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Emigrate & Immigrate:

The Second Girl’s Long Journey

Program Note for the Huntington Theatre Company's world premiere of The Second Girl
by Ronan Noone
Directed by Campbell Scott
Twenty years after his own emigration from Ireland, playwright Ronan Noone sought to write what he calls, “an emotional exploration of adapting to a new world.” The Second Girl arrived by answer; set in 1912, the play’s two heroines, Cathleen and Bridget, grapple with what it means to leave Ireland and accept life in America. With The Second Girl, we face the difficult reality that “some can’t adapt to a new home, and even if you do, you’re never going to forget where you come from, are you?” says Noone.

From the Great Famine to the early 20th century, women outnumbered men in the masses of Irish immigrants that came to the United States. Historians empower these women as ambitious trailblazers – pulled to America’s greater economic and personal opportunities. They saw themselves, however, as exiles – pushed out of a home that couldn’t support them. Playwright Ronan Noone points out, however, that “it wasn’t a question of push or pull; it was essential. It’s a matter of survival.”

When women boarded steamships, they not only ensured their own survival but kept their loved ones at home afloat. By 1890, Irish daughters in America sent home $5 million a year to sustain their families. As Janet Nolan writes in Ourselves Alone, "The most expendable group in post-Famine Ireland – dependent daughters and sisters – became the saviors of a society that could not have remained intact save by their emigration and their remittances.” Families’ financial reliance on relatives abroad encouraged, even forced, more women to emigrate. Understanding this imperative, those already across the Atlantic paid for three quarters of tickets to America, braiding sisters, cousins, and nieces into a chain of migration. But emotion as much as economics perpetuated chain migration for many, including Margaret Convery, who wrote that her brother Dan "sent me my ticket to come" because "he got so lonely he wanted somebody out so he sent for me.”

This loneliness seeps through line after line of letters home, and the work many women found in domestic service deepened their isolation. Most households employed only a single “maid-of-all-work” who lived alone with her employers, like Mary Ann Rowe in Dedham, Massachusetts. In a letter home, Mary Ann apologized for not writing sooner, explaining, "I do feel so bad when I go to write to home, I don't be in the better of it for a long time. It renews all thoughts of home in my mind that I scarcely know what to do...I cannot banish the thought of home out of my mind. No matter where I go it is equal to me.” Another young domestic, Annie O’Donnell, echoes her ache; she wrote of her immigration, "When it placed the Atlantic between me and those I loved, it stamped a mark on my life never to be forgotten. What good does anything afford you when you have a dear Mother you cannot see?"

Less than two percent ever returned to the Ireland they longed for, and this unsettled sentiment is at the heart of The Second Girl. “I know a lot of immigrants who don’t accept that they’ve immigrated for good until about four or five years in,” observes Noone, “They’re always thinking they might go back.” Many took decades rather than years to feel their feet firmly in American soil. As an elderly woman, 19th century immigrant Jane Crowe wrote to her brother in Roscommon that she could never return now because, "we have too many loved ones in the cemetery here [in America] to leave them." Others recognized emotionally adapting to America as a task to be tackled, practical and immediate as unpacking a suitcase. During her first weeks in New York in 1905, Margaret McGuinness described her progress in a letter home, writing, “I learned about ice cream sodas and how to tie my hair with a big bow. I began to feel like a real Yankee, and that to me was a real accomplishment.”

For The Second Girl’s Bridget and Cathleen, longing, resignation, and the hope of acceptance pervade their daily routine. As they work to reconcile themselves with their new home, they share, says Noone, in what “anybody who came here at any stage” from any country or century, realized: Immigration does not end upon arrival.

- Molly FitzMaurice