Irish Servants (Birmingham, 1911)

1.138-40, 1.483-84. George A. Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life, with Sixteen Illustrations in Colour by Henry W. Kerr, R.S.A., (London and Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), pp. 221, 222, 229, 237-38. BL

Extracts from George A. Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life (1908), on Irish servants.

Birmingham’s chapter on ‘The Irish Servant’ provides a useful context for a number of elements in ‘Telemachus’, beginning with what may well be some of Haines’s expectations underlying his reception of Stephen’s aphorism at 1.483-84:

Yet in one single respect the Irish writers hold their own, do more than hold their own. The Irish servant, as the novelist represents him, is inferior to none.

Domestic service is a great profession, but it has only of late become so, and even now it is only the rich who can secure highly-trained, delicate-handed, skilful men and women to minister to their wants. They and — since the tipping system is in full force — their friends can afford to pay for, and therefore can enjoy, that supreme, luxurious comfort which really good servants supply. But with every gain its corresponding loss. The very rich miss the delightsomeness which comes of very familiar intercourse with servants whose native characters have not been smoothed away by a long course of professional training.

The innuendo in the next two extracts, though surely unintended in the first, clearly relates to what Mulligan is heavy-handedly implying in referring to his aunt’s employment of plain-looking servants:

An Irish servant is of all the people in the world the most anxious to please, and, when possible, to do exactly as she is told even when the commands laid on her are entirely unreasonable.

But the days of this paternal and filial relationship between masters and servants are passing away even in Ireland. On the one hand, there is a tendency to regard the servants in a household as mere hirelings. On the other hand, domestic service is becoming more and more professionalised, and is, moreover, beginning to be looked on as a degrading kind of servitude. No doubt this is quite right. The spirit of man is a noble thing, and ought to assert itself against any employment which carries with it the idea of inferiority to any other human being. But it is a pity that the new feeling for independence sometimes asserts itself in dubious ways. An applicant for the post of sewing-maid answered an advertisement with a long letter in which she explained carefully that she thought the situation rather beneath her, but was prepared to accept it because she was “compelled by unexpected family misfortune to try to earn an honest living.” She went into no particulars about the way she had got her living before the unexpected misfortune, thus laying herself open to a suspicion which was, no doubt, quite unjust.