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. . .”
That image became a call to action and she described herself as “tumbling” into the fight to improve conditions for emigrant girls: departure, transit and reception. She started with emigrant lodging houses in Queenstown (now Cobh, Co. Cork) where unscrupulous boarding house keepers took advantage of emigrants waiting to board their liners. She opened her own O’Brien Emigrant Boarding House at West Beach, Queenstown on April 1, 1882. It was a daunting task for a middle-aged single woman who had modest resources and was almost profoundly deaf. Her fellow Queenstown lodging house owners were so hostile that they urged local merchants to boycott her. She had to bring in every loaf of bread and pound of tea from Cork city.
Improving the boardinghouses was the first step in improving conditions for Irish emigrant girls. There were other dangers: the ocean journey itself and the emigrant’s reception on arrival. In fall, 1882, Charlotte accepted an offer of free passage aboard the White Star’s Baltic. The last couplet in her sonnet “Ireland-Farewell” affirmed her commitment to a life devoted to the welfare of her country:
“Rather henceforth shall my
rejoicing be / That God hath given me
life to live for thee.”
O’Brien arrived quietly in New York City and spent a month with a longshoreman’s family in a tenement house on Washington Street, near the site of the former World Trade Center, where she acquainted herself with immigrant conditions in the city. Then she went west in October to see John Ireland, Bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, the member of the American Catholic hierarchy who would be the most receptive to her proposal that there be a home for immigrant girls arriving in the Port of New York. She later recalled that when she said to Bishop Ireland, “I am only the plank over the stream, it is you, the Catholic Church, who have to build the bridge,” he told her, “You need not fear, Miss O’Brien, I will not let this matter drop.”