Abstract: Erin's Enterprise: An Example of Social Entrepreneurship

Laura D. Kelley


While more attention has been paid to the economic advancement of Irish male immigrants in the antebellum era, little has been written in this context about Irish female immigrants. Sparseness of data is in part to be blamed. The 1850 census enumerators were not required to list the occupations of women, and therefore, rarely did. Furthermore, the types of work available to poor women in general were severely circumscribed. By drawing on Catholic Church records, census data, and diaries, this paper will explore how Irish females reconciled limited opportunity, outsider status, epidemics, and other hardships of immigrant life with the need to subsidize household income or survive on their own. I argue that, contrary to the notion that the poor are without agency, Irish women showed remarkable enterprise and relied on a tradition that recognized that the strength of an individual depends on that individual's personal contribution to her community. An illustration of this type of Irish social entrepreneurship is the life of Margaret Haughery, and my case study of her life exemplifies that Irish women were highly skilled and creative in their use of the marketplace both to earn money and to fulfill altruistic and familial goals.