Each ferry docks for twenty-five minutes at Ellis Island, and the trip to Battery Park takes about ten minutes. Passengers flock to the upper deck to individually take phone pics of the Statue of Liberty. If you are not selfie-photogenic, there are multiple gift shops with that exact same picture, sans people.
As the ferry rocked to and fro and phone pic people collided, various languages could be recognized, and some could not. Polish, Portuguese, Castellan Spanish, South American Spanish, French, Mandarin and Indonesian (I think). Obviously, I do not have the names of those I did not recognize, but one could have been Armenian and another Yoruba.
The Polish fellows sometimes do not need to even speak. The uniform gives them away; Capri pants, or capri jeans, Puma sneakers, t-shirt with abnormally short sleeves for a short sleeve shirt and a fanny pack over their shoulders. You can just begin talking about Lech Walesa.
Once you enter the museum, you enter the Baggage Room, where all immigrants waited to begin the process. The Journey’s: New Eras of Immigration, 1945-Present has a poster by the Cleveland Americanization Committee entitled “Cleveland: Many peoples, one language.” That was not the case for the ferry, not to mention the poster was in six different languages.
It was 1875 when the first federal laws were enacted for immigration, not allowing Chinese contract laborers, convicts and prostitutes to enter the country. The federal government took control of immigration in 1890 and ordered the construction of an immigration center on Ellis Island.
President Benjamin Harrison made the decision to locate the center near the Statue of Liberty, which is why he is held in high regard by Polish tourists to this day. This is how the vast majority of immigrants from the Atlantic world entered America.
My people arrived at Ellis Island in 1903, on the Celtic. That was the year anarchists were added to the exclusion list, mere coincidence. It would have taken them roughly two weeks to cross the Atlantic.
It took the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria two months, and they named a day after that guy. In 1840 it would have taken six weeks from Irish ports to Canada and five weeks from Liverpool to New York. The advances in shipbuilding allowed for more passengers and less travel time. Compound steam engines, iron hulls and screw propulsion improved the trip. Steamships would eventually cut the 3,000 nautical mile trip to two weeks and increase passengers from 200 to 2,000.
The first regular commercial flights across the Atlantic were in the 1950s. The 1960s witnessed transatlantic flights gain supremacy over ships for travel over the Atlantic. Trips were now a matter of hours and not days.
Transatlantic liner services were defunct, and those ships that withstood that transition became the initial cruise ships. Today, passenger vessels can make the voyage in five days.
The Atlantic Voyage
Even with improved technology and faster ships, the Atlantic voyage still was not an easy one. Unlike the larger Pacific Ocean, from the Latin pacificus meaning tranquil, the Atlantic was rough. In Greek mythology, Atlas is a Titan condemned to hold the heavens aloft and he fought Zeus. The Atlantic Ocean, or “Sea of Atlas,” is first mentioned in The Histories of Herodotus in 450 BCE. Europeans gain a better understanding of the ocean from the travels of Ferdinand Magellan (1519-1522) and Francis Drake (1577-1580).
Ellis Island processed over twelve million immigrants from its opening in 1892 to its closing in 1954. It was closed before Jim Neary would immigrate from Ireland, not a mere coincidence.
The Great Depression and World War II decreased immigration and America’s foreign-born population decreased from almost twelve percent to seven percent, some four million people.
Those international and national events altered the demographics of America and of Cleveland. The Census data for Cleveland illustrates those socio-political phenomena.
Every tourist at the Museum is well aware of the Cleveland effect and the Irish too. It was me Ma who wanted to visit Ellis Island. I prefer to get into the neighborhoods and interact with New Yorkers.
Ya Ma is Ya Ma, so you go to Ellis Island and say, “thank you,” in a positive tone every time she yells like she has on headphones: “Did you see the Cleveland poster?” or “This one is for the Irish.”
An immature son would have shared that he had already viewed all the exhibits and saw all the Cleveland and Irish displays. A mature son knows that will not stop her sharing what she discovered, discovered in the same sense as that guy who got a day named after him.
All the visitors, regardless of tongue and national origin, knew she was Irish and from Cleveland. It was so impressive to maneuver the museum in the presence of all the visitors. Me Ma was not the only tourist displaying pride and a connection to history. This was not a Times Square experience or merely a photo opportunity.
The computers were full of families searching the archives and taking photos of the displays. These visitors were from all over the world ,and they expressed in their actions that this is a country of immigrants.
Cleveland’s First Church
To focus on the Irish in Cleveland has the potential to limit your scope of knowledge. That visit reaffirmed that the Irish did not live in a vacuum. One display has a picture from 1903 of the laborers who built Trinity Cathedral. The parish’s first church building was consecrated in 1829 on the corner of St. Clair and Seneca Street (West 3rd). It was the first church in the limits of the village of Cleveland.
If Aunt Irene knew I was writing about Episcopalians, I would have to defend myself; a mature nephew knows about her right hook. The laborers in the photo looked like they could defend themselves. If one looks at them like the Polish tourists, it is clear in their haberdashery that various cultures are present.
That would be supported by phenotypic generalizations. It is a picture of the diversity that was, and is, Cleveland.
Last article the discussion was on increasing the connectivity of the today to the yesterday. Our excursion to the island the Mohegan’s, called “Kioshk,” and early New Yorkers called it, “little oyster island,” was just that. It was an inspiring moment to be surrounded by active visitors from other cultures.
Then it was time for Dorlan’s Tavern and Oyster Bar. As we entered, I yelled like I had on headphones, “Hey Ma, they got Guinness.”
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is the Executive Director of Bluestone Hibernian Charities and proprietor of McGarry Consulting. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.