New Exhibition at Kerry County Museum on Tour from New York
‘The Irish Mission at Watson House’, is a new exhibition on tour from New York and will be seen for the first time in Ireland when it opens in Kerry County Museum in Tralee on Wednesday 28 May. Supported by funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the exhibition tells the story of a home for Irish immigrant girls in Lower Manhattan between 1883 and 1954. The Mission was set up to provide information, temporary accommodation, employment referrals, counselling and support for young Irish women just off the ship from Ireland.
It was the inspiration of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, daughter of the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien, who was transported to Tasmania for his part in the 1848 Rebellion. She was dedicated to improving the lot of young Irish women who were leaving Ireland in their hundreds of thousands throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in search of work and opportunities that were unavailable to them at home. They were predominantly the surplus daughters of the small farms of the west coast of Ireland, from Donegal to Cork.
According to Dr Maureen Murphy, one of the creators of the exhibit, “the emigration of single women from Ireland was a unique phenomenon in western civilisation. Other emigrants from Europe travelled as families, or, as the Italians, the men went first and later sent for the women. In contrast, women left Ireland in equal numbers to men, and they were just as active as the men, if not more so, in sending money back to support the family at home and to provide the means for their sisters, cousins, nieces and friends to follow on”.
In just 25 years, between 1883 and 1908, almost 300,000 young Irish women aged between the ages of 14 and 44 immigrated through the Port of New York. Many of these women arrived in New York alone and relied on the Irish Mission at Watson House for support in their first few days in a bewildering new world. Agents from the Mission were on hand at the immigration processing depot in Castle Garden and later Ellis Island to provide assistance in locating relatives and friends or to offer temporary accommodation in the Home.
Over 100,000 young women were cared for by the Mission’s staff in this period and they found jobs for approximately 12,000. The Mission’s ledger books preserve the records of many of the women who passed through the doors of the Home at 7 State St. Each newcomer’s name and age was written in a bound ledger with notations for the arrival date and ship, county of origin, anticipated final destination and the relationship to the person at the destination. This was generally a sister, or a female cousin or friend.
For instance, Nellie Sullivan aged 20 from Brosna arrived in New York on 1 May 1908 on board the Lusitania. She stayed in Watson House until she could be reunited with her sister Katie who was living at 308 West 88th St in New York. Two weeks later Jane Shea from Doon, half-way between Sneem and Kenmare, arrived on board the Etruria and found temporary refuge in the Home until she could travel on to join her sister Mary in Hoboken.
Frequently groups of girls would travel together; for example Mary Brosnan from Ballinclogher, Lixnaw, Ellie Sheehy from Drommartin, Causeway and Katie Horan from Ballyduff sailed together on board the Celtic, arriving on 11 September 1914. They were all going to join Mary’s sister who was married to Ellie’s brother. However, Mary’s immigration processing took longer than the others and so she stayed in the Home until she could meet up the rest of the group the next day at East 123rd St in New York.
The exhibition gets us thinking about what life was like for these young women when they got to America: where did they go and what did they do? How did they fit into this new world? What effect did the disappearance of all these young women have on Ireland in the 20th century? The exhibition includes information about women’s work and recreation, as well as images of Irish immigrant women in the political cartoons of the day. One part of the display links the Mission with the Titanic: some of the survivors were brought to the Mission, and all survivors were invited to gather there on 28 April 1912.
The Mission registers have been digitised and can be viewed online at www.watsonhouse.org. The exhibition will be on display at Kerry County Museum until the middle of August and will travel from there to a number of venues in Ireland throughout the next twelve months.