Stamped Out (and In) – Frank McNally on the Irish-American poet and postmistress Louise Imogen Guiney, who survived a boycott

“Pure of heart, brilliant of mind”

The story of Louisa May Alcott’s ban on Irish maids (Diary, November 30th), and my less-than-serious proposal of a revenge “Alcott boycott”, had an interesting echo for a correspondent in Massachusetts. She drew my attention to the case of another Louisa, or nearly: Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920), poet and postmistress.

Born in Boston to Irish parents, Guiney probably never had to work as a “Biddy”. Instead, becoming an acclaimed writer, she enjoyed the career that I jokingly speculated may have awaited the “unusually intelligent”, but unacceptably Hibernian, housemaid sacked by Alcott.

The twist in the tale is that, at the height of her literary prowess, it was Guiney who suffered a boycott.

Then as now, there was little money in poetry, or in the essays she also wrote. She had to subsidise her vocation through various day jobs and seemed to have found the perfect one when securing charge of the post office in Auburndale, near Boston, in 1893.


The position involved only light work but a handsome income derived from the sale of stamps. A popular postmistress, which she was, could sell many. Unfortunately, in the eyes of some, she was also a Catholic.

For a group called the American Protective Association (whose critics sometimes changed the middle word to “Protestant” for better clarity as to its purpose), it was an outrage that someone of her faith should land such a comfortable government-appointed job.

So in an attempt to force her out of it, the local chapter took their stamp-buying elsewhere. This was all the more objectionable because Guiney was the daughter of an American war hero. Indeed, the fame of her father – and his friendship with fellow lawyer Grover Cleveland, who by 1893 was a second-term US president – probably helped secure the job.

Happily, in time, it also helped sink the boycott. Locals of all religion rounded on the APA, taking their cue from an MIT professor who protested at “the daughter of a brave and patriotic officer in the Union Army [...] being hounded out of her means by a company of narrow-minded and violent fanatics, simply on account of her faith”.

Auburndale Post Office was soon getting stamp orders from all over Massachusetts, more than compensating for the shortfall. Unlike the eponymous original, 14 years earlier in Mayo, this boycott proved a fiasco.

Even so, a few years later, Guiney moved to England to concentrate in her writing career, increasingly affected by poor health. “Pure of heart, brilliant of mind,” according to her biographer, she died in Gloucestershire aged 59. Critics now see her work as a bridge between the earlier and later American poets, Emily Dickenson and Edna St Vincent Millay.

The story of Guiney’s father, Patrick (1835–1877), is well worth telling too. He was born in Parkstown, near Horse and Jockey, in Co Tipperary, a troubled place in his childhood.

Also nearby was the village of Ballingarry, where the ill-fated rebellion of 1848 took place. But by then, Guiney was already in America, brought there aged six by his father, who was soon afterwards crippled in a fall from a horse.

The young Guiney worked in a factory while still a child and became apprenticed to a machinist at 14, but eventually studied law and was called to the bar, where his victories included one for the newly formed Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

When the Civil War broke out, he quickly enlisted and could have served as an officer, thanks to a commission offered by the state governor. Instead, he insisted on first earning his stripes as a private.

He rose in rank rapidly, becoming a captain by 1861 and, as the conflict created vacancies, a lieutenant colonel a year later. His courage was epitomised at the Battle of Chickahominy in Virginia where, after three colour-bearers were shot in turn, the Colonel himself seized the flag.

Then, according to the Catholic Encylopedia: he “threw aside coat and sword belt, rose white-shirted and conspicuous in his stirrups, inspired a final rally, and turned the fortune of the day”. They could have done with his likes in Ballingarry.

As for that other great Irish-American army – the “Bridgets”, several of whose members so annoyed Louisa May Alcott – my emailer from Massachusetts also evoked an echo of their work.

She and her husband, both emigrants from this country, live in an area of historic importance where any work on the exterior of their house needs to be approved by a heritage committee.

During the couple’s first such meeting some years ago, a committee member “enthusiastically shared” the insight that: “You know, the last Irish person that was in your house would probably have been a cook.” My correspondent adds: “Needless to say, we bit our tongues!”