SLIDESHOW / IRISH SIDE OF ELLIS ISLAND / CLICK HERE
The outside world is a scary place. Especially when outside is New York City. Even more so if you are a self-confessed computer addict and outside is New York in the summer.
Just the thought of all that natural sunlight can make you feel as if your skin is about to boil.
Nothing quite like the Big Apple to put shock and awe into a small-town Irish lad on his first adventure away from home.
So, on a fine sunny morning I threw away my inhibitions and decided (read: was told) to take the ferry to Liberty and Ellis Islands.
The plan was to get there at about 9 a.m. to beat the queues, but me, in my infinite wisdom, decided sleep was far more important so I only fell out of bed at 9 a.m.
It was an uneventful journey on the 4 train from Woodlawn to Bowling Green, but when I arrived at Battery Park at roughly 11 a.m. I promptly got lost.
Disaster was averted when I discovered - before boarding - that I was headed for Staten Island so I started paying more attention to the signs and eventually found my way to the terminal.
Hindsight soon made me realize that my lie-in was a bad idea. The lines snaked for at least a mile through the park, and I almost gave up hope of ever getting through it alive.
I settled in with my iPod for a long wait, hoping that maybe Tool could make the time pass more quickly.
One hour later I had reached the ticket stall. On the plus side, $12 for both islands was fairly reasonable. On the minus side, there was yet another line, this time for the ferries themselves.
Standing in Battery Park at midday in 83 degree heat is not good for anyone's skin. Especially Irish skin. Especially Irish skin belonging to someone who had forgotten to bring his sunscreen with him. I had remembered to put sun cream on earlier so I had thought I was safe. What I hadn’t realized was that it had to be reapplied every few hours and the container specifically warned against “prolonged exposure to midday sun.” In other words, I was screwed. Two hours and one case of sunstroke later and I was on the boat.
As the boat pulled across the harbor, the view of the Manhattan skyline was breathtaking. It was almost enough to distract me from the screaming children running around the boat. There should be a law to put all children on leashes. Evidently one couple were ahead of the game and already had their son tied up. A short hop later, we were on Liberty Island.
And that was it really.
Unless you have somehow managed to book a trip inside Lady Liberty herself there is nothing there. You arrive on the island, take a few pictures of the statue and leave. Granted the view of Manhattan is even better than from the boat, but even that loses its appeal very quickly.
Next stop, Ellis Island.
Maybe it's because I'm not an American, but I didn’t have high expectations of being interested in the immigration center. Very few of my family's direct ancestors would have passed through these halls. Although, clearly some members of my family must have emigrated because the infamous American McVeigh came from Ireland.
But,the museum really enthralled me. It made me wonder, of all the millions who came through this building in search of a better life, how many made it? How many became the Wall Street traders, the CEOs, the lawyers and the entrepreneurs that made the US what it is today? How many ended up in the same, or worse, poverty than they had in their home countries?
Irish Americans hold a special place in their heart for Ellis Island and Ellis Island itself held the promise of hope for countless thousands of destitute Irish.
Ellis Island shows how far the Irish have come; from being the “Paddys” of the late 19th century to driving and shaping American policy and industry into the 20th century and beyond.
It makes me think of Ireland after the EU expansion. In two or three generations will the current Eastern European immigrants become as Irish as the next green-blooded Sean or Seamus?
But the most powerful impact from Ellis Island was how little history the Irish left behind. There are artifacts from every other ethnic group and very little, if nothing, from the Irish, who seemed to have arrived in America with little more than the clothes they stood up in.
The absence of Irish possessions in the exhibitions highlights the extreme poverty that was rampant at home only 100 years ago.
As for me, I left Elllis Island with a new respect for the immigrants who made that harrowing journey across the ocean.
After learning everything I ever needed to know - and more - about Irish immigration into the US in the early 20th century it was time to get back to the mainland.
Yeah, I know Manhattan is an island too but you know what I mean.
It took me 10 minutes to realise I was in the queue for the New Jersey boat, but eventually I was out on the open sea, heading for home.
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