The Irish in America


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Philadelphia Irish Memorial

 

Regan and I are heading to Philadelphia for a few days later this month. I have never been to the City of Brotherly Love, and I can’t wait!

 

So much to see and do …the Liberty Bell, the Barnes Collection, Betsy Ross House, and Rocky’s steps are some of the attractions I think of initially, but there is much more to Philadelphia. Over the next week, on the blog and on our Facebook page, I will feature some of what Philly has to offer for those of us interested in the Irish in America.

I already told you about McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the longest continuously operating tavern in the city, established by the Irish immigrant McGillin family. And last week I shared MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes – delicious cakes created using a family recipe straight from early twentieth century Belfast.

We’ve covered food and drink, so it seems somehow fitting (or maybe it’s ironic?) to highlight the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Irish Memorial is a National Monument, opened to the public on October 25, 2003. The thirty-foot bronze sculpture commemorates the Great Famine of Ireland of the 1840s and was created by artist Glenna Goodacre.

The memorial tells both sides of the story as it remembers both those who suffered and died in Ireland as a result of the Famine, as well as those who escaped the starvation and came to America. The Irish Memorial website says:

The Irish Memorial is dedicated to the memory of more than one million innocent men, women and children who perished during the years 1845 to 1850 and to the millions of Irish immigrants who found here in the United States of America the freedom, liberty and prosperity denied to their ancestors in Ireland.

I look forward to seeing the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing. Stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook for photos and posts when we visit Philly next week! Please leave comments with your suggestions for things not to be missed in Philadelphia…would love to hear from you!

For more information on the Philadelphia Irish Memorial visit http://www.irishmemorial.org


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DAY 16: Favorite Irish Poem

Famine Memorial - Picture of The Famine Sculpture, Dublin

This photo of The Famine Sculpture – Dublin is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Odds are I will have a new one before the month is out, but right now my favorite poem is “The Emigrant Irish” by Dublin-born Eavan Boland. The poem appears in An Origin Like Water, Collected Poems 1957-1987.

Like oil lamps, we put them out back —

of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then

a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:

they would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
that their possessions may become our power:

Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.

And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.


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Cobh: The Queenstown Story

Cobh, County Cork (photo: Regan McCormack)

Cobh, County Cork (photo: Regan McCormack)

I once heard Cobh described as the saddest place in Ireland. I thought of this as my sister, Regan, and I walked into town one late September morning. With bright sun and fluffy white clouds in a beautiful blue sky overhead and a postcard-perfect harbor in front of us, I couldn’t imagine a more cheerful town. The usual quiet Irish morning bustle filled the streets as we made our way to the restored Victorian railway station and home of the Cobh Heritage Centre.

Cobh Heritage Centre (photo: Regan McCormack)

Cobh Heritage Centre (photo: Regan McCormack)

It wasn’t until we stepped in to the Heritage Centre’s multi-media Queenstown Story exhibit that Cobh’s sad reputation began to make sense. From 1848-1950, Cobh (or Queenstown) was the last of Ireland seen by over 2.5 million people whose ships departed Cobh Harbor \; emigrants leaving home for new lives in new worlds. These men, women, and children were fleeing famine and political unrest, leaving a country unable to give them even the most basic social and economic opportunities.

The exhibit does a nice job of bringing the Irish emigrant experience to life — the sound of waves crashing, dim lighting, and artifacts on display belonging to actual passengers combine to give visitors a glimpse into a nineteenth-century steerage compartment.  North America promised freedom, prosperity, and a future, but first the emigrants would have to say goodbye to their homeland and risk their lives on a treacherous ocean crossing.

In addition to the exhibit space, the Cobh Heritage Centre offers a genealogy consultation service, café, and shop. Regan and I were able to sit down with Christy Keating, the genealogist on duty. We were lucky that his 10:30 appointment did not show up because Christy is a very busy man, fielding genealogy queries from some of the 100,000 visitors to the centre every year.

Christy told us about the genealogy services they offer at the centre. We talked about the challenges in tracing Irish emigration – there are many online passenger list resources, but they usually are not useful without additional genealogical information. For example, a visitor from Connecticut in the United States walks through the exhibit and approaches Christy and says, “My great-great-grandmother Mary Sullivan came to America during the potato famine – can you tell me more about her?”

