10 famous Irish American women you ought to know

In honor of St. Patrick's day and Women's History Month, we present 10 Irish American women who changed the world in their own way.

Irish immigrants have been in the United States since the very beginning of this country. Their numbers swelled during the great famine, with a quarter million people leaving Ireland per year. More than half of these emigrants were women. Today, we are going to look at ten famous, and infamous, American women of Irish descent. Some of them you will know, and the rest you should.

“Typhoid” Mary Mallon


Mary Mallon, far left, in quarantine. (Public Domain)

Perhaps the most infamous woman on this list, Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever who infected at least 51 people, three of whom died. The exact number of people infected is unknown and undoubtedly higher.

Mary was an Irish immigrant to New York who found work as a cook. Within two weeks of her employment at a home in Oyster Bay 10 of the 11 members of the house were sick with typhoid. She changed jobs and locations frequently, leaving illness in her wake. She was eventually arrested and held for three years in quarantine after she refused to either stop working as a cook or take up handwashing.

After being released on the condition of not working as a cook again, she tried other employment, after a few years she changed her name to Brown and starting cooking again. She was sent into quarantine for the rest of her life after being located. Her nickname remains quite famous, even among people who aren’t quite sure why.

Maureen O'Hara


O'Hara in 1947. (Public Domain) 

One of the last living actresses from Hollywood’s golden age, O’Hara appeared in dozens of films over her six-decade-long career. She starred alongside such names as Charles Loughton, John Wayne, and John Candy. She was deemed “Ireland’s first Hollywood superstar” and “The Queen of Technicolor”.

Maureen was born outside of Dublin and took up acting in local productions at a young age. As her career advanced, she moved to England and then the United States, where she lived for most of her life. Her bright red hair was considered one of her best features, and technicolor considered her on-screen image of their best achievements. She was well known for her westerns but was also in noir, dramatic, and comedic films.

In her spare time, she was the first woman to be the president of a scheduled airline company in the United States. O’Hara always took pride in her Irish heritage. When asked why she looked so vibrant in her nineties, she replied “Irish women don't let themselves go.”

Susan Collins 

(born in 1952)

Senator Collins (Getty Images)

Born into a political family with English and Irish heritage in Caribou, Maine, Susan Collins has served as senator for the state of Maine since 1997. Before becoming a senator, she became the first woman to have a major party nomination for the Governor of Maine, though she lost the race.

Known as a centrist, she has often been a key player in bipartisan deals. Her consecutive voting streak reached over 6000 votes in 2015, and she has the distinction of being the longest-tenured Republican woman currently in the Senate. She also enjoys the second highest approval rating of any sitting senator at 78%.

Georgia O'Keeffe 


As pictured by her husband Alfred Stieglitz (Public domain)

O’Keeffe was an American artist with Irish ancestry born in Wisconsin. Her interest in painting began at a young age, and she had decided by age 10 to become an artist. She studied at prestigious art schools before heading out on her own.

Known as the “Mother of American modernism,” she is most famous for her images of flowers. Often large scale and distorted, paintings like Oriental Poppies and the Red Canna series are vibrant, bold, and blur the lines between the abstract and concrete.

In 1977 her contributions to American art were recognized by President Ford when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.She currently holds the record the highest price paid for a painting by a woman, one of her works sold for 44.4 million dollars. 

-"I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way "

Mother Jones


The Grandmother of all agitators (Public Domain)

Mary Harris Jones would move to Canada and then the United States from her home of Cork, Ireland as a child. In both countries, she would see firsthand the pains of discrimination, as her Irish Catholic family was rarely accepted by the Protestants around them.

Jones suffered two great tragedies in her life. The first was the death of her husband and three children from yellow fever in 1867. In hopes of recovering emotionally, she moved to Chicago to begin a dressmaking business. This was destroyed as part of the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871. After that, she turned to activism, working first with the Knights of Labor and then with the United Mine Workers.

