Why yes. I’m glad you asked.
First, a little personal context. I’ve just spent awhile trying to find a picture that has haunted me ever since I visited Ellis Island back in the summer of 2010. I think it’s one of the many blown-up photographs that line the Great Hall, the area where immigrants were initially processed, but I haven’t been able to find it. So I’ll just describe it: a woman on her hands and knees, with a bucket and a brush, scrubbing a hallway. Her back is to the picture and you can’t see her face. Out of all the old photographs I saw that day I remember only this one. To me it’s a representation of the life that many of these people faced. On that same trip we also toured a tenement museum, trying to imagine the lives of people just like the woman in that photo, living in crowded apartment buildings with no running water and barely enough space to breathe. People slept in all sorts of strange contortions, the most memorable being that of the boys who had their upper bodies on a couch and their feet on chairs. (Visit the Tenement Museum the next time you’re in NYC!)
On to the girl who’s mentioned in our selection. Annie Moore, who had spent 12 days at sea traveling from County Cork, Ireland, with her two younger brothers to be reunited with her parents after a separation of four years. Tradition says that the day she landed at Ellis Island as the first immigrant to pass into the facility, January 1, 1892, was her birthday and that she was only 15 years old. Those statements aren’t true, though: she was 17, not 15, and it wasn’t her birthday. The age disparity may have been due to her passing herself off as younger in order to pay a lower fare; the birthday mistake was apparently the product of the newspapers of the time seeking a nice detail for their stories. (Or it just could have been that the official who took her information put the date of her arrival in the wrong space. Hey! It happens!) Be that as it may, it hadn’t been an easy trip, nor would she have an easy life in her new country:
She had the typical hardscrabble immigrant life . . . Moore married Joseph Augustus Schayer, a German-American who worked at the Fulton Fish Market, and gave birth to at least 10 children, five of whom died before the age of three. The family had enough money for a family plot, but Moore’s children were buried without headstones, as was she after her death from heart failure in 1924 at the age of 50. Moore was an enormous woman, and according to family lore her casket was too big to squeeze down the narrow apartment staircase, so it had to be transported out of a window. (from “Remembering Annie Moore, Ellis Island’s First Immigrant”)
Brendan Graham, the lyricist and composer of our piece, is still living and is one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters. He is also a novelist, having written a best-selling fiction trilogy that I plan to take a look at, set against the backdrop of the Irish potato famine and the American Civil War. (Titles are The Whitest Flower, The Element of Fire, and The Brightest Day, the Darkest Night.) He also wrote the lyrics for the hit song “You Lift Me Up.” Our selection shows his ability to create a moving scene without being schmaltzy. I especially like the way he compares the two “isles” of Ireland and of Ellis Island, setting up the whole tug of war between the desire for freedom and a new life on the one hand and the isle of home, with all its hunger and pain but also all its memories, on the other. Annie may have left Ireland long after the worst years of the potato famine, but Ireland was still suffering from the after-effects of that time of starvation and a later one in the 1870’s. It would be so interesting to know how she and her brothers survived during the four years after her parents left for America. I’m sure she had no choice about joining them. How did she really feel about it all? Eager or scared, Graham describes her in the poignant line “In her little bag she carried all her past and history.” The ties have been cut, and there’s no going back. Better to forge ahead, as the song says, because “there’s no future in the past.” Still, memories of the past always linger.
A couple of interesting facts about Ellis Island:
When the facility closed in 1954 (not 1943, as our song says), millions of immigrants had been processed there, so many that it’s estimated close to 40% of all US citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to an arrival there.
Immigrants had to pass a health screening test before they were allowed to proceed. One test was for trachoma, an eye disease, and doctors used a buttonhook to turn each immigrant’s eyelids inside out, “a procedure remembered by many Ellis Island arrivals as particularly painful and terrifying.” (from material provided by Judy Blake—thank you!) When we visited the island eight years ago the preservationists were working on the sick wards where immigrants who didn’t pass this and other health tests were quarantined until they were deemed fit to proceed—or sent back. Really heartbreaking stories! We were able to visit the small area that was open to tourists. By now they’ve probably been able to open up the rest. Again, as with the Tenement Museum, I would so encourage you to visit if you’re ever in the area. As an added bonus, you get to cross the harbor on the ferry and see the Statue of Liberty approaching. I’ll tell you, my feet just about left the deck as I watched that!
Well, I’d better draw this to a close as I’m approaching my self-imposed limit of 1,000 words. As I was wrapping up I did a quick search for any good YouTube videos of the song and boy, did I stumble onto a treasure! Brendan Graham himself sings the song and tells the story of how he wrote it and how famous it has become. I can’t imagine why only about 2,000 people have watched it—it’s great! So do your best to add to the total. (As a bonus, you’ll get to see a photo of Annie as an adult.) Here ‘tis: