hundred as the limit of the sample because calculations would be simplified, and I recorded information for the first one hundred Irish women whose
entries were complete and legible. As I collected data, I paid particular attention to a few specific categories of information because I thought they could reveal something about Irish women‟s lives: 1) their ages at the time the census was taken, 2) how long they had lived in America, 3) whether they were married and had children, 4) the ethnicities of their husbands, 5) whether they worked and what their occupations were, and 6) whether they lived in “Irish households” (which I‟m defining as households headed by a man or
woman born in Ireland).
With the goal of doing a comparative analysis, I went through the same process for the 1915 census. I chose the 1915 census simply because the entries were exceptionally clearly-written and because I assumed that sixty years, or more than two
generations, would be enough time to reflect (or not) changes in Irish women‟s lives.
Once again, I collected data for the first one hundred Irish women appearing in the census
whose entries were complete and legible, again paying particular attention to the categories listed above.
Once I had collected data for 1855 and 1915, I generated profiles of the average Irish woman in both samples. Then, I divided both samples into smaller sub-sets for analysis: 1) housewives; 2) working women; 3) domestic servants (the largest group among working women); and two groups that have received little attention historically: 4)
1 widows, and 5) girls.
Problems Using Censuses
Because much of my investigation relies on information taken from censuses, it makes sense to address the issue of census data reliability.
First, it‟s important to be aware of the possibility of human error. Take, for instance, the entry I found for the Delaney household in the 1915 census. Eugenia Delaney‟s occupation is listed as “Assistant Superintendent of Public Works,” while her husband‟s occupation is listed as “housework.” In all likelihood, this is an error.
Not only do censuses contain misinformation, they‟re also sometimes simply
difficult to read, either because the enumerator‟s writing is impossible to decipher or
because photocopies of censuses are of poor quality. This, in turn, can lead to errors of transcription on the part of the researcher.
It‟s also important to remember that enumerators undercounted many minority groups, including African-Americans, the poor, itinerant workers, and immigrants. This, in turn, could affect calculations made concerning sizes of various populations.
I also discovered that what‟s not included in a census entry is often just as
important as what is. For example, just because so many women in nineteenth-century censuses have “housework” listed under the heading of “occupation” doesn‟t mean they
didn‟t work for pay too: Some took in sewing or washing, and others attended to the needs of boarders. In the latter case, husbands were often credited with the occupation “boarding-house keeper” because they, rather than their wives, were considered heads-of-
Despite these potential problems, censuses can nonetheless prove to be useful sources, even with samples as small as those I‟ve analyzed here. Ultimately, what‟s
important is that researchers recognize these potential problems from the outset so that findings can be adjusted or interpreted accordingly.
A Note on Sources
In addition to censuses, I also utilized a few other local history resources while completing research for this study. I spent hours poring over microfilm at the Oswego Public Library, but researchers now have the advantage of viewing newspaper articles at home by accessing the Northern New York Historical Newspaper Index on the Northern
2New York Library System‟s website at <http://news.nnyln.net/>. And Oswego City
Directories, the precursor to our modern-day telephone book/yellow pages, proved useful in terms of learning about Irish women‟s occupations after the turn of the century. These
directories are archived at the Oswego County Records Center and at SUNY Oswego‟s
Penfield Library in Special Collections.
Anyone interested in Oswego‟s history will find a priceless resource in the oral history audiotapes recorded for the Oswego County Oral History Program in the 1970s, which are archived at SUNY Oswego‟s Penfield Library in Special Collections. A
handful of these tapes deal with the Irish in Oswego—albeit almost exclusively in the
context of their roles as church-builders and school-founders. These include “An
Interview with Kathleen Pendergast,” “An Interview with Francis T. Riley,” and “A
Panel Discussion with Luciano Iorizzo, Francis T. Riley, and Anthony Slosek.” Even
more useful for me, however, were the three audiotapes of American-born, Irish-descended Carrie Dietz, one hundred years old at the time of her interviews.
