My grandparents on my father’s side were Irish immigrants. I don’t remember them talking about why they left but I know people don’t just pack up and leave everything they know if their life is hunky dory.
Thanks to the magic of the internet and many hours of work, I have located some of my grandfather’s immigration records. All this comes from the Liberty Ellis Foundation.
He departed from Queenstown (now Cobh) on April 9, 1911 and arrived at Ellis Island on April 16th. The ship’s manifest says he’s 20 years old, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Other records show he was born in 1893 and I know his birthday was August 11th, so he was 17. He sailed on the Laurentic, a ship owned by the White Star Line.
Here is the ship’s manifest with my notes.
Page 1: The headers
Page 2: Passenger 24 – William Forde of Tuam, Ireland. Father’s name is William, final destination is Cincinnatti (sic). It looks like he was traveling with Passenger 23, John Monahan, also from Tuam and also going to Cincinnati. I’ve confirmed that they were neighbors in an older Irish census. By the way, one of the most surprising parts of my research is that our last name was spelled Forde. By the time my dad was born in 1926, it was Ford and I have no idea why.
Page 4: The second set of headers. Please note the top line. He was a steerage passenger. You’ve seen Titanic, right? They were the people crammed into rooms in between the regular decks. They did most of the dying when the Titanic sank in 1912. I have read that the White Star Line tried to clean up these third class accommodations to attract immigrants and have no first hand accounts of the conditions on the Laurentic. But they were, by definition, not first class passengers.
Page 5: He paid for the ticket himself. He had $15 with him. His aunt, Mrs. W.A. Herne (her name was actually Herron) lived at 451 E 5th Street in Cincinnati. He was 5’8″ (also a stretch, I think) and claimed to be neither a polygamist nor an anarchist. The log indicates he was not crippled and was in good physical and mental health. Apparently that was the extreme vetting of the day.
I think remembering this matters, even if my grandparents wanted to put it behind them. My best guess is that they left Ireland in search of opportunity, prosperity, and the chance to build a better life. Living with the recent memory of the Irish genocide probably didn’t help them want to stick around either.
In America, the Irish were discriminated against and caricatured as shiftless, roving gangs of violent drunks. Catholics were distrusted because of their mysterious and misunderstood allegiance to a foreign religious leader. An entire political party formed out of the fear.
In 2017, that sounds ridiculous, just as our current Muslim hysteria will sound to the future.
Nativism has always been with us; we bury its history because of shame and our silence emboldens it for a new generation.