For “Irish Bridgets,” Life Wasn’t Downton Abbey

Courtesy of Rita KingLittle is known of Catherine O’Connell beyond this surviving photograph. She appears long-suffering, keeping her own counsel, and perhaps far older than her years, for a good reason: The American version of Downton Abbey, at least in New Haven, was not all smiles, wit, and loyalty to the master, but grueling labor at often humiliating tasks.

Present-day New Haveners got a peek into the lives of Irish domestic servants like O’Connell in New Haven from the 1850s to the 1920s in a lecture entitled “Irish Women in Domestic Service.” The talk was part of the public programming for Beyond the New Township: Wooster Square, a quiet blockbuster of an exhibition at the New Haven Museum.

Because of “great attendance” and a desire to dovetail with Wooster Square’s Cherry Blossom Festival in April, the exhibition is being extended through May, said the museum’s Executive Director Margaret Anne Tockashrewsky.

More than 50 people, many with their own stories of a grandparent or great aunt who worked as a domestic, braved the icy weather to hear local historian and retired New Haven Register newspaperman Neil Hogan (pictured), now with the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society, share his research and photo archive at the lecture, this past Thursday night.

“Every Irish family [in Connecticut] has at least one [relative] who served as a domestic servant,” said Hogan.

“Irish Bridget” came to be a synonym for domestic servant, he added.

Because there’s a paucity of letters and diaries from these people in this era, throughout his talk Hogan solicited audience members to share their family histories with him.

Making more visible the “invisible communities” of historic Wooster Square has been one of the aims of the exhibition, said Tockashrewsky.

Long before Wooster Square became synonymous with the Italian-American historical experience in New Haven, the area was a mecca for impoverished Irish immigrants driven to New York, Boston, and New Haven in between, by what Hogan called “an gorta mor.”

That’s Gaelic for the “great hunger,” or the potato famines of 1845 through 1848.

Available census figures show that unlike other immigrant groups, Irish women numerically dominated the men. While the men went to work in the quarries, mines, and later the carpet factories, the Irish women went to work “almost universally,” Hogan said, as domestics.

Hogan was asked why, as the decades went on, they did not gravitate, as did the later Italian immigrants, towards the factory work in New Haven. “Good question,” he responded. He surmised that it was a question of poverty and that the women lacked other skills.

The domestics, meanwhile, worked as chambermaids, nurses, pastry chefs, seamstresses, laundresses, and other tasks. Some worked for short periods of time and then married. Others never married and attached to families they labored for.

That was the case with Catherine Foley. She’s the first cousin of Barbara Ortoleva’s mother. Ortoleva (pictured), who married into an Italian family that founded the New Haven Bread Company, said she knew little about Foley except that she was born in 1868 and died in 1968. She was a servant in the home of the English Family on Hillhouse Avenue.

Ortoleva, whose family artifacts are in the exhibition, said she was just beginning to do research on her relative.

That was music to Hogan’s ears. “We’ve only got tidbits of primary materials,” he said.

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posted by: wendy1 on January 24, 2014  4:43pm

Even white people were slaves in this country.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on January 25, 2014  10:39am

@wendy1:  No, not slaves. 

The Irish—and other immigrants—were exploited menial workers, no question.  There was ugly prejudice against them.  But they came here voluntarily, and they and their children were never classed as “property,” or bought and sold for money.  And, as domestic servants, they were free to marry and move out if the opportunity presented itself, and then, within just a generation, to establish themselves as householders, vote, move up the economic ladder, join unionized trades, become cops and business owners, and get rich and hold office.

That’s quite different from the story of African-Americans at the same time, even in the North.

Let’s keep a sense of proportion here.

posted by: Josiah Brown on January 25, 2014  1:39pm

Thanks for this article on Neil Hogan’s work and the New Haven Museum.

A number of Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminars, and many individual curriculum units that New Haven Public School (NHPS) teachers have prepared as Institute Fellows, have addressed such matters as immigration, civil rights, and social history (including locally).

Most recently, there is a volume of curriculum units that NHPS teachers developed as Fellows in a 2013 seminar (which included a field trip to the New Haven Museum’s Wooster Square exhibition) that Mary Lui—Professor of American Studies and History—led on “Immigration and Migration and the Making of a Modern American City.”

In that seminar, Mary-Doris Devlin of Co-op H.S. created a unit specifically on images of Irish immigration:

See also, for example, a 1979 seminar that Yale historian Howard Lamar led on “Remarkable City: Industrial New Haven and the Nation, 1800-1900”:

Among the units there is one by Valerie Polino on “New Haven and the Nation…”:

The late Yale historian Cynthia Russett led a 1997 seminar, “American Maid: Growing Up Female in Life and Literature”:

Additional immigration-related units are among the volumes at:

These curricular resources—in the sciences as well as the humanities—are available for non-commercial, educational purposes.

posted by: robn on January 26, 2014  10:12am


From the mid 1600s to the late 1700s, a different era than the one described in this article, the Irish population was decimated by English kings selling Irish men women and children to the slave trade in the west indies and later North America. They were for some time interbred with later arriving African slaves. Irish American and African American history is closely intertwined (ref to Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali).

posted by: Lady Li on January 26, 2014  1:57pm

That’s Gaelic for the “great hunger,” or the potato famines of 1845 through 1848.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, part of Quinnipiac University, opened in Hamden in the Fall of 2012.  It is a devastatingly haunting look at that period and its aftermath, and documents a man-made hunger to exploit land holders and designed to drive them off the land.