Irish Immigration to the US: Creating Historic Tales From Fact and Fiction

Often you will have available an abundant amount of information, pictures, photos, and artifacts relating to a specific time, person, or incident.  By tying these materials together through a story your are drawing participants, heart and mind into the world you want them to understand.  Story, the human experience, evokes human interest and empathy.  If you can evoke these feelings, then the historic details, previously foreign to the listener, are easily assimilated.  Story binds the head and heart.

I am going to simply outline here the steps you can follow in turning historic data into story.  (Please remember, story is a folk, not a fine art.  The procedure that works for me will have to be adapted and adjusted for your needs.)

1.  Research

Accumulate all the information you want to share with participants.  This will usually involve broad research from many sectors.  Collect information from as many mediums as possible, including magazines of the era, photos, grave sights, family trees and Historic Societies.  They can all provide the idiosyncratic details of living unavailable in academic tomes.   Good museum exhibits will often provide well-researched information as well as bibliographies.

By way of example I will provide some historic information on Irish immigration, and the movement of young women from Erin toward American homes and kitchens.   My story samples will be drawn from this information.

2.  Creating a Main Character 

Listeners enter a story via its main character.  You want to create a sympathetic personage who will be able to embody many of the details your research has unearthed.  Create an outline of the details you want included in her biography, and then play with the creation of finer details including the idiosyncrasies that will draw us into her heart and world.

For instance:

At 5’2 1/2” Brigitte’s 5 brothers had all called her ‘runt’ back on the family farm near Belfast, but her employer knew her true worth and called Brigitte

“My little Irish powerhouse.”  The fact that she brought all five brothers over on the money she’d earned by the sweat of her brow, proved her employers contention.


Maggie worked not less than 14 hours a day, her hair almost never dry from sweat or out of her eyes, but on the Sabbath, in her shirt waist and wide brimmed, plumed, hat she stepped as high as any other American girl.

You can illuminate both the time and the person through careful description.

3.  Biography

We don’t care what happens to someone unless we care about him or her.  With all the information available to you, create biography/history for your character.  For Instance:

The ocean liner that brought our Brigitte to Boston offered many different tickets.  First class passengers slept in comfortable, private births, ate at linen bedecked tables, and walked upon a windless deck at the ships promenade.  Brigitte traveled in steerage.   Disease was rampant, and spread easily among the families huddled on the spare lower deck, with nothing but the food they brought along to comfort them.  Brigitte, was not about to be failed by illness, and she spent much of her time on the ship’s aft, facing the harsh winds, but out of sicknesses way.

Use everything around you to paint a full rich picture of your heroine’s world, and how she expressed herself in it.

4. Conflict

Few stories are engaging without conflict.  Once you have used what is available to you to draw her world, now you must consider what problems she might have.  You can choose an historic event, personal revelation, social pressure, romance, and any sharp external pressure to draw us more deeply into her world.

For Instance:

Brigitte was all decked out to go to St. Peters and early Mass when she saw the smoke.

“Ach, it’s a shame, somethin’ is burnin” and continuing to walk she saw that it was her own beloved church.  And not bad enough that Christ’s house had been damaged, the citizens of America stood there throwing rotten apples at the Irish who were still pouring towards it, shouting   “Papists”  “Go Home!”  Brigitte fell to her knees and whispered, “Dear G-d, this has been my only true home in this land.  Why have yea taken it from me?” Then standing she felt the air part a second before the apple came.  Catching it in a single quick movement, Brigitte sent it right back towards it’s pitcher.  “No you don’t,” she cried out.

You can draw people into the real conflicts that your heroines and hundreds of thousands like her were forced to deal with.  How did your particular heroine react to the problems she ran into?  Her very personal response and resolution is the stuff that good stories are made of.  The fact that her very human reaction, her unique way of coping with a problem, grounded in the time, place, social mores, politics, and economics that you want people to know about, ensures this wonderful result which is historic fiction.


From Erin’s Daughters in America  by Hasia R. Diner

-Male and Female cultures were quite separate/Rigid sexual segregation much enforced by the church

-As agriculture failed, and only one son inherited, there was little for the remaining children of a family

-Inheritance did not come until parents were failing

-Women had always maintained a separate economic base, dealing with poultry and country crafts

-Marriage was an opening of the door to endless poverty

-Very strong sibling relations

-More than 1/2 Irish immigrant were single women

-Flocked to cities

Wanted nothing more to do with ‘rural life’

Lacked extended family for rural or urban investment

Came with no skills

Came with little or no money

Clung to their Catholicism

-Stayed Single

Few decent work opportunities for Irish men

Man’s work often resulted in impoverished widowhood

Irish men had a reputation for physical abuse (according to American social workers)

Result of desperation, jailing and drunkenness

Marriage changed your entire economic status

16.9% of all Irish households in Philadelphia, 1870 were female headed

Work and Wages

Irish women were famous for saving their pennies and bringing over siblings and investing in property.

Domestic work was a good match

-no families

-no relationships

-no property

-arriving with nothing, domestic work provided home and hearth

-no competition (most women considered the work of a ‘servant’ lower

than they cared to descend


Take a storytelling class.