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Women tell it like it was

At both the Dublin and New York launches of “Models for Movers” by Íde O’Carroll, left, Galway-born painter Lisa O'Donnell, center, exhibited her paintings of the “Models” women and Waterford-born actor Maeve O'Mahony, right, performed a selection of the voices.

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

You’ve seen “Brooklyn,” the movie – now the read the book! We’re not referring here to Colm Toíbín’s novel, however. You might instead delve into “Models for Movers,” Íde O’Carroll’s source-book of real stories of women who left Ireland, like the protagonist in “Brooklyn,” for a better life.

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“‘Models for Movers’ is a unique collection of Irish women's oral histories spanning three waves of 20th emigration to America, in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s,” the author said.

O’Carroll expects that with the recent success of the movie “Brooklyn,” there will indeed be renewed interest in Irish emigration to the U.S. in the 20th century.

"I hope people will turn to “Models for Movers” for real rather than imagined stories of Irish women's emigration,” she said.

Originally published in 1990, “Models for Movers” is a revised 25th anniversary edition.

“I am currently working on ‘Irish Transatlantics,’ a companion volume to the ‘Models’ work,” the author said. “‘Irish Transatlantics’ brings the story of Irish-U.S. migration up to the 21st century.

“By combining a critical analysis of conditions for women in Ireland with women's own accounts of life at the time, I highlight the sheer necessity of emigration,” O’Carroll said of the first book. “If survival in Ireland was a tough proposition, especially for women, a place where patriarchs in families, church and state controlled women's lives, where education and paid work was limited, then America provided a lifeline to a relative freedom, and crucially, an opportunity to earn an independent income.

“After reading ‘Models for Movers, we begin to appreciate just how far Irish society has come,” she said.

“The oral histories detail how each woman created an independent life for herself, often in the face of multiple challenges in America,” said O’Carroll, who became a visiting scholar at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU, in 2013.

“As active agents, often supporting one another to leave, these Irish women are role models because they inspire all humans to have the courage to act,” O’Carroll said. “Whether it's Nora Joyce talking about life on the Aran Islands in the 1920s, or Terry Ryan describing inner-city Dublin in the 1950s, and her battle with TB, or Lena Deevy's tale about working in Ballymun in the 1980s, these Irish women recount stories of scarcity and scant opportunities in Ireland at the time.

“In America, they carved out new lives and possibilities for themselves in a place that enabled them to thrive and enriched the quality of their lives. Nora Joyce [1920s] followed in the footsteps of countless other Irish women in America by working in domestic service until she managed to save enough money to buy a house, marry and start her own family,” the author said.

“Largely self-educated during spells in TB hospitals, Terry Ryan [1950s] nonetheless found work as a secretary in America. She graduated with a degree from Northeastern University shortly before her husband and the father of her two children became its president. On the pretext of ‘taking a rest,’ Sr. Lena Deevy [1980s] applied to and later graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Education. She became one of Boston's most respected Irish leaders.

“At the heart of the book are women's oral histories, an approach that brings to life the reality of women's lives in both places,” O’Carroll continued. “The approach was considered ground-breaking at the time because of the absence of women from the story of Irish emigration. In fact, the ‘Models for Movers’ project data - tapes, photos, files - formed the basis of the first holding on Irish women at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, the premier repository on the history of women in America.

“This revised 25th anniversary edition is a timely reminder of just how much Ireland needed to change and just how tough life was for women in our relatively recent past,” O’Carroll said. “Despite being thousands of miles away, however, these women nonetheless retained a strong connection to and deep investment in Ireland and Irish affairs,” she said.

At NYU, O’Carroll leads the Archives of Irish America Oral History, "New Irish" Project, which has taken her to several states in the U.S. and many counties in Ireland.

The next book, “Irish Transatlantics,” will draw on the more than 60 interviews she conducted with Irish men and women in the U.S. and Ireland who were part of the renewed Irish migration in 1980s, many of whom returned to Ireland in the late 1990s.

It will be published in 2017.

During her years working on commissioned social research, O’Carroll tried to keep her creative work alive, “with limited success.” Nonetheless, her short story, “Eye-Openers,” was short-listed for the Francis McManus award, and broadcast on Irish radio.

And O’Carroll, whose first spoken language was Irish, was among those writers invited to spend time alone in Emily Dickinson's bedroom in 2014, before it was renovated. The resulting publication, “A Mighty Room,” contains her poem, “Seomra Buí/Yellow Room.”

“In composing this poem I imagined the narrator to be Margaret Maher, the Tipperary-born immigrant who spent 30 years working as a maid in the Dickinson household,” she said.

At both the Dublin and New York launches of the “Models for Movers” by Íde O’Carroll, left, Galway-born painter Lisa O'Donnell exhibited her paintings of the “Models” women, center, and Waterford-born actor Maeve O'Mahony, right, performed a selection of the voices.


Íde O’Carroll

Date of birth: March 1958

Place of birth: Tullamore, Co. Offaly

Spouse: Annie G. Rogers, Professor of Psychology & Psychoanalysis, Hampshire College

Residence: Amherst, Mass.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

I try to get to my desk early in the morning and promise myself a walk in the afternoon.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Leave all emails and telephone calls until the afternoon. Keep the mornings for writing.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

“All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr; “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson; “On Lies, Secrets and Silence,” Adrienne Rich.

What book are you currently reading?

“Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney,” by Dennis O'Driscoll

Is there a book you wish you had written?

“The Secret Scripture,” by Sebastian Barry.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“On Mortality,” by Atul Gawande.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

The poet Emily Dickinson.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Lismore, Co. Waterford.

You're Irish if...

You imagine yourself to be.

For more on Íde O’Carroll’s social research go to