Synopsis from Goodreads:
“Bridget” was the Irish immigrant service girl who worked in American homes from the second half of the nineteenth century into the early years of the twentieth. She is widely known as a pop culture cliché: the young girl who wreaks havoc in middle-class American homes. Now, in the first book-length treatment of the topic, Margaret Lynch-Brennan tells the real story of such Irish domestic servants, often in their own words, providing a richly detailed portrait of their lives and experiences.
Many of the socially marginalized Irish immigrant women of this era made their living in domestic service. In contrast to immigrant men, who might have lived in a community with their fellow Irish, these women lived and worked in close contact with American families. Lynch-Brennan reveals the essential role this unique relationship played in shaping the place of the Irish in America today. Such women were instrumental in making the Irish presence more acceptable to earlier established American groups. At the same time, it was through the experience of domestic service that many Irish were acculturated, as these women absorbed the middle-class values of their patrons and passed them on to their own children.
If you’ve been following along with my reviews so far this Cannonball, you’ll know that I’m researching Irish immigrant domestic servants at the moment, and have been going back and forth between reviewing a book for me and a book for work. Review Six brings us squarely back to work.
The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930 by Margaret Lynch-Brennan should have been perfect for me. It’s the right topic, the right time period, and is a scholarly work. In many ways this is exactly what I needed, because it breaks down various aspects of a typical woman’s experience and provides primary source documentation about what was being experienced from interviews, personal correspondence and other ephemera.
My problem is that this work, which in its synopsis is credited as being the first book-length treatment of the topic, does not analyze the information it presents. The most glaring example, to me, in explaining the relatively high English literacy rates amongst Irish women, the culture of education in Ireland, and the prevalence of correspondence across the Atlantic, Ms. Lynch-Brennan does not discuss that in large part the increase in English literacy at the cost of Irish language literacy was influenced by the refusal to teach the language in the National Schools while the country was under English rule.
It’s this lack of nuance which permeates the book and eventually had me skimming through the last fifty or so pages just to get some additional information and be done. It also didn’t help that many sections seemed to devolve to a list of quotes in paragraph form to substantiate the author’s point. There’s a way to do that where the writing flows naturally and is entertaining while also informative, and sometimes Ms. Lynch-Brennan nails it, but far more often she falls short. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you are looking for an introductory book on the topic it’s not bad. But it just annoyed me too much to get anything above 2 stars, because I’m picky.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.