At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.”
“That’s true, ma’am dear.”
“They have now turned blue, Biddy.”
“Not all over, ma’am.”
“No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.”
“Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?”
“It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.”
“Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.”
“Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!”
This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.”
Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations.
Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily.
“What are you doing, Biddy?”
“Oh, never heed me, ma’am.”
“Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.”
“And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it.
Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich.
Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse.
The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality.
“Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.”
How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!”
You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did.
Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in her kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve.
In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth?
“Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny
Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely.
Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl.
Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks.
“But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them.
“She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’
“‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’
‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!”
Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!”
This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.”
In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge.
Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!”
The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.