Thursday, March 18, 2010

From and Over the Water - To Urban Living -- to build a life that lasted.

"Mom, is it okay if I get a lot wet? "

As soon as Meghan Anne made it out to the rock, her cousin and brother left -- and anyone who is or has a child who is a younger sibling, understands exactly how and why that happened.

And, yes, the poor child was, as I remember, drenched.

Ireland is an island. I say that because, for some very odd reason, I forget that fact. Somehow, potatoes and farming are what I think of when I imagine Anne's home country. But that image fails to convey how evident the water was to us all when we were in County Mayo. The water was a massive part of the scenery and dominated the senses.

This next photo shows a building - I remember wishing with all that I was for it to be Anne's former home - it is not - but notice the water in the background.

Anne grew up on an island, near the sea. When she left her home, she spent 3 months at sea -- and then spent the next 20 years on another island (Manhattan) living in tenements. Anne went from living near family, cousins, and likely running through the grass on the hills in my photo - to walking city streets, and possibly, seeing very little of either grass and with the East River nearby rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Early in Anne and John's marriage - I find them living at 194 E 25th Street (25th Street and 3rd Avenue) in the 18th Ward of New York City. The 18th Ward went from 15th Street - north to 25th Street -- and started on the west side at Third Avenue and extended eastward to the river.

In this Ward, in 1870, lived 40,724 people.  The Nolans and their five children were some of those people. By 1858 - Maurice was a newborn; in 1860, Thomas joins the family and quickly passes. Also in the 1860 decade, Anne and John welcome four more children - Stephen, John, Mary, and Ellen (Nellie). I have yet to find the family in the 1870 census -- which is making me INSANE - so I am not certain yet if they were still in New York City or if by 1870, they had moved to White Plains. (see my residency research thus far)

The Nolan's neighbors on 25th Street included the Emanuel family from Scotland, the Toffe's from Ireland, and the Steinke's (a cabinet maker) from Hanover (Germany).

Those 40,724 people lived in 1,323 tenements. Tenements were wood structures, built quickly, in the back of city blocks. Clothes lines ran out of windows. Rooms were small and few -- the Nolans probably had 2 or 3 for their entire family. Sewage systems were inadequate and much like Anne's trip over on the Emma Prescott, lice was common. Water was not available in most buildings; bathrooms were also outside.

I've been reading Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York to get more of a sense of what the day to day life may have been like for Anne and John and their growing family. The stories read a lot likely a poorly written Dubliners (which perhaps describes this blog too) in that they are intimate and tragic -- detailing despair, alcohol abuse, poverty, and loneliness. As I turn each page, I see each story at nighttime - as if no light ever entered the streets where these Irish lived.

Living as they did, I marvel at what was accomplished. Each of the Nolan children learned to read-- something their parents could not do. All but one lived past their baby years; clearly these children were kept healthy and grew strong. The family remained together until 1880 and I find them living near each other through the 1930s - this leads me to believe that those strong bonds of family were based on a solid upbringing from Anne and John.

How did Anne and John accomplish this? What did they draw upon when sad, frustrated, or worried? Consider the noises and smells of Anne's childhood -- and imagine the contrast with her life in New York City. Having just had corned beef and cabbage in my home, I can quickly recall that smell. Combine that smell with sauerkraut from the Steinke's apartment and I supposed, some whiskey? Is this appealing to you? Could you have raised children in that environment?

The images of drunks in the street, of financial hardships and the constant temptation of drink are so frequent - the reality of it must be accepted. Did John or Anne struggle with these demons? Did the children know and see this despair? Were they frightened?

Or, did the reality of childhood break through? Did big brothers Maurice, Stephen, and John run ahead and try to evade young Mary as she ran to catch up?

When you next visit New York, consider a visit to the Tenement Museum, where you can experience a tour of an Irish immigrant's tenement home; the family you will meet is recovering from the loss of a child (as the Nolan's also did.)

The Historical Atlas of New York City:
A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City's History

by Eric Homberger

1 comment :

  1. I keep coming back to how hard it must have been to have no family near by...Anne was so young -- I can't imagine now(having had 13 year old girls or being a 13 year old girl -- yes, I can remember that far back !) how she could have managed those early years... how lonely she must have been. When she married and had her own babies -- no mother or father to be proud and help her!