They are going, going, going from the valleys and the hills,
They are leaving far behind them heathery moor and mountain rills,
All the wealth of hawthorn hedges,
Where the brown thrush sways and trills.
And no foreign skies hold beauty like the rainy skies they knew
Nor any night-wind cool the brow as did the foggy dew.
How do you tell the story of more than 200,000 Irish Catholic emigrants crammed into the Lr Manhattan district of New York, in the 1860s? You can tell it well by just telling the story of one family.
In the Lr East Side Tenement Museum the story of Bridget and Joseph Moore is typical of most of the others at that time. Bridget worked as a housemaid, while Joseph was a waiter. They lived in a large noisy, five storey tenement at 97 Orchard Street, with little or no privacy. One pump for water in the yard, one toilet for several families. It was a fire trap. There were frequent fires in tenements. Fire was a constant fear. There was a German butcher shop, and a German beerhall on the lower ground floor. Bridget and Joseph walked to work along their busy street of pedlars, hawkers, and stalls, and the babble of foreign languages. Many people hated the Irish emigrant. As Bridget and Joseph left their district for their jobs in upper Manhattan, some people spat as they passed.
When babies came there were problems with bad milk (contaminated with powder by unsrupulous distributors to increase volume ), and little ease from summer heat, and winter cold. Babies died; and poor Bridget died in childbirth at a young age. Joseph struggled on until he disappears from official records.
The story of the Moores is told tracing original documents, and graphically, actually in the apartment where they lived. In the early 1970s a typical tenement block in Orchard Street was discovered to have survived intact from the middle of the previous century. By shaving off the layers of wallpaper, removing the partitions and false walls, the original building emerged. It is quite a moving experience to come so close to those who had no choice but to emigrate, and to have had hope in their hearts for a better future. In many cases it never happened.
A different city
In the last two weeks I have been quoting from an excellent parish history, where the people of the east Galway town of Killimor tell their story through documents and memories, photographs and letters.* The people, and the lives depicted in Killimor, are also a mirror to all rural life in Ireland, much of which no longer exists.
One of the most interesting chapters concerns emigration to New York between 1892 and 1924.** The Ellis Island Arrivals List ( not always accurate ), show during that period, some 90 passengers arrived from the Killimor aged between 16 and 30 years. But I am glad to say they mainly arrived in a New York vastly different from the city of Bridget and Joseph Moore.
By the early 20th century, conditions for emigrants had vastly improved. City authorities had forced landlords to abide by a strict safety code (including fire escapes for every floor, etc ), and less crowded conditions. Indoor plumbing, toilets, air shafts, and a piped gas supply had to be provided. Public services such as water supply, waste management, and transport improved health and life style.
The editors, Angela Geoghegan and Nuala McGann, researched the Killimor emigrants’ background, and what mainly emerges is that these emigrants were bright, educated, people (most could read and write ), with skills and ambition. These were young people who had the courage and a dream of a better life, and were not forced to go as so many were in the previous century.
Many were meeting relatives already established in New York. A feature of the Irish emigrant trail was that those who had gone ahead helped new arrivals get established. Our photograph shows an obviously successful William Flannery and his two sons, who met his sisters Mary (28 years of age ) and Delia (20 ) Flannery off the liner Oceanic which left Queenstown and arrived in New York on April 8 1909. On the same boat was 17 years old Vincent O’Meara who had gone to join his mother already established on 4th Avenue. In later years Vincent was to return to Killimor with his wife, and set up a very successful business trading as PV O’Meara.
Love of Ireland
More recently Ena McClearn-O’Brien, originally from Ballinahiscragh, in the parish of Killimor, emigrated to Canada in 1964. She expresses a sentiment I have heard repeatedly in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, and that is the importance of passing on a love of Ireland and things and ways Irish. ‘My greatest achievement,’ Ena tells us,‘ was being able to pass on my culture to my children, Ciara and Ruairí. They both started step-dancing at a very early age, winning many Canadian championships, and participating in world championships. I also host a couple of music sessions per week in Toronto and ensure, that through workshops, I can teach other musicians, regardless of what instrument they play’.
‘It is very rewarding to witness how the Irish tradition has evolved in Canada over the years. But of course, there is nothing to equal coming back home to Ballinahiscragh to join family and friends.’
Poor May Fitzpatrick wrote in her autograph book on July 20, 1926, the day she left home to get the SS Republic and sail to New York... ‘The day of my departure from Killimor which I will never forget and hope God will guard and guide me till I return to thee. A broken -hearted kid leaving home.
Killimor, that dear old spot,
cold, cold, is the heart that loves thee not’.
One final quote before I close this absorbing book, which I have no doubt will bring deep pleasure, and some tears, to a great many Irish men and women throughout the world. Mrs O’Donovan who joined her brothers in America in the 1970s, has enjoyed a busy and very fulfilling life, yet she reflects that the Ireland of her childhood no longer exists, and agrees that that is a good thing. ‘But having lived through it I have to admit it was not such a bad experience at all, probably because we did not know any other way of life at the time. But like most others from there and most places in Ireland then, I had to leave it behind and make my way in a different world, and like most emigrants the memories are vivid and are a source of comfort and connection and sadness at what we have lost.’
NOTES: * Killimor - Our parish and our people, published by Killimor and District Development Society, edited by Angela Geoghegan and Nuala McGann, on sale through [email protected] or by telephone 090- 9676565. Hardback €35, paperback €25. Now on sale at Charlie Byrnes’ Middle Street, Galway.
** Stories are also told of emigration to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.