Irish Famine refugee's story of arrival in America
What we know from literature about what Irish Famine immigrants encountered upon their arrival in North America.
If you ever spend the day at the Silver Lake golf course on the north shore of Staten Island, New York, pay attention. It’s not that the greens are particularly speedy or that the course is unusually challenging. What you should keep your eye out for, instead, is a simple stone surrounded by flowers near the clubhouse. A plaque on the stone reads: “The Forgotten Burial Ground: Here lies the unmarked graves of Irish immigrants who fled the famine in search of freedom … They will not be forgotten.”
From 1849 – 1858, beneath what is now the golf course, a cemetery was created to bury immigrants who perished at a notorious quarantine hospital nearby, which was eventually torched and destroyed by nativists.
In fact, just last year, former New York Archbishop Edward Cardinal Egan presided over a memorial mass in honor of Irish immigrants who died at the same hospital and were buried in other un-marked graves on Staten Island.
What Was It Like?
This regrettable slice of history sheds light on an easily forgotten aspect of immigration during the Great Hunger. Much time is spent debating why the Famine occurred, what could have been done to prevent it, and the ways it changed not only America, but also Canada, Australia, England and other nations.
Such big-picture questions make it easy to forget what the actual arrival of individual Irish immigrants – those who survived the treacherous journey to North America – was like. What did they experience once they’d crossed the Atlantic and entered the ports of Manhattan or Boston, Quebec or Brooklyn? What kind of entrance process was there – if any? What obstacles did they face when it came to health, housing, and jobs? Or, for that matter, personal safety? The docks, after all, were often rife with criminals who sought to exploit the desperate new arrivals.
The First Illegals
One problem with attempting to understand a Famine immigrant’s first experiences in the U.S. is that there are relatively few first-hand accounts from the 1840s. Other traumatic historical horrors, such as the enslavement of African Americans or the Holocaust, are simply better documented. We do, today, commemorate the immigrants who landed at Grosse Île, Canada, where typhus, dysentery and cholera left thousands dead. [See article in this issue on Grosse Île.] In Peter Quinn’s landmark historical novel The Banished Children of Eve, one character lands at Grosse Ile after a five-week journey from Ireland that left 48 people dead, “one fifth of those who sailed.”
An official in a blue jacket arrived and went about the entire ship poking into every corner. … He said that a boat would be sent to bring the sick to the island, where they would temporarily be held in quarantine, but that the bodies of the dead must be brought immediately…. The flies made a frenzied hum in the air…. [A] woman delirious with fever [was] praying and cursing in Irish.
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