I’m having a hissy fit this week about the underlying message in my liberal arts education (shall I say “subtext”?) — that adventure — I’m outta here! — is what men do. You think Jack Kerouac was so cool because he got on a bus West in the 1950s? Hmpf. In 1914, when my grandmother Bridget Dunne turned 20, she got on a steamship by herself to America. Her passage was a gift from her 24-year-old sister Ellen, who had arrived in St Louis seven years earlier. Bridget got her ticket and said I’m outta here!
I’m re-reading Erin’s Daughters in America by Hasia R. Diner. It’s too bad Irish culture was not on my college curriculum. The emigration of single women to America from the poor counties of Ireland amounted to a social movement. In no other culture was there such a vast network of sister helping sister across the Atlantic. They came not seeking husbands but seeking economic opportunity. Independence. Many of them chose domestic service in the houses of rich Americans because they were ambitious to learn what they could about the good life. There was no stigma to being single. And they sent for their sisters.
Of the Dunne family, Ellen left first. She was the oldest of 9 children. I’m curious about her decision to leave. As the oldest she would have been “entitled” to a husband and a future as a farmer’s wife. But at the age of 17, she got up and went. A bunch of people from Kilkerrin took the same ship to Boston, in 1907. But she and her Uncle Mike were the only ones who got on a train at Boston and lit out for parts west, to St. Louis, where their cousin Tom Dunne lived.
Uncle Mike was in his thirties but not the best of escorts. He was essentially being booted out of his hometown of Rushestown for having gotten a disabled girl pregnant, or so the story goes. But Ellen had $25 in her pocket — the equivalent of about $500 in today’s dollars. It’s likely that her bounty was a gift from her mother, the ambitious farmer Catherine Martin Dunne. Ellen made her way.
Maybe Ellen connected with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Louis, who operated an employment agency for young Irish women to get domestic service jobs. The next thing we know of her is that she is going by the name of Helen, married to the carpenter Ernest Price around 1912, and sponsoring her sister Bridget to join her in 1914.
Bridget worked as a live-in domestic for 6 years, till she married Ernest Price’s brother, fresh home from the Great War. She lost her Irish brogue and taught her children how to be American.
Their younger sisters Katie and Maggie joined them , but that’s a story for another day…