Culture  /  Journal Article

From Saint to Stereotype: A Story of Brigid

Caricatures of Irish immigrants—especially Irish women—have softened, but persist in characters whose Irishness is expressed in subtle cues.

From the 1840s onward a consistent stream of young, single women and girls flowed into in the United States from famine stricken Ireland. Many of these new arrivals were named Bridget for the beloved Irish Saint, Brigid. Many, too, went into domestic work once they got here. By the 1850s, roughly seventy-five percent of all women in domestic service jobs in New York City were Irish immigrants. By 1900, some sixty percent of all Irish-born women who had worked in America had done so in domestic service, as historian Hasia Diner points out in Erin’s Daughters in America. So many among this cohort were named Brigid or Bridget, in fact, that the name came to represent this entire population.

Before long, Bridget, or Biddy for short, became a caricature in women’s magazines of the nineteenth century, embodying exactly the opposite of the gentility and refinement possessed by the Victorian women who employed her. Where the Victorian ladies were demure and dainty, Biddy was rough and uncouth. Where they were efficient and well-mannered, she was lazy and prone to violent outbursts. Where they were measured and careful, she was clumsy, ever breaking crockery. Bridget, writes April Schultz in “The Black Mammy and the Irish Bridget: Domestic Service and the Representation of Race, 1830–1930,” was part of the “not-quite-white” Catholic immigrant population, which struck fear in the hearts of American Protestants. In “The Stage Irishwoman,” women’s studies scholar M. Alison Kibler further accentuates the nativist, anti-Catholic sentiment of the time, noting that “Irish Catholic servants were accused of being spies for the Pope and of baptizing Protestant babies while employers were away.”

In caricatures, as Christine Palumbo-DeSimone points out in “’Kitchen Queens’ and ‘Tributary Housekeepers’: Irish Servant Stories in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Magazine Fiction,” Bridget’s manner of speech was irreverent, and her prattle was frequently the subject of ridicule and imitation. In 1856’s “Trials of an English Housekeeper,” which appeared in the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, said housekeeper observes that her employer is “takin’ to the bottle,” upon being asked to provide a drink. In 1861’s “In Need of a Servant,” from Peterson’s Magazine, Bridget O’Mulligan evades the question of where she last worked with “the air…of an empress,” and notes, “Last, is it? Shure, and I’m not in the habit of having questions asked.” In 1891’s “How I Advertised for a Servant” a “toothless monster” is interviewed by a potential employer seeking an American-born maid. The Irish woman responds, “I’m an American born, an’ me father an’ hither before me. Shure, an’ its mesilf can do yer whurk like a charm.”