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Housekeepers for priests were exploited: study

By Louise Roseingrave

Irish Examiner, Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A STUDY on priests’ housekeepers’ lives presented for International Women’s Day found they were exploited, underpaid and worked from as young as 13.

The work, compiled by UCC graduate Noirin Deady, includes accounts from 14 women on their lives spent working in priest’s homes as far back as the 1950s.

She undertook the work to counteract "dull and unattractive" depictions of housekeepers in the media, including the character of Mrs Doyle in Father Ted.

Ms Deady, who completed an MA in Women’s Studies at UCC, found exploitation in the form of long working hours, minimal pay and a lack of provision for old age and retirement.

"One woman told how she lost her best friend, her job and her home after one priest died," she said. "They had no security at all."

Her study, A Feminist Perspective on Irish Priests’ Housekeepers, includes the experiences of a 13-year-old girl sent by her mother to the neighbouring parish to work for a priest.

The girl went on to spend 40 years as a housekeeper.

In another case, a woman collected a ten-shilling tip for kneeling to kiss the bishop’s ring, while others received tips following community events such as missions and confirmations. Most of the young women handed earnings to their families, as was expected of them.

In 1963, when the average wage was between 5 and 7 per week for a live-in housekeeper, one woman told how she earned 1 2s 6p per week and sent the bulk of that to her mother.

"They were poorly paid, the priest decided what to pay them," said Ms Deady.

"And while the pay was bad, the lack of job security was worse. Once the priest died, the woman had to leave the house and lost everything."

The priests neglected to register their stance as employers and those interviewed by Ms Deady felt the job was a "vocation" and that housekeepers "‘were as dedicated as any religious sister".

"It was convenient for priests to take that stance, most women did not choose to become housekeepers," she said.

"They cooked, cleaned and carried out their chores and often looked after elderly and infirm priests, so there was also an overlap between domestic work and care work."

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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