Aside from local history resources, I consulted a number of published studies during my initial phase of research, though none of them mentions Oswego or Central New York specifically. Hasia A. Diner‟s Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant
Women in the Nineteenth Century (1987) has been invaluable; it is still the most
comprehensive work on Irish women immigrants available. Other particularly useful studies included Carol Groneman‟s “‟She Earns as a Child; She Pays as a Man‟: Women Workers in a Mid-Nineteenth Century New York City Community” (1977); Carole
Turbin‟s “Reconceptualizing Family, Work, and Labor Organizing: Working Women in Troy, 1860-1890” (1984); Greg A. Hoover‟s “Supplemental Family Income Sources:
Ethnic Differences in Nineteenth-Century Industrial America” (1985); Timothy J.
Meagher‟s “Sweet Good Mothers and Young Women Out in the World: The Roles of Irish American Women in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Worcester, Massachusetts” (1986); and Janet Nolan‟s Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from
Ireland, 1885-1920 (1989).
Some excellent new studies of Irish women immigrants in America have been published since I completed the original draft of this study in 2000, including Janet Nolan‟s Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America (2004);
Polly Beckham‟s “A Little Cache of Green: The Savings Habits of Irish Immigrant Women in 1850 Philadelphia” (2002); Ruth-Ann M. Harris‟ “‟Come You All
Courageously‟: Irish Women in America Write Home” (2002); Diane M. Hotten-
Somers‟ “Relinquishing and Reclaiming Independence: Irish Domestic Servants, American Middle-Class Mistresses, and Assimilation, 1850-1920” (2001); and Patricia
Kelleher‟s “Maternal Strategies: Irish Women‟s Headship of Families in Gilded Age
3 Chicago” (2001).
Little has been written about Oswego‟s Irish immigrants. In fact, the only
published study is Luciano Iorizzo‟s “The Immigrant in Oswego‟s History” (1966),
which doesn‟t devote any attention to Irish women as a group. There is also an unpublished M.A. thesis, Patricia Ruppert‟s “Oswego‟s Working Women: 1915 and
1925” (1979), that touches briefly on Irish women as wage earners, though only four Irish women are included in the census samples Ruppert analyzes. Another work, Charlie Davis‟ And So the Irish Built a Church (1975), is an interesting experiment in the fusion of history and poetry, but it‟s difficult to discern what‟s real and fictional, and nearly
impossible to trace the sources of Davis‟ information.
In the end, it was the utter paucity of research on Irish women in Oswego—or for
that matter in Central New York, New York State (outside of New York City), and even the nation—that convinced me of the value of undertaking this study. Moreover, as anyone who studies Irish women immigrants is bound to discover, Irish women
demonstrated such strength and determination in their drive to succeed in America that their stories deserve to be told. And this project represents only the beginning of what can be done to learn about their lives at the local level.
And the famine came stalking with gaunt bony finger
And our landlord was ruthless and pitiless sure;
And sweet Kathleen, our blue-eyed—but why should we linger,
Recounting our sorrows—who cares for the poor?
Yet God careth for us. Then no more repining.
Though we fly from this desolate country away
To the free happy West; as each day is declining
For the land of our fathers we‟ll fervently pray.
-- “The Emigrant‟s Farewell” (1852)
In 1855, sisters Mary and Margaret Kelly were living in Oswego, far from the home they had left behind in Ireland. They were young, twenty-two and eighteen; had only been living in the city for a few months; but had managed to find work as domestic
4 servants in the home of Richard White, an English clerk who owned a boarding house.
Imagine Mary and Margaret at night in their garret room after a long twelve to
5 fifteen hours of being on their feet.If they weren‟t too tired and could spare the candles,
they may have passed the time before sleep writing letters to family in Ireland. Or to keep their spirits up, especially if they had had a particularly difficult day, they may have passed the time before sleep talking about their plans for the future. Perhaps they dreamed of marrying Irish men who were already well established in America; or perhaps they dreamed of making enough money to raise dowries for themselves and then returning to Ireland—as some Irish women did—“rich” and desirable marriage partners.
