The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 25, 2006

Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da Dumb

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 9:41 am

Here’s an image of my ancestor I found on the web: the often republished music for the Irish Washerwoman fronted with this enticing depiction of herself.

You have to give the illustrator points for wit: the play with the clothespin silhouette, the contrast of the gigantic and the teensy, the irony of the gal’s heft and energy and what one might call her galumphing grace.


The unspoken question of why a rollicking reel got named after a menial house servant is answered by the stereotype:

She’s Irish! Hence, lunatic energy. Her dress is green (though a check not a plaid–a bit of artistic license there). She’s in bloomers and high button boots, befitting her birth in a deeply backward enclave. And, coup de grace, the gal hoists the shamrock, a pea-sized emblem of her essence, in a daft gesture of triumph.

Then, of course, she’s plain, begorrah, with a face like a potato and a squashed whorl of hair. And isn’t she the load of bricks to be leapin’ and stompin’ round the place? She’s set the ratty cur to yapping, thrown over the stool, and, sure’n, when you just look at her, you hear it: Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da, Dah-da-da . . . .

Yeah, yeah, it’s only a cartoon from the ‘40s, I know. And, actually, by that time there weren’t any more “Irish washerwomen,” certainly not ones armed with a washboard and peggy. Your cleaning lady, if you hired one, put the laundry in the electric machine and wrung it out between the rollers. So at the time of the publication of this sheet music, the lady was an anachronism, as signaled by her bloomers.

And of course, the rationale for the title of the jig is lost in the mists of time.

But I would propose that the jig alludes not to Irish air-headedness (or to having a little nip after breakfast), but the reality of getting clothes laundered in bygone days. Confronted with a hundred sodden pounds of filthy clothes in a big tub, you got in there with your bare feet and slogged around. You surely didn’t put your arms in the stew of sweat and grime or break your back dragging wet woolens and every-day clothes up and down a washboard.

So is that clear, now?

Have I exonerated my granny yet?


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