The Story We Don’t Talk About:
On Irishness, Immigration, and Race

"Being White Can Make a Whole Community Forget Who They Are and Where They Came From"

By  Maeve Higgins

In January of 2014, a girl who had left from Cobh in Ireland (formerly known as Queenstown) journeyed across the Atlantic, and skipped rosy-cheeked off an airplane at John F. Kennedy Airport to start her new life. That was me, compensating for my indoor ghost face with too much blush in a shade aspirationally entitled “orgasm.” In January of 1892, a girl who had left from Queenstown (now known as Cobh) skipped rosy-cheeked off a boat at Ellis Island to start her new life. That was Annie Moore, flushed with embarrassment at the unexpected fuss being made over her by the officials on the island. She was the first immigrant through the new processing center that opened its doors on January 1 of that year.

I know she was rosy-cheeked, because The New York Times said so, back in the day. I’m only guessing as to the reason. Maybe she wasn’t mortified by the attention and the redness was simply caused by the icy wind whipping through the harbor. Maybe she just lit up with the anticipation of seeing her parents for the first time in years and the relief of no longer being her little brothers’ sole guardian, as she had been on their voyage. I have no idea. I grew up knowing all about the people who left my hometown, but nothing about what happened next. I come from Cobh, an island in the mouth of Cork Harbor, the departure point for more than two million Irish people between 1845 and 1945, the last place Titanic stopped before it—well, I don’t want to ruin the movie. While other children went to amusement parks, our school trips were to replicas of coffin ships, so named because of the high death rate as they transported people to America during the Irish famine. My classmates and I filed into the wooden bowels of a ship to listen to audio of people groaning, and look at wax figures leaning over buckets. So, you see, this whole leaving thing, it’s in me.

I first came to America on a P-3 visa, an “Artist or Entertainer Coming to Be Part of a Culturally Unique Program.” The Culturally Unique Program I was invited to was the Kansas City Irish Fest. Kansas City is exactly bang in the middle of America and it’s not even in Kansas, it’s in Missouri. That’s one of my go-to facts to tell guys I’m trying to impress. It never works. Often, they already know. More often, they don’t find it interesting and are confused as to why I told them.

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“I come from Cobh, an island in the mouth of Cork Harbor, the departure point for more than two million Irish people between 1845 and 1945.”

The festival was a mishmash of Americana and Irishness and Irish-Americanness. With signs on the walls stating guns were not allowed inside the festival grounds, haggis from Scotland for sale at the food trucks, and Appalachian bands fiddling wildly on the big stage, I couldn’t fully get a grip on where I fit in. I woke up, jet-lagged, to a thunderous sound coming from the hotel corridors. Unclear about what I was hearing, I blearily poked my head out and watched, amazed, as young American girls in elaborate dresses and huge wigs pounded the carpet in socked feet, practicing for their Irish dance performances later in the day.

The sun beat down outside, and the water in the fountains in the square was dyed green. You know, like the green water that runs throughout Ireland. Extraordinarily friendly residents, volunteering their time at this huge event, told me about their visits back to Ireland, and explained how Irish they were, and how important this festival was to them and their children. These children, red-haired and grinning, were also Irish? Yes, just one more generation removed, making it five generations ago that the family moved there from Leitrim, a stony little county in the Irish midwest with a population that is currently less than a fifth of what it was before the famine, a place that, today, has more sheep than people.

Annie Moore was on my mind during my first few days in the U.S. Her story was told to me by the genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. The reason she has two last names is that she took her husband’s name. He too was a Smolenyak, but no relation. Anyway, Megan had figured out a key mystery in the Annie Moore story. For almost 50 years, another Annie Moore was thought to be our girl Annie, the first immigrant through Ellis Island. This other Annie Moore had actually been born in Indiana, and moved to Texas, where she married a man descended from the Irish patriot/heartthrob Daniel O’Connell, the man who had spearheaded Catholic emancipation back in colonized Ireland and was very handsome, in a James Gandolfini kind of way.

That Annie Moore and her star-dusted husband owned a hotel in New Mexico and all was well, until he died and a few years later, on a trip back to Texas, Annie was hit by a streetcar and died too. It was that Annie Moore’s story that caught on, probably because it’s such a classic American tale, full of dreams and going west and social mobility. She was held up as a brave little immigrant, who worked hard, snatched herself a good life, and died in an appropriately dramatic fashion. Her descendants were honored in a ceremony at Ellis Island before Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak discovered that she was, in fact, the wrong Annie.