If Mary and Margaret were anything like the typical Irish woman immigrant in America, they probably made the trip alone, without the company and guidance of parents or other relatives. They may have had contacts in Oswego—friends, relatives,
former inhabitants of their own villages—who secured their jobs and helped them make
6the transition to life in America; but then again, they may not have. It‟s quite possible
that, at least for their first few months in America, Mary and Margaret found themselves essentially alone in a world that must have at times seemed strange and even hostile. But it was a world in which they and many other young Irish women like them would prosper, a world that offered them more choices than they would have known in the life they left behind.
Between 1855 and 1901, nearly three million Irish emigrated to America, and the majority of these immigrants, 52.9 percent, were women (Diner 31). Ireland held no future for these people, dispossessed of their land, heavily taxed, and utterly dependent on a crop that had failed more than once in the span of a few decades. As a consequence of famine, young Irish men lacked the money necessary to build homes and start families, and were forced to postpone marriage. This, in turn, led young Irish women to look beyond the limits of their villages for marriage prospects and financial security. Many of them took positions as domestic servants in cities close to home, in particular Dublin and London; others, like the Kelly sisters, came to America.
And like the Kelly sisters, the majority of these women were young and single. In fact, from 1852 to 1921 the median age for Irish women immigrants was 21.2 (Diner 31). They flooded East Coast cities and mill towns, places where they knew they could find domestic or factory work, seldom traveling beyond the ports where they landed because
they had no money to go further. Oswego was one such place. By the mid-nineteenth century, Oswego was a cosmopolitan city with booming shipping and manufacturing industries, and already had a sizeable Irish population of 2,820—nearly 25 percent of the
city‟s total population (Iorizzo 45). To Irish immigrants, more than half of whom were women, Oswego would have seemed a good place to begin new lives.
But what were their new lives like? That‟s the question I set out to begin to
answer in the pages that follow.
Irish Women at Home
It‟s sweeping at six and it‟s dusting at seven;
It‟s dinner at eight and it‟s dishes at nine.
It‟s potting and panning from ten to eleven,
We scarce break our fast „till we plan how to dine.
-- from “The Housewife‟s Lament”
This excerpt from “The Housewife‟s Lament” reflects the truth about the lives of
nineteenth-century housewives, Irish or not: They were constantly busy. Although enumerators in 1855 didn‟t consider housekeeping an occupation, the reality is that
housekeeping was indeed a demanding full-time job. But Irish women, in particular, must have had an especially difficult time coping with the demands of housekeeping. Because so many of them were married to sailors and railroad builders who were absent from home for long periods of time, the tasks of keeping house; raising children; managing family finances; and possibly taking in boarders, sewing, washing, or holding down some other job all fell on their shoulders.
Irish Women in Oswego, 1855 and 1915
The average woman in the 1855 sample was approximately thirty years old and had been in the U.S. for about six years. She was married to an Irish man, had 2.5 children, and wasn‟t working outside the home (or at least wasn‟t doing work
enumerators recognized). The average woman in the 1915 sample was approximately fifty-seven years old and had been in the U.S. for about forty-one years. She wasn‟t
married, had 2.5 children, and wasn‟t working outside the home. (See Table 1 below.)
Irish Women in Oswego, 1855 and 1915*
Average Average Years Married Children Average Working
Age in America Number
30 6 62% 56% 2.5 24% 1855
57 41 38% 63% 2.5 22% 1915
*Statistics for all tables calculated from data taken from photocopies of New York
State Census manuscripts for the City of Oswego
The most significant change here is the decrease in the number of married Irish women, with the average number of children living with them remaining the same. This points to the increasing number of Irish widows in Oswego, women who had outlived husbands who had worked at physically-demanding and dangerous jobs—on the railroads,
on the docks, in factories—their whole lives. We‟ll look at the lives of these widows in