Friday, March 12, 2010

Irish Immigrants

I've gotten way off track with our story; the research process gets so interesting and the hunt for "real" records is tantalizing -- but let me get back to our timeline.

Anne arrives in New York City, alone, in 1847. The time period is pre-American Civil War and -- (while Nan's story nods to the Irish Potato Famine) - pre-famine. Anne left her family and her father just as the Irish were starting to leave Ireland; each year after Anne left, more Irish left their homes.

Irish Leaving Ireland - estimates per year (from R.F. Foster Modern Ireland: 1600-1972)
  • 1825: 7,000
  • 1830: 55,000
  • 1837: 18,000
  • 1844: 85,000
  • 1847: 170,000
  • 1853: 250,000
Most of these departing Irish ended up in America; the next largest group landed in England (as John Willy Gagan's family seemed to - his parents were born in Ireland but he was born in England). As I mentioned in an earlier post, 1/2 of the Irish arriving in America landed in New York City. Initially, immigrants were processed through Castle Garden (as Anne would have been) and later, immigrants went through Ellis Island --(so far this is the only mistake I've found in Nan's story- she refers to Anne as spending a few days at Ellis Island)

Edward Robb Ellis, in The Epic of New York City, explains that the Irish arriving in New York were not well received. He explains "The Irish, arriving in droves, lacked money and education and skills. They were met with contempt by Native New Yorkers". (p. 231)

Irish initially settled in Five Points - the intersection of the following streets of New York - Anthony, Orange, Cross, Little Water, and Mulberry. Today Mulberry remains - the other streets are renamed Worth (Anthony), Baxter (Orange), Park (Cross) and Little Water is gone. This part of New York, in the 1850s opened onto a triangular park -- called Paradise Square.
The visuals from Gangs of New York seem to be accurate - as heart breaking as that is to hear.

Ellis explains that New York, well before the famine immigrants arrived, was already home to many, many Irish. Life for these people was hard; poverty was rampant - 1 in seven citizens of New York lived in poverty in 1846. Many Irish were in prison. The area was violent - but remember, Ireland (according to Kerby Miller) was also a violent place. Gangs did exist and were predominantly men; however, I am reading that the famous Civil War/ draft riots included participation from the ladies as well.

Anne arrives in New York into this culture; while Ireland may have been violent, somehow I think the world that Anne left in Kilcumnin Point Parish was not. John, from Wexford (south-eastern Ireland) may have been a bit more of an urban-leaning lad - but he is consistently listed as a farm laborer so I wonder if he, too, was a rural, small town person.

Anne and John seemed to have missed much of the drama and despair we see depicted in most narratives about Irish New York City. Anne did not live in Five Point's, but rather landed in Hell's Kitchen.

Anne arrived early enough that descriptions of the Hell's Kitchen she would have known sound rural "an enclave of rural peace and solitude; its green meadows... hospitable to lowing herds, barefoot boys, and strolling lovers. " Hells' Kitchen: The Riotous Days of New York's West Side by Richard O'Connor It is in 1855 that the area becomes commercial (with slaughter houses and the corresponding boarding houses to house workers -- being built). A few years later, in 1860, we see the Nolan's elsewhere, living on the East side of New York City (in the 18th Ward) - likely in a tenement given the volume of neighbors surrounding them. So, as Anne arrived pre-Civil War, pre-massive influx of Irish, she also arrived pre-Hell's Kitchen!

I will do some more research. But, what I have deduced today, is that to see Anne and John as famine immigrants misses part of their story. While they certainly left Ireland when it was clear their way of life was dwindling, and the potato blight had begun, their reasons for coming to America were probably many -- and opportunity was likely a driving factor.

Anne seems to have found a secure place and was not subject to much of the horror we read about other Irish women suffering - given her early marriage to John and the rapid child bearing, she probably spent much of her 20s and 30s in the house, raising babies and managing growing children.

I feel relief; and perhaps, I am projecting my need to know Anne was not a victim of horrible poverty and driven to horrific deeds is driving this post. But, I think on some points, I stand on solid (albeit muddy) ground.

The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History by Edward Robb Ellis
Hell's Kitchen: the Riotous Days of New York's West Side by Richard O'Connor
Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 by R. F. Foster

1 comment :

  1. I like your conclusions -- always pictured her, struggling, in the midst of horrific conditions until John came into the picture. Then I pictured her safer, somehow.