The Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls
Maureen Murphy writes about the Mission girls.
Between 1883 and 1908, 307,823 Irish girls arrived at the Port of New York. Who met them? Who helped them reach their destinations or find work? Most of the girls who were not met by family or friends were assisted by the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls.
The Mission was the inspiration of Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909), the daughter of William Smith O’Brien who was transported to Tasmania for his part in the 1848 Rebellion.
Charlotte was born on November 23, 1845, a year that saw the first failure of the potato crop and the beginning of what became known as the Great Famine. Her father was a member of Parliament for Limerick. Britain’s refusal to relieve the starving Irish led him to join the 1848 revolt. “I do not profess disloyalty to the Queen of England,” he said in his last speech at Westminster, “but it shall be the study of my life to overthrow the dominion of this Parliament over Ireland. I would gladly accept the most ignominious death rather than witness the sufferings and indignities inflicted by this Legislature upon my countrymen.” For his part in the rebellion, Smith O’Brien was captured and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentence was commuted by the Crown to transportation for life. On July 29, 1849, he and three of his comrades were transported to Tasmania.
This is the setting that young Charlotte was born into. Her father, before his capture, had executed a deed transferring his property to a trust to be held for his wife with the instructions, “Go back to our estate, back to our poor, back to our broken land.” Charlotte inherited his concern for the poor and his fighting spirit.
The failure of the potato crop opened the floodgates, and for the rest of that century and the early part of the next, the Irish left in the thousands. Emigration was a reality particularly for the rural poor of the west, a fact that Charlotte addressed in an article entitled “Eighty Years,” published in 1881, which expressed her deep sympathy for the emigrants’ anguish and her concern about the loss that emigration meant to Ireland.
Shortly after the publication of “Eighty Years,” her article “Horrors of the Immigrant Ship” appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette.
While staying with family in Queenstown (Cobh), O’Brien visited the White Star liner Germanic, anchored in the harbor. While she wrote later that she thought that the Germanic was no worse than other trans-Atlantic ships, she was horrified at the way that young women slept on sailcloth hammocks in the midst of married men and their families. “If they remove their clothes it is under his [male] eye, if they lie down to rest it is beside him.” The image of the steerage passengers huddled together haunted her. Despite the limit of 1,000 passengers she noted the steamer had carried as many as 1,775 at one time. Her sonnet “Steerage of the Germanic — Two Pictures of the Mind, 1882” contrasted images of a summer’s evening in the Irish countryside with ship life below deck:
“Tween dim-lit decks, hard hands, and weary eyes / Hearts so toil-worn that scarce they dare arise. . .”
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