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Reviewed by:
  • Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America
  • Kerby A. Miller
Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America. By Janet Nolan ( Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. xv plus 191 pp. $45.00 cloth; $18.00 paperback).

Janet Nolan's Servants of the Poor: Teaching and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America is a relatively short (138 pages of text) but well-researched and important contribution to American and modern Irish social history, particularly to U.S. education, immigration, and Irish-American history. Her principal theses are: first, that the Irish National Schools system (founded 1831; public, but largely church-contolled) prepared and inspired Irish female pupils to become public-school teachers after immigrating to the United States or, more commonly, to urge education and teaching careers on their U.S.-born daughters; second, that Irish-American women teachers played crucially important roles in promoting social mobility, into lower middle-class and "respectable" status, for their families and for Irish-American Catholic society, generally; third, that by the late 1800s and early 1900s Irish-American Catholic women comprised a disproportionately large number of the teachers in American urban public schools and therefore (and complementing their menfolks' influence in politics, civil service, and labor unions) were instrumental as intermediaries and "Americanizers" in their relationship with the "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe; and, finally, that Irish-American teachers' growing influence over public school systems met fierce resistance, initially from American Protestant élites, whose members feared the former's allegedly "alien" values, and later, in the 1920s and 1930s, from Progressive school "reformers," who imposed on urban school systems "corporate" models, with layers of administrative "experts," that reduced teachers' autonomy and revoked many of the gains (salaries, tenure, pensions) they had won in what Nolan terms their "golden age."

Servants of the Poor begins with two chapters describing the Irish National Schools system's origins and development, its curriculum, and its own teachers' [End Page 196] largely unsuccessful struggles against tyrannical school inspectors and clerical managers. Despite those burdens, and a curriculum designed to prepare female pupils for housewifery or domestic service, Nolan argues that Irish schools opened "windows of opportunity" for young Irish women—for the few who remained in Ireland and became teachers themselves, but especially for the many who emigrated and employed the skills and ambitions imbibed in Irish classrooms to find work in America and provide models for their American-born daughters. Although trained to be "servants of the rich" in American kitchens, the immigrants or, more commonly, their daughters became "servants of the poor in the overcrowded classrooms of urban America's public schools" (3).

In chapters 3-6, Nolan examines the roles of Irish-American teachers in Boston, San Francisco, and, especially, Chicago, and the obstacles they faced from nativists, who imposed anti-Irish Catholic "quotas" on teacher-training programs, and later from Progressives, who strove to sever the relationship between urban public schools and democracy, particularly as embodied in elected school boards and political "machines." Chapters 5-6 focus on Chicago, where the battles in the 1920s—30s were fiercest and the teachers most oppressed (e.g., by "payless paydays" during the Depression) and often most militant, under the leadership of the remarkable Margaret Haley, a leader of the Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF), the nation's first teachers' union. Nolan concludes with a chapter summarizing her findings, but both here and in chapter 6 she analyzes the ambivilent status and psychology of public school teachers in a society that allegedly values education but distrusts or even despises those who provide it. Nolan's descriptions are nicely illuminated by biographical sketches of individual Irish and Irish-American teachers and pupils, often based on memoirs and other personal reminiscences that Nolan has collected, in addition to accounts taken from her own and her American-born Irish parents' experiences as public school teachers. Thus, Nolan has a personal investment in this study, and a laudable passion is evident especially in her account of the Chicago "school wars" and her thoughtful discussion of U.S. teachers' contradictory position.

To be sure, Servants of the...


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