Beara women worked in mills at Fall River

In the nineteenth century, Fall River, Massachussetts, USA, was known as 'Spindle City' due to its prominence to the United States textile industry. Fifty seven percent of the print cloth made in the United States was manufactured in Fall River and the number of textile workers increased each year.
In 1875, more than 15,000 people worked in the mills and 75 percent were foreign born. One of the largest groups of immigrants was the Irish who accounted for 38 percent of the total Fall River workforce. Many of the Irish who arrived in the city in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century came from Beara Peninsula. Both before, during and after the famine, Beara was a place of extreme poverty.

The main employer was the Puxleys who operated the copper mines at Allihies where men, women and children engaged in dangerous, back breaking work. The mining industry offered little security to its employees because of the uncertain nature of mining and the economic downturns in Ireland.
By the mid 1800s the mines were slowing down and many Beara families sailed for the United States. Some went to Michigan, Montana or Rhode Island to work as miners but a large number went to Fall River, Massachussetts. With its booming textile industry, that city gave them a hope and a chance for a better life.

Many women from Beara found work in the mills of Fall River. The work was difficult and the hours were long but many young women welcomed the chance to provide for themselves and to help their families. Whether working as a mill operative, a domestic, a seamstress or a laundress, these women found a sense of independednce they had not had in Beara. Often they sent money back to brothers and sisters at home to pay for their passage to the United States.

This patteren of gradual immigration is illustrated by a Mary Harrington who arrived in Fall River by herself at the age of 20. She worked in a mill and was able to send for her sister, Katherine, a year later in 1886. Katherine also worked in the mill but their younger sister, Bridget, who arrived in 1889, obtained work as a clerk in a bakery. This immigration pattern is seen in many households and in 1860 there were more than 236 Beara families in Fall River. By 1870 the number was more than 270. In the 1870, 1880 and 1900 census of Fall River the names of Harrington and O'Sullivan appeared in large numbers.

Due to the predominance of these names on the Beara Peninsula, they represent a large majority of Beara female immigrants. The number of single women from Beara who worked in the mills was at least 104. This number represented 93 percent of the working women from this area. The remaining single women were servants, laundresses or seamstresses.

A few ran boarding houses. Reading through some newspapers of the time, it appears that the 1870s was a turbulent decade in the Fall River Mills. Large scale strikes in 1870, 1875 and 1879 brought no improvement in the wages or conditions of the mill workers. We notice that in the 1875 weaver's strike the women led the way by planning a 'work stoppage' in several selected mills. The inital result was a ten percent increase in wages but this was later rescinded by the Board of Trade and workers were required to sign a statement agreeing not to unionise. That decade ended with the mill management successfully blocking every effort for improved conditions made by the workers.

Despite these conditions Beara women still came to Fall River to seek employment. It appears that of the women from Beara who worked outside the home, approximately 93 percent of those were textile workers.

Typical of these women was Margaret O'Sullivan from Glenora, in the Allihies Parish. The oldest daughter of a family of seven children, she began working in the mills in 1800 soon after her family arrived in Fall River. With other Beara residents they lived in a part of the city known as Corky Row sharing a house with Margaret's widowed aunt and her four children.

Women workers backbone of the U.S. cotton industry

In the last week's 'Down Memory Lane,' we left off where Margaret O'Sullivan of Glenera, in the Allihies Parish and her family had moved in to live with her aunt on Corky Road, Fall River. When her mother died in 1888, Margaret became a surrogate mother for her siblings. She married in 1894 and she and her husband lived next door to her family.

She stayed home for a few years after the birth of her daughter but when her child was only two years old, Margaret became a widow and she was soon back in the textile mills working as a speeder tender, a skilled job in which she tended a machine called a double speeder that prepared cotton silvers for weaving. She worked well into her forties and then retired and kept house for her brother, her daughter and her sister, Annie, who also worked in the cotton mills for over forty years, first as a doffer helping to clean the cotton and later as a speeder tender. Annie and Margaret O'Sullivan worked in non-supervisory positions tending machines.

Some positions required more skills than others and paid more money but none of the women reached the level of overseer. For Margaret and Annie, this means that their younger brother was a mill overseer by the age of 28 while they would never have that opportunity.

The women workers were the backbone of the cotton industry. Some like Maggie Harrington, a member of another Beara family, worked in the mills from the age of 11. She joined her sisters, Hannah, Lizzie, Mary and Bridget while her father, Philip, was a labourer and her mother, Hannah, kept house. Another daughter, Agnes, who was the youngest, was still at school at the age of eight.
Here she obtained a basic education she would not have received in Ireland since there were no National Schools in Ireland until 1885. Because of this, the parents and older children in Beara families were frequently unable to read and write. Despite this, some women started their own business where they did laundry and dressmaking.

By 1880, the percentage of Beara women in the mills was down to 77 per cent. Domestic work now seemed to have attracted more and 22 per cent worked as servants, often in the homes of mill owners and their families. One of these Beara women, Mary Harrington, worked for William Davol, owner of the Davol Mills Company.

She lived with her family and was one of a succession of Irish servants he employed. Some of the Beara women also worked and lived in hotels.

We notice that the Mellen House, which was in North Main Street, Falls River, employed many Irish emigrants. One was Gertrude Harrington who came from Beara in 1887 and in 1900 was working there as a waitress.

Even in Fall River, however, the more recent emigrants began to prepare for professional work. Some became nurses or joined religious orders but the majority became teachers. Despite the years spent training to be a teacher, teaching was an attractive profession for young Irish women. By 1908, American born daughters of Irish emigrants made up 26.4 per cent of Fall River teachers.

Many bore the Beara names of O'Sullivan, Harrington, Lowney, O'Shea. The success of these 'granddaughters of the Beara' was based upon the sacrifice and courage of their Beara ancestors who had left Beara in search of a better life and found it by years of hard work in the mills and homes of Fall River, Massachusetts.

Courtesy of the Southern Star
August 2005