A Hard Life Surely: The Role of Women in Rural Irish Communities
“A man may work from sun to sun,
There was a time in Ireland when women were not only equal to men – but also highly revered and respected. Centuries of Christianity and its patriarchal ministrations had reduced woman’s place in society to one of subservience and submissiveness.
By the 19th century and the age of emigration, the division of labour on an Irish farm was hardly equal and favoured men entirely. Men’s responsibilities – preparing the field for sowing, harvesting, peat gathering and farm repairs hardly equalled women’s responsibilities which included planting and tending the crop and animals, gathering the crops, preserving the crops, feeding and clothing and tending the family, plus the inconveniences of child bearing and all that inferred. Men, without question, had more leisure time than women. This pattern would cross the sea with the wave of emigration in the first half of the nineteenth century and be exasperated by the difficult life of backbreaking homesteading tasks awaiting an Irish family in the New World.
Most Irish communities in New Brunswick were tucked away on lands that were isolated from the rest of the colony’s established society. This isolation led to subsistence farming based on self-sufficiency – most things were produced on the farm for home consumption and very little was sold or purchased for their needs.
“A backwoods farm,” wrote an English observer, “produces everything wanted for the table, except tea, rice and salt and spices. To the list of supplementals could be added occasional dry goods, shoes and metal for farm implements.”1
This statement certainly holds true for the early Irish settler farms in New Brunswick. William Dunn, of Melrose purchased very little for his family over a six-month period at a local general store in 1899. His account listed figs of tobacco, moccasins, oats, seed potatoes, a harness and county taxes ($1.66).2
As families settled into a farming lifestyle throughout the New Brunswick wilderness, a true division of labour developed and men and women performed different tasks on the family farm. Farmers worked by the seasons – and the number of daylight hours regulated a workday.
By no means were men the ‘breadwinners’ of this economy. Both women and men actively participated in the production of family subsistence…indeed women were engaged in from one-third to one-half of all food production on the farm. Of the farm staples – milk, meat, vegetables, and eggs – women produced the greater numbers of products and division of labour. Women were also likely to be found helping men with their portion at peak planting time [plus] all the household work and care of the children. To be sure, men and women alike worked hard to make their farms produce. But one cannot avoid being struck by the enormousness of women’s workload.3
Also, where men generally only worked in daylight, women continued to work well into the evenings despite poor light in the farmhouse.
The unequal division of labour is easily seen when the list of “woman’s chores” is reviewed.
Outside of the farmhouse, women were responsible for:
– Planting, tending and harvesting of the kitchen garden.
– Assisting with the seeding and harvesting of grain crops.
– Maintaining the henhouse, including feeding hens, collecting eggs and slaughtering chickens.
– Maintaining the dairy including the milking, and feeding of the cows.
– Gathering of wood from the woodpile.
– Threshing of buckwheat, corn and flax.
Inside the farmhouse, women:
– Prepared, preserved, and cooked all farm produce, including jams, pickles, but also butter. Most preserving occurred during the hottest months of the year and required a very hot stove for sterility purposes.
– After slaughtering, prepared cuts of meat – either by smoking, drying or salting and made sausages.
– Had the complete responsibility for the manufacture, care and repair of family clothing. This included creating homespun cloth as well as spinning and carding wool for knitting and patching and reshaping worn clothing, blankets and bed ticks (mattresses).
– Making of homemade lye soap and tallow candles.
– Responsible for bringing water in from outside wells – a backbreaking task on Monday washing day and tediously difficult at the best of times.
– Also responsible for all household chores – from simple housecleaning and family meals to laundry, and even removing ashes from the stove and fireplace.
– Supervision and schooling of children.
A farmer was said to be a ‘jack of all trades’. But women’s work outdistanced men’s in the sheer variety of tasks performed. Add to this the added burden of childbearing. It is no surprise that women suffered so many stillbirths and miscarriages during the pioneer years.
There was an added factor which certainly came into play for Irish women in New Brunswick communities. Subsistence farming was okay for daily food requirements but some monies still had to come in to the household for other necessary items. To acquire this much needed extra cash, men often worked away from the farm for long periods at a time – leaving the women at home to cope with all of the farm chores – adding her husband’s chores to her own already taxing duties.
Mary (Murphy) Hennessy lived on McLaughlin Road, about 10 km north of Moncton, near Irishtown. Isolated, she also carried the burden of the farm work on her own for much of the year. In 1908, she wrote in her journal that her husband Jim was away in January and came home in February ‘to insulate the walls [on the new house]. He then ‘left 2 March and worked in Moncton’. He was ‘home for a week in June to help put in the crop” and he left again. And then she noted ‘Jim home three weeks in August and started back to work [in Moncton] 31 August. [He was] through work the first week of November.4
Isolated from family, friends and even close neighbours, Mary Hennessy’s husband was only home for 8 weeks from January to November that year – and she with two small children to care for as well.
