Fifty years after President John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland the bonds between Ireland the United States are stronger than ever. This summer a major new exhibition, “Your Huddled Masses: The Irish in America” at the Little Museum of Dublin, charts the relationship from earliest times to the present day.
The relationship between Ireland and the United States was forged in hardship and pain, but is today synonymous with hope and achievement. With the use of sound, photography, film and striking illustrations, “Your Huddled Masses” chronicles what emigrants left behind, how they travelled, and the life they faced upon arrival.
This is a story about the search for a better life, the reinvention of home and the birth of great cities in a foreign land. This is the story of Ireland in America.
“We’re really excited about this show,” says Simon O’Connor, curator of the Little Museum. “It’s a subject we’ve wanted to tackle since opening, and there’s massive interest around the exhibition both here and in the United States.”
Among the artefacts on view are the lectern President Kennedy used to address the Irish Parliament in 1963, a gold trading card featuring Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, and a dress worn by actress Maureen O’Hara.
The exhibition takes its title from a famous poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The exhibition also follows the lives of ordinary emigrants from Ireland to the US. One such story is that of sisters Christina and Catherine ‘Kit’ Fox and Michael Gaffney, how their lives crossed and the emigrant love story that ensued. Their stories tell a typical tale illustrating the dire circumstances that many immigrants arrived in, but also the upwardly mobile nature of Irish immigrants, and the kinds of lives they built in the US.
One of twelve children, Michael Gaffney (1903-1981) was born in Cross Keys, County Cavan. When a cousin offered Michael a job at his company, Alpha Cement, in west Philadelphia, Michael borrowed the fare from another cousin and arrived in the United States at the age of 25.
Michael was disappointed to discover that his cousin did not remember making the job offer. However, Michael was given a position mixing cement, and soon started sending money back to his family in Ireland.
Michael joined the Cavan Catholic, Social, and Beneficial Association in Philadelphia. (Irish immigrants still form Gaelic football teams based on the county they come from in Ireland.) In 1933, Michael travelled to New York City and joined Clan na Gael, an Irish republican organization. Through these groups Michael cultivated friendships with fellow immigrants.
Meanwhile Christina (1913-2000) and Catherine ‘Kit’ Fox (1910-1999) were born in Maryrath, County Westmeath. The sisters were unable to find jobs after the Civil War. In 1929, in search of better opportunities, they travelled from Cobh to join five other siblings in the United States. One of their sisters, Mary, they met for the first time.
Christina and Kit embraced American culture, taking advantage of services at the beauty parlor, and Kit sent her ‘makeover’ picture home to Westmeath to show her family that she was well. Her mother reacted in horror when she saw that Kit now used hair-dye and red lipstick! In 1939, Christina and Kit partly bought their employer’s business, Violet’s, and became successful business women.
Christina met Michael Gaffney through her sister Beatrice. Beatrice’s husband was a friend of Michael’s from Cross Keys. Christina and Michael married on July 5, 1943. The three sisters and their husbands can been seen enjoying drinks in 1945 at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe at the Paramount Hotel in New York. Michael and Christina raised a son and five daughters in the Bronx. All of their children graduated from college.
The exhibition runs until September 2013. Find out more at www.littlemuseum.ie.
Here’s a teaser for the exhibition:
Millions more Irish birth, marriage and death records free online