“The real members of the Hall of Fame are the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who had the courage to come here.”
– Donald Keough, the former president of Coca-Cola, and our first inductee into the Irish America Hall of Fame in 2010
It’s been a few years now but, the memory doesn’t go away. I climbed down the ladder into the hold of the ship – into steerage. My reaction was so visceral that I get goose bumps now just thinking about it. The interior is tight and dark – there are no portholes.
No portholes and no privacy. The bunks, six feet by six feet, are two up. Whole families traveled on those bunks – 18 inches of sleeping space for a grown adult and 9 inches for a child – that was the was standard allotted space. There was no separation of men and women, single or married. The rations were mostly flat brown bread, hard-baked to resist mold.
Two small “first class” cabins to the front of the ship shared a rudimentary toilet. The steerage passengers used a bucket. If the weather was stormy, they were locked in the hold. If the weather was good, they were allowed on deck once a day for 30 minutes. The journey lasted up to six weeks.
The name of the ship is the Dunbrody and it was built to hold 187 passengers. But it often carried more than that as refugees lined the quayside in New Ross, looking to escape the starvation of the 1840s when the potato crop failed.
From the same quay, and other ports around the country, ships laden with grain and cattle left for England. There was plenty of food in Ireland, but the Irish didn’t have access to it. They starved in plain sight of food.
We know from the Dunbrody’s records that the ship en route to Canada in July 1847 carried 317 passengers – 130 more than it was built to hold. The overcrowding must have been unbearable. Some died onboard and others are buried in a mass grave on the quarantine island of Grosse Ile in the St. Lawrence River.
It was on a blustery July day in 2011 when I made my visit to the ship on the quay in New Ross, Wexford. I should say it is not the original, but an exact replica of a ship of the same name that carried thousands to the New World. It was 164 years, or two 82-year life spans, since that July in 1847 when ships from Ireland, including the Dunbrody, lined the St. Lawrence River, waiting for endless days to disembark at the quarantine station already overwhelmed with Irish who were sick and dying of ship’s fever.
I was in New Ross to open the Irish America Hall of Fame, which is part of the Dunbrody Famine Ship and Emigrant Experience. We could not have picked a better spot.
The juxtaposition of the ship and the Hall of Fame is not lost on the visitor. It works in such a way that it brings the narrative of the Irish American story full circle.
The Dunbrody is a place of pilgrimage, especially for the American Irish whose ancestors left in hard times. It reminds us that the seeds of Irish success in America were sown by brave, desperate people who were propelled forward by the slim hope that life would be better on the other side.
Joseph Browne was one of those who dared to hope. When he left Tipperary in 1849, he was not leaving a peaceful place. There were more evictions in Tipperary in 1847 than in any other county. (It had good land, you see – better value in cattle grazing than in tenants.) Joseph met his future wife, Bridget Burke, herself an Irish immigrant, in Boston, and they made their way to California where they laid the foundation for a political dynasty that includes our Hall of Fame honoree Governor Jerry Brown.
Dennis Long’s four-times great grandfather from Kerry, got off the ship in New Orleans and took a boat up the Mississippi to St. Louis – where he stayed. Dennis would, at just 41, become the head of the largest brewery in the world, and give back to Ireland in immensurable ways. He saved this magazine from going under with sponsorship that saw a Budweiser ad on our back cover for years, a tradition that was carried on by his successor, Mike Roarty.
In Roscommon, where the population dropped by 31 percent, through immigration and death during the Great Hunger, John Brennan’s family managed to hang on. It would be another 80 years before John Brennan’s father, Owen, would immigrate and marry a first generation Irish American who would ensure that their son received the best education possible. The proud Fordham graduate went on to reach the top of his profession in the CIA. We are delighted to induct him into the Hall of Fame.
Kelli O’Hara’s family came to the U.S. from Ireland sometime around 1850. They lived in Iowa, Missouri, and Colorado. Her grandfather, Pete, moved to Mangum, Oklahoma in 1909, where her dad was born in 1915. In 1921, Pete moved to Elk City to the farm, taking his mother Bridgette with him. “Six generations have now lived in that land,” Kelli says.
The pioneering spirit of Kelli’s ancestors is not lost. It was that spark that gave Kelli the courage to leave Oklahoma for New York at the age of 19 to pursue her dream of being a singer on Broadway. And she reminds us that wherever the Irish went, they might not have had much by way of material things, but they brought their music with them.
It is only when we look at the historical trajectory that we see who we are as a people. And knowing our history, and knowing that we are descended from brave, resourceful people, helps us choose hope over despair in times of trouble.
As the late Donald Keough, our first Hall of Fame inductee whose ancestor, Michael Keough, left from the port of New Ross, said, “The real members of the Hall of Fame are the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who had the courage to come here.”
Mórtas cine. ♦