This feature is part of a Women’s Lives Women’s Voices series by Historian Dr Angela Byrne from Donegal, who pays tribute to Donegal’s Historical women.
By Angela Byrne
Some years ago, I was given an old pair of pince-nez spectacles in a small black leather case trimmed with silver, stamped by an American manufacturer. They belonged to my great-great-grandmother, Rose Brogan, a woman who was at once typical and remarkable. Born in October 1867 in the Bluestack Mountains, she left for Philadelphia in 1893, aged 26. Focusing on Rose’s life can help us learn about exceptions to the rule and better appreciate the value of individual stories in identifying broad trends. Historians call this approach ‘micro-history’. It asks us to think about what one person’s life can tell us about a particular time in history.
In many ways, Rose was a typical Irish emigrant of the time. The historian, David Fitzpatrick showed that in the years 1891–1905, between 53% and 55% of all emigrants from Irish ports were women. Like the vast majority of these women, Rose was unmarried and aged under 30. Kerby Miller showed that between 1852 and 1921, the median age for female Irish emigrants was 21 years, and Hasia Diner noted that in 1887–1900, only 16% of all the Irish who relocated to the USA were married.
Rose travelled to Philadelphia aboard the City of Rome, and the passenger list states her occupation as ‘servant’. That, too, was common – Bernadette Whelan shows that in 1900, 54% of all Irish-born women in New York were working as domestic servants. Altogether, of the 220 passengers who boarded the City of Rome in Moville and Derry in August 1893, 119 were Irish women. Of those, half (59) were classified as servants. Approximately five-sixths (90) of the female passengers who boarded the ship appear to have travelled unaccompanied.
So, in many ways, Rose fits the profile of the typical Irish female migrant to the USA. However, more unusual details emerge from her story. In 1908, she became that rarest of creatures – a ‘returned emigrant’. Of the hundreds of thousands of women who left Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, only 2% returned. When Rose returned to Donegal, she was still unmarried. She married shortly afterwards, a month before her 41st birthday, and had one daughter.
Her late marriage age and late age of first birth run counter to common assumptions about past lives. But Irish women at this time had the highest average marriage age in Europe, and 25% of this generation of Irish women never married at all. Together with the high rate of emigration, this highlights the poor prospects that marriage offered to them – often a life of hard work and ill-treatment by in-laws – and women’s low social status in Ireland.
The 1911 Census provides a snapshot of Rose’s life after her return from Philadelphia. It tells us that she was one of ten children, of whom only 6 survived into adulthood. She was living with her parents, husband, and infant daughter in the three-roomed stone-built family home. Her father and husband were both farmers; no occupation is given for Rose or her mother.
The Census also tells us that Rose was the only literate person in the family. That she treasured her spectacles suggests to us that she was a reader. She bought them in Philadelphia in 1901, and carefully kept her prescription. Her literacy was in part a product of the National Schools’ system that developed throughout the 19th century. In the 1901 Census, 79% of people self-declared as being able to read and write.
Looking through the eyes of Rose and her generation gives us a clearer view of the past as a place where people had adventures, and lived and thought outside the limitations imposed on them. Rose returned to Donegal carrying signs of urban American life: spectacles, jewellery, silver candlesticks. Contrary to what we might assume, her life did not simply follow established patterns. Rather, she followed opportunity, both in leaving Ireland and in returning to it.