Christy politely asks a few follow-up questions, such as what year did she emigrate, what port did she enter, did she travel alone. where was she from, etc. These are often met with a blank stare. All this visitor knows is that their great-great-grandmother Mary Sullivan came from Ireland during the potato famine. Christy does his best to point people in the right direction for learning more about their ancestor, but a few basic details would help immensely.

A number of other family history professionals, genealogists, and archivists in Ireland echo this sentiment: if you are visiting Ireland and have an interest in learning more about your Irish roots, a little homework done before your trip (or visit to the National Library or Archives) can go a long way. Learn some basic information and they will better be able to help you find your ancestor in Ireland. Who knows? You may be able to connect to the county, parish, or townland your family member left all those years ago.

If you are planning a visit to Ireland and know you have some Irish heritage, but don’t have the time to research your roots, The Irish in America will do the work for you. Visit the Find Your Cousins tab at the top of this page to get started. We offer a free consultation and reasonable research rates.

Annie Moore (Photo: Regan McCormack)

Annie Moore (Photo: Regan McCormack)

A statue of Annie Moore and her brothers stands near the Heritage Centre in Cobh. Annie was the first immigrant processed at the newly opened Ellis Island in New York harbor in 1892. Emigration can be a heart-breaking event, but this statue symbolizes the struggles and optimism of those who have left Ireland. Cobh is a sad place in the collective memory, but today it welcomes back the descendants of the emigrants who had to leave their home.

I think every American who is aware of their Irish heritage and visits Ireland should go to Cobh and take a moment to think about their ancestors.


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The Famine: Views from Ireland and Abroad

“The Coffin trade is the most flourishing one at present here.”

This quote appeared in the January 8, 1847 edition of the Cork Examiner.  Steve Taylor of Vassar College has compiled a fascinating collection of newspapers, illustrations, and other items from Irish and British sources pertaining to the Great Famine.  The collection, Views of the Famine, is available online and provides a glimpse into how the press was reporting the crisis, and what people were doing (or not doing) to cope with the disaster.

"The causes of emigration in Ireland." 13 January 1849 (from Views of the Famine)

The collection includes excerpts from the Cork Examiner during 1846-47.  The weekly reports of death by starvation and disease and a pervasive sense of hopelessness can be difficult to read.  Entire families perished, their lifeless bodies found on the dirt floors of make-shift huts, post-mortem exams showing not even a trace of food in their stomachs and intestines.  Columns reporting over-capacity in the workhouses appear alongside advertisements for steerage passage to North America costing more than most Irish could ever afford.

On September 1, 1847, a column Emigrant Disasters ran in the Cork Examiner.  The column explains why the journeys of emigrants bound for the United States were more “successful” than those destined for Canada.  The major difference was the ships used to transport emigrants to Canada were timber ships, vessels utterly unsuitable for passengers.  The Examiner explains: “…less attention to be paid to their [ship’s] sea-worthiness, since they are laden half the way with what can’t sink, and the other with a freight, which is thought no loss if it do.”

The passage to Canada (British America) was cheaper and the preferred route for much of the “assisted emigration” that took place during the Famine years.  Owners of the large estates in Ireland who favored a more “humane” method of getting rid of tenants, chose to send them to Canada rather than merely evict them from the land.

The destination for many of these emigrant ships was New Brunswick, Canada.  The New Brunswick Archive offers a collection of online databases pertaining to the Irish who came to Canada.  Specifically, there are some useful resources related to assisted emigration.

The Fitzwilliam Estate Emigration Books 1848-1856 lists the tenants evicted from the Coolattin estate of Lord Fitzwilliam in County Wicklow, Ireland.  The archive provides an informative introduction, a narrative by Jim Rees providing context, a finding aid, and a transcript, complete with genealogical information.  Quite an interesting and useful tool.

The New Brunswick Archive also has a collection of letters, transcribed and available online.  I will address some of these letters in my next post, but I would like to turn your attention to a group of letters, Letters from Irish Emigrants and others, put in by Sir Robert Gore Booth Bart: [1846-1849].  Click here and scroll to the last group to read these letters.  Sir Robert owned an estate in Sligo.  These letters speak to the conditions and challenges faced by the Irish in the New World.

For more information on the Famine Irish in New Brunswick, read this essay by Dr. Stewart Donovan of St. Thomas University, In the Wake of Dark Passage: Irish Famine Migration to New Brunswick.

Just a couple more examples of the resources available online to help us better understand the Irish experience in America (and Canada, too!)

Resources:

Views of the Famine

New Brunswick Irish Portal

Irish Canadian Cultural Association