Nor is this an isolated case. In many homes, this way of life was indeed the norm. Except in planting and harvesting seasons, men were away for several months at a time. An examination of the parish records for Irishtown births throughout the from 1890 to 1910 show a significant rise in births nine months after the planting season and again nine months after harvest. In the months in-between there are significantly fewer births.5 Clearly, the men were away from home more than they were home.
Running the farm by themselves was indeed challenging. However it was loneliness bred from the isolation that truly preyed on their minds. Adapting to this new isolation was particularly difficult because in Ireland, these women lived in close-knit neighbourhood communities – clusters of houses densely packed together and filled with family and friends – and this network of social contact was especially important when times were tough.
In pioneer communities in New Brunswick farms were surveyed out in 100-acre lots or more and neighbours were a good distance away – especially through long winter nights. Catherine Parr Trail, speaking of the experience in Ontario said:
“One of our greatest inconveniences arises from the badness of our roads, and the distance at which we are placed from any village.”6
Isolation bred loneliness and loneliness bred cabin fever or out-right insanity. Nearly every community had someone who would be jokingly referred to as a “Batty Betty”. Left to their own devises on the homestead while the men were away for months at a time took incredible strength and most did manage the stress and difficult way of life but it couldn’t have been easy. Children, raised almost exclusively by their mothers, generally held their mothers in high regard – all the days of their lives. Their fathers, they barely knew at all.
Disease and death took their toll in most of these communities as well. When one’s wife died, husbands usually quickly remarried to provide stability to the family. Those that did not remarry barely coped. One keen observer of the day labelled it “frenzied grief”.
“ [In Johnville] a poor fellow had become mad, his insanity attributed to the loss of his young wife, whose death left him a despairing widower with four infant children. He had just been conveyed to the lunatic asylum, and his orphans had already been taken by the neighbours, and made part of their families.”7
The difficulties faced by women in the pioneer Irish communities can be easily understood by studying any family where death visited and took a spouse. Sara Donahoe of Irishtown married John McKelvie of Memramcook in 1881. They were married for 14 years when he was accidentally killed by a train in Memramcook in 1895. By this time, Sara had already given birth to seven children and three had died in infancy. She then married Richard Anketell of Tankville six years later and had six more children over an eight-year period.8
Life was not all drudgery and hard labour in these isolated Irish communities. Winters provided the best road conditions – frozen roads and fields shortened the journey by sleigh. Weddings often occurred in the winter months – because that was the only ‘down-time’ on a farm. Also, visitors often came at this time of the year as well and sometimes stayed for long periods of time. Women also gathered in winter for quilting bees and socials – weather permitting. But most winters were long and lonely. Mary Hennessy’s diary is often preoccupied with three items through the lonely winter months – weather, cold and road conditions. Summers were often too busy for socializing but after the harvest was in, there were ‘basket socials’ to raise money, or numerous dances – often held in a neighbourhood home or the local school. Women looked forward to church activities not only because they were devoted to their faith, but also as a means of socialization. Mary Hennessy noted in her journal in 1907 that she was depressed because mass – only said every third Sunday of the month – had been cancelled three months in a row because of bad weather and a smallpox scare.9
Life was indeed trying for pioneer Irish women as they carved out a place for themselves in the new colony. It was a difficult life. Despite the drudgery, life was still cherished. Despite the problems, depravities and loneliness, life was still ten times better here in the colony compared to the life they would have led as a tenant farmer’s wife in Ireland.
Mrs. Creehan, originally of Galway, settled in Johnville and was interviewed by British MP John Francis Maguire in 1868. She and her husband were tenant farmers and had been pushed off their land by their landlord in Galway. When asked about her life here she said:
“Thrue for you, sir, it was lonely for us, and not a living soul near us.”
The interviewer continued, asking, “But Mrs. Creehan, I suppose you don’t regret coming here?” And she responded:
“’Deed then no, sir, not a bit of it…we have plenty to ate and drink…and no one to take it from us…And, sir, if you ever happen to go to Galway and see Mr. _______, [the landlord] you may tell him for me…in my mind, t’was lucky the day he took our turf and the sayweed.”10
Mrs. Creehan was speaking of her own experiences but in many ways she spoke for most pioneer women in Irish communities throughout New Brunswick.
 The storeowner was also the local tax collector. J.D. Lane, Accounts Book, General Store, Bayfield NB, Unpublished, 1895-1902.
Farragher, p. 59.
Mary Hennessy, Personal Diary, Unpublished 1881-1953.
______, Parish records, St Anselme Roman Catholic Church and St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, Moncton.
Catherine Parr Trail, The Backwoods of Canada, Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1966, p. 53.
John Francis Maguire, MP, The Irish in America, London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1868, p. 68.
Birth, marriage and death records, St Anselme and St Bernard’s parishes – various entries.
Mary Hennessy, Personal Diary, Unpublished 1881-1953.
John Francis Maguire, p. 62.
John Mack Farragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1979, p. 45.