She was a tireless advocate for worker’s rights, an end to child labor, and for the improvement of mining conditions. An excellent public speaker, she was also known as one of the most prominent women to oppose the suffragette movement.

-"Get it straight, I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser!"

The Unsinkable Molly Brown


Brown presents an award to the captain of the Carpathia (Public Domain)

Born in Missouri to Irish immigrants, Molly Brown was an American socialite known for her philanthropy and volunteer work. She married an enterprising man who struck it rich after their marriage, enabling her to focus on social work.

She is best known for her actions during the sinking of the Titanic. After the ship went down, she seized an oar for the lifeboat she was in and demanded they return to look for survivors when the quartermaster refused; she threatened to throw him overboard. Accounts differ on if they returned or not. She also organized aid to the second and third-class passengers when the Carpathia rescued them.

She was able to use her notoriety as “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown to further her philanthropic goals later in her life. In 1914 she ran for Senate before ending her campaign to commit herself to charity work in France. For her services to the people of France devastated by World War One, she was awarded the Legion of Honor.

Jackie Kennedy


Jackie during her solo trip to India, to the right is the Indian Prime Minister Nehru. (Getty Images)

While the Irish heritage of her husband is well known, Jackie Kennedy was half Irish herself on her mother’s side. As the First Lady of the United States, Jackie would captivate the world and become an icon.

She made more official visits to other countries than any first lady before her, and she often made them alone. A speaker of several languages, she addressed crowds of French and Spanish speakers without the use of a translator to tremendous effect. She was so popular with the people of France that John F. Kennedy remarked that “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Primer Khrushchev of the USSR was so fond of her that he sent her a puppy.

After the death of her husband, she encouraged her brother in law Robert to reenter politics. Following his death, she married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek tycoon, and tried to avoid the public eye. She would later find work as an editor for several major publishers.

-"We should all do something to right the wrongs that we see and not just complain about them."

Ella Fitzgerald


Ella in 1948. (Getty Images)

Known as the First Lady of Song, her singing ability still amazes listeners today. She remains famous for her scat singing ability as well as her associations with other jazz greats such as Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Her musical career spanned six decades and several genres, though she remained a jazz singer at heart.

Ella’s father gave her two things, her name, and her Irish heritage. During a visit to Ireland in the 1960s, she discussed her Irish heritage and explained that she had the Fitzgerald family crest in her home. It was in Cork that she revealed her real age and was given a special passport stamp. She may not look Irish, but she acknowledged her heritage and the people of Ireland were happy to have her.

Eileen Marie Collins

(born in 1956)

(Public Domain)

The daughter of Irish immigrants to New York, Collins was interested in space flight and being a pilot for most of her life. She was able to reach that dream. 

After a stint in the air force as a teacher and test pilot, she was selected for astronaut training in 1990. She served as a pilot for several space shuttle missions, including the first mission of the Shuttle/Mir program. She would later be the first woman to serve as a commander of a space shuttle mission. She also reached the rank of colonel in the United States Air Force. 

She retired from NASA in 2006 but continues to appear on television as an analyst whenever NASA makes the news.

Mother Mary Frances Clarke



Mary Clarke was a Catholic nun who immigrated to the United States in 1833 with seven other nuns to educate the children of Irish immigrants.

She and her sisters moved to Philadelphia with the intention of starting a school for the poor. With that goal in mind, the Order of The Sisters of Charity for the Blessed Virgin Mary was established. A chance meeting with the Bishop of Dubuque, Iowa drove Mother Mary west to build schools on the frontier. Later anti-Catholic sentiment in Philadelphia caused the relocation of all operations of the order to Dubuque.  

The 19 nuns moved to Dubuque where they founded a school which is now Clarke University. After receiving Papal approval for their order, they went on to establish 23 schools from Chicago to San Francisco. At the time of her death, the order that Clarke founded with seven other women had grown to 450 members. 

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.