Category Archives: Northern Ireland
For the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be able to access abortions without having to travel to Great Britain as of April 1. This is the culmination of years of fighting for access to reproductive healthcare and follows similar changes in Ireland, where abortion became legally accessible in January 2019.
As heated debate raged across both Northern Ireland and Ireland in the lead up to these changes, the stories of women, who for various reasons, took the “abortion trail” across the Irish Sea became more widely shared. These are personal and often harrowing stories of being forced to travel to Great Britain to terminate a pregnancy.
Indeed, while it may not be widely known, women who did not want to be mothers in Ireland are also a consistent feature of Irish migration throughout the 19th century. Some took the short journey across the Irish Sea to Great Britain. Others, however, took their chances further afield responding to the promises of a fresh start in America.
We have been researching these stories for our “Bad Bridget” project, a three-year study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council named after the fact that Bridget was commonly used in 19th-century North America to refer to Irish women. From looking at criminal and deviant Irish women in Boston, New York and Toronto, we have uncovered many who made the extreme decision to emigrate while pregnant and often alone.
It is clear from our research that the stigma and shame attached to illegitimacy in Ireland, in both protestant and catholic communities, led girls and women to make this journey to the “new world” rather than be condemned and possibly ostracised at home. In 1877, for instance, Maggie Tate, an Irish Protestant, migrated to New York to “cover her shame”. She hoped that the father of her child would join her in the US to fulfil his promise to marry her.
Kate Sullivan, who was 18 when she travelled to New York, was “betrayed” by the son of a farmer for whom she worked in Ireland. He had allegedly “shipped her over [to New York], promising to follow on the next steamer”. He didn’t and she gave birth to their twins there.
Other women in similar situations gave up their children for adoption. While some relatives and friends would likely have been complicit in decisions to hide pregnancies by migrating across the Atlantic, others likely remained entirely ignorant. Unfortunately, many Irish women found that when they arrived in America, attitudes towards single mothers were no more positive than at home. For some women the experience of migrating while pregnant ended in tragedy.
Catherine O’Donnell ended up in court in Boston in 1889 for the suspected manslaughter of her baby, having allegedly “sought the shore of America to give birth to an illegitimate child, her lover [in Ireland] deserting her”. Her case reveals the issues experienced by many single mothers, both in the past and today, of having to support a child alone. Catherine initially paid for her baby’s board, but her financial difficulties were exacerbated when money from home ceased. She was refused assistance at charitable and religious institutions and, after wandering around for two days in a storm, seems to have left her infant on the shoreline at low water where the baby drowned.
Abroad and alone
Our research on Bad Bridget has also shown that many Irish female migrants became pregnant after their arrival to North America. This is undoubtedly related to the fact that many Irish women emigrated alone and at a young age, some as young as eight or nine. This was unlike their counterparts from continental Europe, who tended to travel in family groups.
But if many Irish migrants in large cities experienced a new found sexual freedom outside of parental and family control, this lack of supervision also meant a lack of support and assistance. The experience of Rosie Quinn who became pregnant while in New York in 1903 reveals the tragic consequences that could follow. Rosie was found guilty of throwing her nine-day-old daughter into a reservoir in Central Park and sentenced to life in prison. Her case generated considerable public support, with one woman writing to the governor of New York:
my heart is so burdened for that poor Irish girl (alone in a strange country deserted by family and friends) that I cannot rest.
Like Catherine O’Donnell, Rosie explained during her trial that she had sought and been refused charitable assistance. She had gone to Central Park intending to drown herself and the baby, she claimed, but while contemplating suicide the baby had slipped from her arms. She recalled that she “got scared and ran away”. Servants at the hotel where Rosie had worked on Fifth Avenue appealed to patrons to help appeal her case and she was pardoned in December 1904.
These examples are only some of the wide variety of stories and experiences of unmarried Irish mothers in North America. In many situations, pregnancies outside marriage will have turned out well; women will have managed on their own, married or used support networks. But for others, experiences of emigration ended badly. Historical discussion of emigration often ignores the female experience.
Understanding the myriad migration stories in the past will give greater insight and understanding into the pressures and demands of migration today, especially relating to women migrants. Such stories also complicate rose-tinted views about economically, socially and politically successful Irish migrants who contributed to their new home countries. An awareness of the variety of pressures and stresses that led to a decision to emigrate, and an understanding that not all migrant experiences in the past were positive, can encourage a more empathetic consideration of migrants and migration today.
Australian English decidedly finds its origins in British English. But when it comes to chasing down Irish influence, there are – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld – some knowun knowuns, some unknowun knowuns, and a bucket load of furphies.
Larrikins, sheilas and Aboriginal Irish speakers
The first Irish settlers, around half of whom were reputedly Irish language speakers, were viewed with suspicion and derision. This is reflected in the early Australian English words used to describe those who came from Patland (a blend of Paddy and Land).
