- Being Mary? Irish Catholic Immigrant Women and Home and Community Building in Harold Hill Essex 1947–1970 by Aenne Werner-Leggett
This book offers excellent, original research to add to the growing body of work on Irish female immigrants to Britain, a somewhat neglected history in comparison to the larger body of work on Irish female convicts transported to Australasia or emigrants to North America after the Irish Potato Famine. This kind of fine-grain study of a small community in Britain sheds light on perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs that are notoriously difficult to research in a historical context, and the work has immense value in this regard. The conceptual focus also includes a treatment of space in the newly built Harold Hill Estate in Essex in the postwar period—a fascinating approach, particularly in gendered terms, as female immigrants often interact with spaces in ways qualitatively different from those of men, as they liaise more often than men with education, health, and housing services. In previous histories the experiences of male immigrants have been viewed as analogous to the experiences of women, but recent historiography has pointed to the flaws in this approach. Being Mary? follows this line of argument to assert the unique experiences of women. Most important, it offers the voices of the women themselves—an element often missing from narratives on Irish migration. The methodology chapter will be particularly useful to undergraduate audiences in understanding the theoretical and practical implications of using oral history as a source.
The book examines the ideological underpinning of Irish women’s roles as mothers and explores the tension in historical narratives that stress how Irish women were ideologically reared not to work outside the home. This ignored the reality behind the rhetoric that many working-class women were employed in Ireland outside the home, even after marriage, out of sheer economic necessity. The danger of this argument, which focuses on the “home-identified” woman, is that it de-legitimizes women as economic migrants in the twentieth century, thereby playing into the negative contemporary rhetoric that they were “socially motivated” to migrate rather than needing to work to support themselves and the family economy through remittances. It also assumes that marriage was the ultimate goal for all women—something we cannot know. Aenne Werner-Leggett’s exploration of this theme in the women’s own words is sensitive, for she acknowledges the discourses on women and the home as well as points out their limits, as these accounts fail to acknowledge the women’s premarital careers and their essential role in their communities after marriage.
However, despite some very good points, the provenance of this work in a doctoral thesis (although acknowledged in the book) is also evident in the fact that the secondary literature does not take into account publications in the last five years, which has been a remarkably productive time for this area of research. Furthermore, the frequent references to “this thesis” remind the reader that it is a PhD thesis. More attention could have been paid stylistically to turn this into a monograph [End Page 633] rather than an academic dissertation, particularly given the repetition of the research rationale and design.
Werner-Leggett offers a fascinating paradigm in her proposition that the Virgin Mary was used as a role model to prepare women for motherhood. The Virgin Mary’s role in healing and promoting the welfare of children is offered as an example of religion interacting with health concerns in the lives of migrant women. This focus is different from that of sociological studies that highlight the poor health outcomes for many Irish migrants in Britain and is an important insight into how people mediated their religious practice as immigrants in places where the majority of the population did not share their religious affiliation.
There is much to recommend this book, spanning as it does not only the topics...