The First Word: Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
December / January 2008

My god, what they went through to get here.  Whenever I forget the lot of early Irish immigrants to America, something pulls me back. As I write this, I have open in front of me a book called Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America’s Immigrant Hospital by Lorie Conway. (Smithsonian Books). Lorie’s book is dedicated to her son Max “whose great-grandfather Edward Conway immigrated to American in 1900 at the age of 18. Arriving at Ellis Island from Ballina, Ireland, he had two dollars in his pocket.”

Opposite the dedication is a full page photo of the nurses and doctors who staffed the Ellis Island Hospital – many Irish faces among them. Another photo shows a young patient on the steps of the hospital with nurse Jennie Colligan, who went by the nickname “Mother.”  I’m only on page 40 of this 200-page book when the tears come. “I think the worst memory I have of Ellis Island was the physical because the doctors were seated at a long table with a basin full of potassium chloride and you had to stand in front of them….And you had to reveal yourself…. Right there in front of everyone, I mean, it wasn’t private! It’s a very unpleasant memory,” remembers one Irish immigrant. “We went to this big, open room, and there were a couple of doctors there, and they tell you, ‘Strip.’ And my mother had never, ever undressed in front of us. In those days nobody would. She was so embarrassed…”  recalls an immigrant from Wales. Page 37 shows a photograph of a dozen young men with a chalk mark X on their coats identifying them for further medical and mental testing. The X usually signaled the beginning of deportation proceedings.

The book has many never-before-published photographs and stories from patients and medical staff. We learn that “Often times a child with tracoma would be denied entry, requiring one of the parents to [return home] with it. The mother and the rest of the children would have to return to Europe with the diseased one, and until the boat sailed, the father, wretched and unhappy, would haunt the detention quarters, while his family kept up a constant wailing and crying.”

Since burial was not permitted on Ellis Island, many immigrants who never made it out of the hospital were buried in paupers’ graves in cemeteries around New York City. As one record noted: “Received from the chief Medical Officer, the following property of Edward Moran, age 55 years, admitted to the hospital, Feb. 14, 1928 and died in this institution Feb. 18, 1928: 1 hat, 1 pair shoes, 1 gray suit, 1 white shirt, 1 pair socks, 1 pair garters, 1 union suit, 1 belt, 1 overcoat, 1 pair gloves, 1 watch, keys, rosary beads, $23.15.”

As tough as it was there was also  much kindness. Rev. Grogan, Catholic chaplain at Ellis Island 1900-1923, wrote: “I have been in daily contact with the doctors and nurses and can testify to the kindness and care that the patients receive at their hands. It is not generally known that the hospital physicians and surgeons often call in specialists from the city in doubtful and obstinate cases.”

Reluctantly, I put the book aside and get back to the business of editing the Business 100 bios and profiles. They are an impressive bunch, and as usual when I work on our Top 100 list I’m struck by the incredible success these descendants of Irish immigrants have achieved. Some have ancestors who went through Ellis Island, others come from families who migrated even earlier, landing in Boston Harbor and New Orleans. And a couple of our honorees are latter-day immigrants who left Ireland in the last 10 to 20 years before the Celtic Tiger economy took hold. I’m especially struck by the story of Sean Conlon, an Irish immigrant who at 20 started life in the U.S. working for a cousin who felt he would make a great janitor. At 38, Conlon is now one of the biggest property developers in Chicago.By holding on to the ideal that “you could be anything you wanted to be in America,” Conlon achieved his American dream, as did that immigrant of the last century, Edward Conway, who by 1915, at age 33, owned a home for his family. And so we dedicate this issue to a country where dreams can still come true. And as we pay tribute to those on our Business 100 list we put forth the hope that today’s immigrants, Irish and otherwise, who languish on the sidelines waiting for proper documentation, will eventually get through the process and have a shot at keeping the American dream alive.

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