The Irish were guided by paddy’s lantern (the moon); their homes adorned with Irish curtains (cobwebs); and their hotheadedness saw them have a paddy or paddy out. These Irish were said to follow Rafferty’s Rules – an eponym from the surname Rafferty – which meant “no rules at all”.
More than a few Irish were larrikins. In his book Austral English, E.E. Morris reports that
in 1869, an Irish sergeant Dalton charged a young prisoner with “a-larrr-akin about the streets” (an Irish pronunciation of larking, or “getting up to mischief”). When asked to repeat by the magistrate, Dalton said: “a larrikin, your Worchup”.
This Irish origin of larrikin had legs for many years, and perhaps still does. Unfortunately, here we have our first furphy, with more compelling evidence linking larrikin to a British dialect word meaning “mischievous or frolicsome youth”.
But if larrikin language is anything to go by, these youths went way beyond mischievous frolicking – jump someone’s liver out, put the boot in, stonker, rip into, go the knuckle on and weigh into are just some items from the larrikin’s lexicon of fighting words.
With the Dalton furphy, though, we see evidence of something called “epenthesis”, the insertion of extra sounds. Just as Dalton adds a vowel after his trilled “r” in a-larrr-akin, many Aussies add a vowel to words like “known” and “film” (knowun and filum) – and here we see a potential influence of the Irish accent on Australian English.
In contrast to larrikin, the word sheila is incontrovertibly Irish. Popular belief derives it from the proper name, Sheila, used as the female counterpart to Paddy, a general reference to Irish males.
Author Dymphna Lonergan, in her book Sounds Irish, prefers to derive it from Irish Gaelic síle, meaning “homosexual”, noting Sheila wasn’t a particularly popular Irish name as it began to appear down under.
Significantly though, St Patrick had a wife (or mother) named Sheila, and the day after St Paddy’s Day was once celebrated as Sheelah’s Day. So, Sheila was something of a celebrity.
Barrack is another likely Irish-inspired expression. A range of competing origins have been posited for this one, including the Aboriginal Wathawarung word borak, meaning “no, not”, and links to the Victorian military barracks in Melbourne.
But the most likely origin is the Northern Irish English barrack, “to brag, be boastful of one’s fighting powers”. The word has since sprouted opposite uses – Australian barrackers shout noisy support for somebody, while British barrackers shout in criticism or protest.
Perhaps surprisingly to many, the Irish were the first Europeans some Australian Aboriginal tribes encountered.
This contact is evident in the presence of Irish words in some Aboriginal languages. For instance, in the Ngiyampaa language of New South Wales, the word for shoe is pampuu, likely linked to a kind of shoe associated with the Aran Islands in Ireland, pampúta.
Didgeridoos, chooks and shouts: An Irish language perspective
Lonergan argues that more attention should be directed to this sort of Irish Gaelic influence.
Lonergan points, for example, to archival evidence linking the origin of didgeridoo to an outsider’s perception of how the instrument sounds, questioning the degree to which the sound corresponds to the word.
As a counter-argument, she notes an Irish word dúdaire meaning “trumpeter or horn-blower”, as well as Irish and Scots-Gaelic dubh, “black” and dúth, “native”. She observes that Irish and Scots-Gaelic speakers first encountering the instrument might well have called it dúdaire dubh or dúdaire dúth (pronounced respectively “doodereh doo” or “doojerreh doo”).
Similar arguments are made for a number of other words traditionally viewed as having British English origins.
The Australian National Dictionary sees chook (also spelled chuck) as linked to a Northern English/Scottish variation of “chick”. However, Lonergan notes this is phonetically the same word (spelled tioc) the Irish would have used when calling chickens to feed (tioc, tioc, tioc).
Another potential influence also comes from the transference of Irish meaning to English words. For example, the Australian National Dictionary is unclear as to the exact origin of shout, “to buy a round of drinks”, but Lonergan links it to Irish working in the goldfields and an Irish phrase glaoch ar dheoch, “to call or shout for a drink”.
Lonergan posits that Irish miners translating to English might have selected “shout” rather than “call” – “shouting” could easily have spread to English speakers as a useful way to get a drink in a noisy Goldfields bar.
Good dollops of Irish in the melting pot
Irish influence on Australian English is much like the influence of the Irish on Australians themselves – less than you’d expect on the surface, but everywhere once you start looking.
And those with a soft spot for Irish English might feel better knowing that some of their bête noires are in fact Irish (haitch, youse, but, filum and knowun).
As Irish settlers entered the Australian melting pot, so too did a hearty dose of their language.
The link below is to an interesting article (with many photos) concerning the industrial relics of Sion Mills in Ireland.