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.
Of course, not every crossing to North America was so deadly. The famous Jeanie Johnston ship crossed from Ireland to Quebec in relative safety over a dozen times. In addition, not every Irish immigrant who arrived in Canada stayed in Canada. Quite a few (such as the character Jack Mulcahey in The Banished Children of Eve) went to the U.S., making them the first large wave of border-crossing illegal aliens. Indeed, whether they went from Canada to Boston or New York or Chicago (a city which only began to grow in the 1840s), the first thing many Famine immigrants did was move yet again, in search of work, shelter or, at the very least, stability.
Melville, Thoreau and the Irish
By now, we do know a fair amount about conditions aboard the “coffin ships” on which many immigrants traveled.
Books by Famine-era Irish writers such as Mary Anne Sadlier, Peter McCorry and Father Hugh Quigley often included scenes of the “crossing to America,” which is “seen as a wrenching rite of passage, the violence of which is often symbolized by a fierce storm at sea,” according to acclaimed Irish-American literary scholar Charles Fanning. In addition, some of the greatest American writers of the Famine era have explored the experiences of newly arrived Irish immigrants.
In 1849, Moby Dick author Herman Melville wrote the short novel Redburn, about a journey from Liverpool to New York. The ship’s passengers include the O’Briens and O’Regans. Redburn, however, is mainly about the journey of the young American at its center. Melville never follows the O’Briens or O’Regans once the ship docks. As is often the case with the Irish in 19th-century American literature, the immigrants in Redburn are peripheral, not to mention stereotypical. (“Pat, ye divil, hould still while I wash ye,” Mother O’Brien says at one point while washing her sons. “Ah! But it’s you, Teddy, you rogue. Arrah, now, Mike, ye spalpeen, don’t be mixing your legs up with Pat’s.”)