Saturday, December 22, 2012

Nollaig shona duit



Wishing all of you a very happy, peaceful Christmas and a healthy New Year!


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

After the Voyage

      When most of my famine era ancestors arrived in America there was no immigrant processing center. They stepped off their ships and directly onto the South Street wharves in Manhattan.  I can only imagine their confusion at arriving alone in a new country, how did they know where to go and what to do first?  Many didn’t and fell prey to all sorts of con men and worse.  Since I never tire of reading even the smallest details about my ancestors and their experiences, naturally I was curious about what happened after they strolled down that gangplank, and I would imagine others are too.  This is what I found--

     Seeing the need for some sort of assistance for the new arrivals, the Irish Emigrant Society was founded in 1841 by Irishmen who had emigrated early on.  Their aim was, “to advise immigrants about routes to the interior, as well as employment on public works projects, to warn them about improper lodging houses, to save them from toilsome journeys inspired by elusive advertisements, and to preserve them from crooked contractors, dishonest prospectuses and remittance-sharpers”.  I’m not sure what a “remittance sharper” is and apparently neither is anyone else as a Google search came up empty however, I believe it was probably a person who assisted immigrants in sending funds back to Ireland and decided to help himself to some or all the funds in question.

    The city of New York also realized the flood of immigrants arriving in their port needed some sort of aid and in May of 1847 it authorized The Commissioners of Emigration.  They employed their own doctors, and accepted applications for relief from the immigrants, but still more was needed.   In May of 1855 the Commissioners leased an old fort, then being used as a public aquarium, at the tip of Manhattan to serve as an immigrant processing center.  On August 1, 1855 the doors of Castle Garden swung open.  When they closed in April of 1890, approximately 9 million immigrants had passed through.  

     Barges brought the immigrants from their ships to Castle Garden’s landing depot where they were examined for disease or defects.  Those who were thought to be a risk of becoming a burden upon the state were then and there marked for deportation.  The others were brought into the rotunda to be processed.  Clerks recorded their names, destinations and whether they were joining friends or relatives already here.  After that, they met with representatives of transportation companies who explained to them how best to get to their destinations.  They could even purchase their tickets at Castle Garden and catch a ferry to their starting point, usually across the river in New Jersey as no trains ran from the island of Manhattan.  If a wait was required they had their choice of licensed boarding houses in which to pass their stay in the city.  One immigrant account of the experience—“from Castle Garden we were bustled aboard a ferry boat and taken to the Erie station at Jersey City, and crowded into an immigrant train bound for the west. The next day we had a joyous reunion with father at Corning [NY]…”

     Clearly this was a tremendous improvement.  Immigrants no longer had to navigate streets filled with shady characters eager to take advantage of them.  In early 1890 the Federal Government took over immigrant processing and on April 19th operations moved to the Barge Office at the southeast tip of Manhattan.  It would remain the processing center until Ellis Island opened on the first day of 1892.  In June of 1897 fire destroyed the buildings on Ellis Island and processing returned to the Barge Office where it would remain until Ellis Island reopened in December of 1900.  
      I have to say, I have tremendous admiration for these ancestor immigrants of mine, they were down but not out. They persevered and carved their own unique place in America and made my life here possible.  I am so very proud of them.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grandmother's 100th

     My late Grandfather’s favorite song was The Rose Of Tralee.  I remember him singing softly, “oh no twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning, that made me love Mary the rose of Tralee… ".  This would have been his Mary’s, (my Grandmother’s), 100th birthday were she still living. 

     Mary O’Hora was part of my life from the day I was born and losing her was a terrible blow.   The call came early one cold February morning.   I watched my husband’s eyes fill with tears as he handed me the phone.  For a second I hesitated, I knew I didn’t want to hear whatever was about to be said.  It was my Mother, telling me an aneurism no one suspected was even there had ruptured and Grandma was gone.  My first act was to retreat to my bedroom to offer prayers for her soul, (those Sisters of St. Joseph taught me well), and my next was to sob.

Grandma on the far left
     Being her only granddaughter, the two of us were close and I may have been ever so slightly spoiled.  Grandma delighted in buying me dresses, shoes, my beloved Easter bonnets and little white gloves, and yes, she bought me a pony; so what, lots of kids have ponies.  She taught me to make pie crust, inadvertently taught me to enjoy Manhattans by slipping me the whiskey infused cherries from hers and made me feel completely loved.  She could be strict too; there was no excuse for missing Mass on Sunday morning, or the Stations during Lent, and woe to the shop keeper who earned her displeasure.  Once after berating one for less than stellar service she turned to my ten year old self and whispered with a twinkle in her eye, “we aren’t Irish for nothing”.

     Grandma once asked me what I would like to have of hers after she was gone and though I didn’t want to consider such a thing, I answered," the Bible".  She bought it in 1931 when she married my Grandfather and it was massive, or so it seemed to a small child.  I would take the Bible from its place of honor on the inlaid table in her front parlor, and carefully lay it on the floor.  There I’d sit under the watchful eyes of the JFK bust on the television and Pope Paul IV’s photo on the wall,  leafing through its pages, transported as I gazed at photos of the Vatican, the far away deserts of the holy land and brightly colored illustrations of martyrs and saints.

     But there was more in the Bible.  Opening it for the first time after it came into my possession I found a newspaper clipping.  It was the obituary of Grandma’s father Edward O’Hora who died when she was a young girl.  From that obituary I learned his parent’s names.  There were memorial cards for long dead relatives and a few for people I couldn’t identify.  Tucked in way near the back was a little booklet titled, “Prayers of an Irish Mother”, compiled by Mary Dolan in 1934 and published in Dublin.  My favorite prayer in the booklet:
 St. Colmcille, who suffered pain and grief of exile, watch over the children of Ireland, scattered throughout the world.  Obtain for them solace and courage, and keep them true to God in every trial and temptation!

     What a fitting prayer to be in the bible of a woman whose every grandparent was a famine immigrant.  The famine seems so long ago, and yet my grandmother knew these people who were forced from their homes and country.  How I wish I had known them too, how I wish I had asked her more about them.  Mostly though, I just wish I could talk to herself today.
 Happy Birthday Grandma, I love you!