What’s An Irish Biddy?

In Grace’s Pictures Grace McCaffery goes to work as a domestic servant. A vast many young Irish immigrant women were employed in the households of middle class families, like the Parkers in my story.

This was the era of the Industrial Revolution, and it came to housewives as well. Once a family could afford to hire a servant, they did so because although technology was advancing at a fast pace at the turn of the twentieth century, household chores were still difficult and time consuming. And the woman of this era sought to spend her time at more edifying endeavors such as gardening, working for social reform, and of course, the suffrage movement. (You see Grace on the cover with her Brownie camera and you might be tempted to think she had a lot of leisure time on her hands, but if you read the story you’ll see that her leisure time was scarce and precious.)

Grace’s mistress was not a pleasant lady. She referred to Grace as her “Irish Biddy.” It was a bit of a derogatory term aimed at Irish immigrant women who commonly had the name Brigid or Bridget or Biddy for short. St. Brigid is one of the Irish patron saints, so like the name Patrick for boys, it was widely used.

When I was researching Grace’s role as a domestic servant, I found a fascinating book called The Irish Bridget, Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930 by Margaret Lynch-Brennan. The author uses the cases of real women and sometimes even their own words to describe what their lives were like.

What did an Irish Bridget do? She was cook, maid, waitress, child nurse, and laundress (according to the book.) Not always did they do all those things, but often that was the case.

A description of the typical girl who became an Irish Biddy is given in the book.

“For the most part, they were quite young girls…the median age of emigrant Irish females was about twenty-one. These girls were generally unmarried Roman Catholics who hailed from rural Ireland, and as the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth, increasingly they came from the rural west of Ireland, where traditional Gaelic Irish culture persisted longer than it did elsewhere in Ireland. They were the daughters of people of limited means, rather than the children of either wealthy or extremely poor parents.” 

In other words, they were poor and had little other choice for a future than to come to America. They had to learn their chores, however, as much of the housework done in North America was not typical in Ireland. They were hard working and determined women, however, and earned their place in the American economy.

I have great respect for them, and for Grace’s character who is my representation of these women. I have found some young Irish servants in the census when researching my husband’s family. Not mine, though. My ancestors were a little less than middle class. What about yours? Any Irish Biddys in your family? I’d love to hear stories!

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