The “Limerick Girls”

This week, I’m writing up a quick report on some information that we dug out from the LAC.  I gave a short workshop on archival research in Dr. McGaughey’s “Sexualities in the Irish Diaspora” course last fall, during which I referenced this case study.  I wanted to revisit the content here.

On May 12, 1865, 70 “females” from the Limerick Union arrived at Montreal, having sailed over on the St. David.  No list of names, no documentation was provided by the Union.  The emigrants in question reported being told “that they were to receive £1 each on landing.”  Chief emigration agent A.C. Buchanan wanted to investigate this a little, so he sent the women to the St. Patrick’s Home in Montreal in the meantime.  When they arrived, “the Nuns in charge of the ‘Home’ were shocked at the gross impropriety of their conduct.”  It appears that this refers to the fact that they “disgraceful[ly] they sold their Boxes, Bonnets, Combs and any article of clothing they could dispense with to procure drink and because not only [were they] shamefully intoxicated but [they] were [also] guilty of the most depraved acts of immorality.”  The “allocated” monies arrived on the 15th.  After docking what was owed for their stay, the women were given “nearly half a sovereign” … each [for their] Journey into the interior.” 

We know some of their destinations.  The Immigration Agent in Ottawa reported that the “girls” who arrived there “[brought] bottles [with them] from Montreal.  Their appearance on arrival [there] was anything but respectable, [he, W.J. Willis] deemed it prudent to place them in the Orphans Home of the St. Vincent de Paul Society under the care of the Matron until they were disposed of.”  The Kingston agent, Mr. Macpherson states, “no doubt the majority of them will in a very short time find their way into jail.”  Willis also writes, “[i]f they would only take the trouble in Ireland to train these girls for a year on two and teach them to milk and do hard work instead of sewing + scouring we might do something with them but as it is now, it appears to me they are only sent out to become more degraded.”

The agents report being at a loss, not knowing what to do with the women.  In the end, Buchanan writes “I do hope that some means will be adopted to put a stop to this wholesale exportation of Union girls.  They bring nothing but trouble and disgust with them.  They infest our gaols and prisons and become burdens on every charitable and religious institution in whatever city of place they may get to.  I trust that you will urge upon the Government to pass some law compelling the commissioners or Guardians of these Unions in the Old Country to give some guarantee for the good behaviour of the parties they sent to Canada or they should not be allowed to land without some such guarantee.”

This was all reported back to the Board of Guardians of the Limerick Union.  The Union wrote back, “[t]he Committee beg to express their feelings of great regret that Mr. Buchanan and the kind Christian friends who take so much interest and trouble for the benefit of the poor Emigrants from this Country should have been put to so much trouble and annoyance – the Committee will note … that there may have been grounds to justify Mr. Buchanan in concluding that they selected the worst characters in the Workhouse in order to get rid of them – but they beg to assure him that such is not the fact, and that they do not know how to account for such a sudden outbreak of depravity as he reports.”  Moreover, the women were “pleased so earnestly to be given an opportunity to redeem their own character and earn an honest livelihood in a strange Country where they were not known, which they could never do in this, and the Master having borne testimony to their good conduct while under his observation, the Committee thought it a charitable act to comply with their request.” 

What are some of the takeaways here?  In the discourse, you see a lot of anti-Irish sentiment, mostly related to the country’s (the men’s?) inability to control “their” women’s wanton ways, in addition to a targeting of the women themselves for their training in “sewing and scouring” rather than “hard work.”  This seems odd, given the significant demand for female Irish domestic servants.  Implicit here is a view that these women are lazy at best and promiscuous at worst, very much in line with prevailing stereotypes.  Also, for the record, scouring is hard work.

What is most disappointing here is that these harmful stereotypes are being communicated and perpetuated by the very people who are supposed to be welcoming and supporting the newly arrived emigrants.  One gets a snapshot into the cyclical nature of poverty and the infantilizing of people newly arrived at these shores.  Unless the performance of certain prototypes was adhered to, support was withdrawn.  Stories like these complicate the origin stories of many Irish Canadians; many of us like to romanticize a Canada that welcomed those leaving post-Famine Ireland with open arms, and that newly settled Irish people then built the infrastructure and institutions that created the foundation for a newly-emerging Canada.  This ugly story, brought back to life through piece-meal and disordered archival traces, reminds us how unwelcome many were made to feel.  The previously mentioned statement “no doubt the majority of them will in a very short time find their way into jail” reads more like a fait accompli than the musings of a disgruntled public servant; I hope it wasn’t the case for the Limerick Girls.


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