The first immigrant to enter the United States through Ellis Island was Annie Moore in 1892. She was from Ireland and she was 15 years old. Imagine it: sailing into the unknown from the rural simplicity, safety, familiarity and poverty of Ireland, and arriving to the sight of that enormous symbol of hope and freedom: the Statue of Liberty, its torch rising 310 feet above the waters of the New York Harbour. Adjacent to Liberty Island, on the tiny Ellis Island, more than 12 million people entered the United States through the island’s immigration centre from 1892 to 1954. By 1892, America was organised. Immigrants, so many of them Irish, would disembark at Ellis Island, present at the registry room to be checked by a doctor, after which officers would process their legal documents. I’m sure there weren’t brass bands to welcome them, but there was a system, a sense of a welcome, a door opening. Once the OK was given, on the newcomers travelled to Manhattan and beyond.
In the context of what has unfolded this week, it feels appropriate that we should look back and remember that the first person through Ellis Island was a child. Annie Moore came fromCounty Cork, and sailed to the US aboard thesteamshipcalled theNevada withher two younger brothers, Anthony and Philip. The day on which it docked on Ellis Island – January 1, 1892 – was reported to have been her 15th birthday. As the first person to be processed at the newly opened facility, Annie was presented with an American$10 gold piece to commemorate and celebrate her place in history. It must have seemed like a lottery win for her.
For 62 years, millions followed in the footsteps of Annie, carving out new lives that began at Ellis Island. Sometimes, although not necessarily, they were pulled to the lure of the new world, but often they were pushed from a land they loved but – pushed from poverty and lack of opportunities. The great hunger had blighted Ireland 40 years previously and, no doubt, Annie Moore’s generation was still affected by a famine that caused one million to die and one million more to emigrate. It sounds like a staggering figure to me (as Ellis Island was only one of many ports of entry for ships from the old world), but they say that nearly half of all Americans have ancestors who arrived through Ellis Island.
Annie did not have an illustrious, or a remarkable life. She married a Manhattan fish merchant, had eleven children and died aged 50. On October 11, 2008, a dedication ceremony was held at her previously unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island, and a new grave marker, a Celtic Cross made of Irish Blue Limestone, was unveiled.
I sing a bit, particularly Irish songs, and I first learned about Annie Moore’s story from a song by Brendan Graham. The version I first head was sung by County Clare man, Sean Keane, whose rendition conveys that contradictory mix of expectation and loss; the tragedy of leaving and the anticipation of arriving. Life comes around in cycles, whole nations of people are on the move again, people for whom courage is their passport. May we look to and learn from history. May we treat them well.
‘Ellis Island’, a song by Brendan Graham
‘On the first day on January,
They opened Ellis Island and they let
The people through.
And the first to cross the threshold
Of that isle of hope and tears,
Was Annie Moore from Ireland
Who was all of fifteen years.
Isle of hope, isle of tears,
Isle of freedom, isle of fears,
But it’s not the isle you left behind.
That isle of hunger, isle of pain,
Isle you’ll never see again
But the isle of home is always on your mind.
In a little bag she carried
All her past and history,
And her dreams for the future
In the land of liberty.
And courage is the passport
When your old world disappears
But there’s no future in the past
When you’re fifteen years.
When they closed down Ellis Island
In nineteen forty-three,
Twelve million people
Had come there for sanctuary.
And in Springtime when I came here
And I stepped onto its piers,
I thought of how it must have been
When you’re fifteen years.’