This talk explores the role of the Irish (or more broadly “Celtic”) servant woman in American gothic texts, both from the early twentieth- century and more recently. In particular, it examines the ways in which nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ghost stories like Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner,” Georgia Wood Pangborn’s “Broken Glass,” and Edith Wharton’s “All Souls’” dramatize the association in American culture between Irish Catholicism and pagan ritual, implying that the Irish American servant has valuable knowledge of and access to supernatural realms.
Because these women find it easier to accept the presence of the supernatural in the everyday world than their employers and “social betters,” they prove as useful for handling ghosts and monsters as for emptying coal scuttles. In other words, they do the dirty work.
Dr Dara Downey is the editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies and teaches at Trinity College Dublin.