It is a heartbreaking question for any Irish American -- were your people lace curtain or shanty?
The question is all the more heartbreaking because -- and here is Irish logic at its finest -- being lace curtain can be as much a source of shame or embarrassment as being dubbed “shanty.”
But when such a question is asked about an unqualified Irish American heroine, well, it makes you start thinking that maybe we should be careful when we look into our past, because you never know what you’re going to find.
For decades, “rosy-cheeked” Annie Moore from Co. Cork was celebrated as the first immigrant to enter America through Ellis Island, back when the famous processing facility was opened in 1892.
It was not just the Irish who benefited from this story. Americans are completely schizophrenic about immigration, and always have been.
So you have to believe it soothed the national psyche to have a cute, young, English-speaking colleen celebrated as Ellis Island’s first immigrant. Foreign, but not too foreign.
Meanwhile, Annie went on to become a perfect Irish American, with honorable emphasis on both sides of the hyphen. According to family lore, she struck out for the western territories and married a descendent of the great liberator Daniel O’Connell in Texas, before dying young in 1919, the victim of a streetcar accident.
In recent years, however, the Annie Moore myth has unraveled. In the current issue of New York magazine, journalist Jesse Green takes a long, sometimes painful look back at the “real” Annie Moore, who, it turns out, never left the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The new phase of Annie Moore’s seemingly endless journey begins with genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, who began chipping away at the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of the Annie Moore myth between 2002 and 2006.
Several vocal people in New York who claimed to be descendents of the Lower East Side Annie had died, and so Smolenyak Smolenyak took to her blog and offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could lead her to the “real” Annie Moore.
The search led Smolenyak Smolenyak to Manhattan’s old Fourth Ward, the same tough streets which produced Al Smith, who grew up on Oliver Street.
If Smith would go on to run for president, and the “fake” Annie Moore would gain immortality in history books and on collectible tea cups, the real Annie Moore was notable for how swiftly she was forgotten by the throngs which greeted her when she arrived in Ellis Island on New Year’s Day, 1892.
Annie’s was not an easy life. She married a German who worked at the nearby Fulton Fish Market, the same place from which Al Smith often quipped he earned his FFM degree.
“She had spent nearly every year of her marriage pregnant with, giving birth to, or burying a child,” Green writes in this week’s New York.
“In an age when the average life expectancy for white Americans was 47, and surely lower in the slums, Annie would have expected some children to die.”
At one point in the article, Green explains to Annie’s great-niece the disease which felled the children, and she breaks down in tears.
“I hear that list and I think of Angela’s Ashes. I don’t want Annie to be an Angela!” she says.
“I think the Irish brought that kind of hard life with them. It has to do with the British presence. If you can have national low self-esteem and at the same time be very arrogant, that was Ireland.”
You can quibble with the sociology of this statement, but not the emotion. Annie Moore clearly remains an important symbol of the Irish past in America, and it matters -- though it shouldn’t -- if that past was plucky or downtrodden. Lace
Curtain or shanty.
But if Annie is a symbol of the New York Irish past, she is also a symbol of the American present. Do we need still need to construct myths around today’s immigrants?
Or can we take the Annie Moores of today for what they are -- struggling, striving, hard-working parents of future Americans. (Annie’s offspring now includes “Dominicans, Chinese, Jews and Italians,” according to New York.)
Or will we decide not to take today’s Annie Moores in any way, shape or form?
(Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)