My imagination has been stirred since childhood by sagas of Irish immigration to the New World. My father, Jack, born in a tiny farm town in Northern California, knew just enough about his family to arouse my curiosity without satisfying it. His mother had died from complications of his birth, and he had been raised by his father, Tiffin, and two older sisters. Jack left home when he was 16. I never knew Tiffin. I remember as a kid that one of the sisters told me that the Cannons had originally come to America from Donegal, which she said was far away in Ireland.
When I was a boy in Nevada, everyone seemed to have come from far away. My nomadic father, who had little education but was handy and smart, met my mother in New York. Her parents were Hungarian Jews, and the
official family story was that she was born in Philadelphia. In fact, she had been born in Budapest. Such secrets were not confided to children in a time and place when America was
a melting pot in which everyone worshiped the future, not the past. We are all Americans, my parents would say.
In time I learned enough about my mother’s family history to make sense of it. But I was left to fill in the gaps about my father’s family with scraps of information and my imagination. My
father, a once and future farmer, told me about the mysterious blight that had destroyed the potato and caused the Irish to starve. Even so, he never lost his personal faith in the potato, a staple of our meals. He also told me of the “coffin ships” that bore the Irish to America during the famine. I had trouble with this story as a small boy and remember wondering why there were so many Irish in America if they had arrived dead.
As a young adult, I read many books about the Emerald Isle and the famine, in which at least 1.5 million people perished from 1846 to 1851. I realized from my reading that while many thousands had indeed died on the coffin ships, their chances of survival were, by any reckoning, better on those dreadful voyages than if they had stayed at home.
In time, I made my own journeys to Ireland both on business and for pleasure. I was with the White House press corps that accompanied President Reagan on a 1984 visit to Ballyporeen, the ancestral home of his father.
The following year, my wife, Mary Shinkwin (her unusual Irish surname is a variant of “Jenkins”), and I honeymooned in Ireland. Her relatives there included Father Billy Shinkwin of Cork, a droll priest and font of Irish stories. We visited him regularly over the years, and he once mentioned to us that a museum was being built in the nearby town of Cobh to honor the emigrants.
It was many years before mary and I made our way to Cobh, a spacious Irish port on an island in Cork Harbour. The placename itself has a curious story behind it. Cobh is pronounced the same as its English namesake, “Cove.”
In fact, the town was originally called Cove by the British and named Queens- town in 1849 in honor of Queen Victoria, who disembarked there on her first visit to Ireland. In 1922, after the creation of the Irish Free State, it reclaimed its former name – but with an Irish spelling.
The town itself, described accurately in 18th-century accounts as “a village built under a steep hill,” was the single most important point of Irish emigration. For 100 years nearly half of the six million Irish who left their homeland departed from Cobh – the last in 1950.
That epic emigration is related in the Cobh Heritage Centre as “The Queenstown Story.” The heart of the museum, located in a restored Victorian railway station, is a darkened room dramatizing the voyages of the famine years. You hear the howl of wind in the riggings and the pounding of the ocean on the hulls of wooden ships.
I am prone to seasickness. Closing my eyes, I tried to re-create in my mind the terrors of a voyage of six weeks a century ago in a storm-tossed boat of crowded passengers, many of them ill and starving. In the typhus year known as “black ’47,” some 29,000 passengers perished on the way to North America.
The museum also memorializes the tragedy of the Titanic. The liner made its last port of call here on April 11, 1912. Of the 123 passengers who boarded that day, most were Irish with third-class, one-way tickets. Three days later the Titanic struck its infamous iceberg and sank, with the loss of 1,513 lives – including all but about 40 of those who had boarded at Queenstown.
What more is there to know about that catastrophe in this era of Titanic-mania? Well, there’s the story of one Dannie Buckley, from county Cork, who boarded the luxury liner at Queenstown and survived the sinking. A handsome young man, judging by his faded picture, he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I and was killed in France at the age of 28 – at the very end of the war.
There are also stories in the museum about the Lusitania, another ill-fated British ocean liner, this one torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915 en route from New York to Liverpool. Rescue boats alerted by the Lusitania’s wireless operators rushed to the scene from Queenstown and brought in 761 survivors. (The death toll was 1,198.) At the Heritage Centre you can lift the receiver of an old-fashioned telephone and hear accounts of the survivors, including a man outraged that women and children had become military targets.
The museum also has exhibits on the transports of “convicts” to Australia. The word deserves quotation marks because many of them, particularly in the years after the bloody 1798 revolution, were political dissidents, not criminals.
For six decades, beginning in 1791, 40,000 convicts were sent to Australia from Cove or Dublin on voyages of up to nine months that, predictably, had high mortality rates. From the British point of view, the transports relieved pressure on overcrowded jails, provided a labor force in a land where it was needed, and removed potential troublemakers. I had not known that the Irish had enriched Australia as much as they had the United States.
Many of the Irish sent to Australia who were not political prisoners had simply committed minor crimes in an attempt to feed their families. One such prisoner was John Kirk, of county Down, who was sentenced in 1822 to seven years transport in Australia for possessing a stolen cow. Kirk pleaded for leniency on grounds his wife and two infant children would be destitute without him. His petition was denied.
For all its sad stories, the museum contains many snippets of hopeful letters from Irish immigrants in America, telling of opportunities that were meant to lure other family members to join them. Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, did well in America, as did many others on the Heritage Centre’s long roster of famous Irish-Americans, a list that includes John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. (That list is growing. Descendants of Irish immigrants who passed through Cobh are invited, for a fee, to have the names of their ancestors inscribed on the museum’s Wall of Dedication as a “permanent record of the courage and spirit” of their families.)
My guess is that my Hungarian mother would have liked the Heritage Centre as much as my father, for it tells an Irish story that is also universal. All of us come from somewhere, as my parents said. As immigration continues to change the face of our country, perhaps the distant mirror of Cobh offers a glimpse into the future as well as an examination of the past.