Maher, Margaret (c.1845–1924), servant, was born in Killusty, Co. Tipperary, the third of four children, to Michael and Mary Maher. About 1865 she emigrated to America with her older sister Mary, her brother Michael and possibly their youngest sibling, Thomas. Soon after their arrival, Mary married Thomas Kelley and the family settled in Amherst, Massachusetts. Maher returned to Tipperary and brought her parents back to Amherst with her. Initially Maher worked for a family called Boltwood and, when the Boltwood children left for school, she intended to follow her brother Thomas to California. In February 1869, however, she was engaged by the Dickinsons, one of the foremost Amherst families, and the most eccentric. Edward Dickinson was an authoritarian lawyer, his wife was a semi-invalid and their eldest daughter, the poet Emily Dickinson, was a recluse who did not leave the house after 1866.
Maher stayed thirty years with the family and was loyal, hard-working and equal to their eccentricities. She was rewarded by the solicitude of all the family, especially Emily – who wrote Maher amusing letters when she was sick with typhoid and supported her when her brother died in 1881. Emily Dickinson described Maher warmly in her correspondence: ‘Maggie, good and noisy, the north wind of the family’ (Dickinson, Letters, 690); ‘Maggie, with us still, warm and wild and mighty’ (827). The evidence from Maher’s letters – misspelled, ungrammatical but dignified and heartfelt – bears out the poet’s description. On her own directions for her funeral, Emily Dickinson was borne to her grave by the six Irishmen who had worked on her father’s grounds, with Maher’s brother-in-law Thomas Kelley as chief pallbearer. The story that Maher saved Dickinson’s poems by refusing to burn them after her death as she had requested, comes from the poet’s niece Martha, who recalled a tearful scene where Maher sought the advice of Austin and Susan Dickinson about the conflict caused by her promise to burn the poems. Although possibly apocryphal, what is certain is that the poems were kept in Maher’s trunk, and were preserved for posterity.
Maher remained with the family until Emily’s younger sister Lavinia died in 1899. During that period she also cleaned and cooked for Mabel Loomis Todd the editor who posthumously published Dickinson’s poetry. Maher also provided Todd with the only known daguerreotype of the poet, an image she had kept despite the family hating it. She died in 1924 and her correspondence is held in the Detroit public library and in Harvard University.