Monday, March 17, 2014

Is Everyone Irish on St. Patty's Day?

I'm not sure about that, but I know I'm Irish everyday!

I thought on this St. Patty's Day I'd pay tribute to those Irish ancestors who left the only home and family they knew, braved the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and landed on the soil of the place that was supposed to bring a new beginning and better life.  America is the place where anything is possible.....

Unfortunately for me, I don't have any first hand family accounts of what it was like for my Irish ancestors to make their journeys onto American soil, but we can learn a bit of the harsh reality from the account of one Irish immigrant, William Smith.  Smith's story* was published in 1850, a few short years after he sails from Liverpool, England to New York as many of the Irish did in those days. His anxiety-filled account spans only 29 pages in length, but the glimpse he recounts of his heart wrenching tale of immigration makes me proud to descend from a people with such a strong will to succeed.

Smith's tale begins as he sets sail on "Friday, November 26, 1847, leaving behind his wife and child, an aged father, three affectionate sisters, and a few very close friends."  Smith wants for a better life writing, "For several years I had vainly endeavored to raise myself from the state of poverty and the constant degradation which the small remuneration I received for my labors forced me into.  If, in the free and happy land to which I was going, my last and only hope should be destroyed, my wife and child would suffer by my absence."

The horror of battling raging seas is in part recounted on the following two pages from the book.

William Smith, “An Emigrant’s Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage,” page 7

 William Smith, “An Emigrant’s Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage,” page 8

Ships Fever

Ragging seas are not the only dangers Smith encounters during his journey.  He tells the gruesome tale of immigrants dying horrible deaths after contracting ship's fever.  The illness, all to often, resulted in the death of passengers including the captain of the India, the ship they were sailing on.  Smith tells of how the bodies are buried at sea.

William Smith, “An Emigrant’s Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage,” page 12


Following the scores of passengers contracting and dying from Ship's Fever, many survivors come down with dysentery.  Smith himself becomes ill from both sicknesses.  Upon the belief he is succumbing to the fever, Smith locates the only other passenger from his home town.  Smith asks the man to contact his wife on the occasion of his death and to pass on his few belongings and a message.  Fortunately for Smith, there is no need for anyone to deliver such a horrid announcement.  Miraculously,  Smith survives.  

Deplorable hospital treatment

Eight weeks after England's shore disappeared out of sight, Smith and the surviving passengers and crew of the India step foot on American soil.  Smith was told he would be taken to the Staten Island Hospital to receive treatment and regain his health.  The statement was partially true.  Smith went to the hospital, but the treatment he received was far from caring and restorative.  He tells of the freezing conditions, after all this was winter in New York.  Immigrant patients were punished if they attempted to warm themselves by a fire. He says the treatment he received was brutalizing and the bedding felt like laying on straw. Two weeks after being admitted, Smith was strong enough to be released from the hospital. With only a few shillings in his pocket (enough money to last a week,) he set out in New York City to make his way in his new "free and happy country."

The new world is not so welcoming

I can not even imagine trying to make your way in a place where you know no one, have very little money, and have no where to stay.  But some how Smith was able to come across people who were willing to help him.  Some of the people he came across in the first days of his new life had an understandable fear of anyone who had ship's fever. Another lesson of discrimination Smith has to learn.  People did not seem to care that it had been weeks since Smith was ill, but his appearance must have given it away.  Regardless of the initial fear of Smith's previous illness he manages to come in contact with a man who will eventually give him shelter, a hearty meal, and the aid he needs to begin work.

Those left behind

After ten weeks from England's shore Smith is able to write his wife and relate the tale of stormy seas, illness and death, deplorable hospital treatment and his new life.  Smith is unaware when he writes his letter that the man whom he asked to contact his wife upon his death had assumed he had most likely died in the hospital. The fellow shipmate relayed a message to his own wife in Ireland and soon word spread of Smith's untimely death.  So you can image that upon receiving the letter from America, Smith's wife can't bear to bring herself to read it.  She then passes the letter onto Smith's father who has the honor or breaking the letter's seal and reading Smith's ghostly words aloud to the family.  The message of life Smith had sent back to his family in Ireland must have been some of the most beautiful words his family had ever heard.

In honor of William Smith and all of our Irish immigrant ancestors, I would like to say thank you. I think of all of you often, and admire your fighting spirit.

Here's to our Irish immigrants and their families: 
the Carsons, the Whites, the Hannas, the Byrnes
the Conleys, the Reilys, the Greens, the McArdles, the Rileys, and the Millers

*William Smith, “An Emigrant’s Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage, published by the author 1850.

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