“I didn’t know what they thought they were missing. In America, they had Michael Jackson and pizza and money, so much money!”

The right Annie, the 17-year-old who left from Cobh, never went west. She lived her whole life in America just a couple of miles away from Ellis Island, on the Lower East Side. The tenement home she arrived to on her first trip, her entire family sharing a couple of rooms in a noisy, overcrowded building, was the complete opposite of what I experienced, alone in my oversized hotel bed ordering room service, with plump white pillows and soft woolen blankets to cozy up in as the air-conditioning chilled the huge room around me.

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In Kansas City, surrounded by Irish-Americans, I felt like I had met them before, but where? Because of my hometown’s history of emigration, every summer the promenade and cafés would fill up with American tourists, arriving by liner into the harbor or by the busload from Cork city. They were usually elderly, and as children we regarded them with a fond sort of mockery. Occasionally they would ask for photos with us, particularly of my freckled friends. They bought soda bread and Aran sweaters, anything that was for sale, really. We joked that you could sell them stones, if you convinced them that the stones were Irish enough. Some American tourists would break away from their guided tours and go driving around the island. They sometimes came knocking on our door, asking to look inside the house, thinking it was a replica of where their ancestors may have lived. Perhaps they were right: we lived in a pretty, old farmhouse, with a half door wreathed in honeysuckle, that would have looked the same one hundred years before. My mother was polite to them, but didn’t usually let them in, saying to us at dinner that “those poor Yanks were demented.”

The thought that, generations later, their descendants might return to the harbor town they had departed from would surely have amazed Annie and the millions who left with her. People only ever left, and perhaps it was a shadow of that amazement that darkened our feelings toward these perfectly lovely Americans. As a child I certainly couldn’t fathom why they would bother to visit a boring seaside town in a tiny nation, sitting on hot buses for hours as they wound their way around the countryside, taking photos of some plain old fields full of cows. America was so cool! Their ancestors had left Ireland for a reason, and now they were reaping the rewards. I didn’t know what they thought they were missing. In America, they had Michael Jackson and pizza and money, so much money! Not like Ireland, where the only music we made sounded like sad mermaids singing and I had to share a pork chop with my sister and nobody had any money.

As an adult, when I witnessed this little city in the middle of America drop everything for two days and piece together a version of an Ireland that doesn’t exist anymore, I suddenly understood the impulse. I felt sorry then for not being kinder to the visiting Americans, for sighing on the inside when someone told me in a loud American accent they were Irish too. In Kansas City, I began to empathize with those “poor demented Yanks” a lot more. Whoever it was of theirs that left Ireland all those years ago took with them a snapshot of the country, its people, and its culture. The details on that picture faded throughout the years, and it could never update itself to show the changes in the country it portrayed. That picture’s opaque story was all they had to go on, except perhaps some Aran sweaters and soda bread handed to them by bemused Irish people a century on down the road.

The place where their ancestors landed was at best a blank slate; at worst, an active genocide site. In their new country, America, they did not have a culture stretching back hundreds of years. There was no set of memories to explain who they were and how they got to be that way; no music, no stories, no jokes, except those that came with them across the Atlantic. Of course they clung to the trappings of a culture they’d left behind, and who am I to begrudge them a bit of corned beef, a stick of salty Irish butter? That’s probably just the kind of thing Annie would have felt homesick for. Family lore says her coffin was too wide to fit down the narrow stairs of her tenement house, and had to be hoisted out the window.

It’s easy not to think about these questions of Irishness and Irish-Americanness, until something big comes along that forces you to. The first year I lived here, I covered the Saint Patrick’s Day parade for The Irish Times. Not the big parade, not the one where thousands march and millions watch, the biggest annual parade in the city and the only one that uniformed firefighters and police are allowed to participate in. Not the one that banned gay people from marching under their own banner up until 2015. Not the Fifth Avenue parade, the one that shuts midtown down and marches past visiting dignitaries who sit in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, led by ranks of white men in black suits and sashes.

Instead I went to Queens, to see about their Saint Patrick’s Day parade. A couple of weeks before the event I went to see how preparations were going, and found myself in a small kitchen two blocks away from the last stop on the Q train—it smelled like caramel and clean laundry. I sat chatting with the owner, Tom Moulton, a full-time pediatric hematologist oncologist and part-time baker. He was making soda bread, scones, ginger snaps, and oatmeal cookies. That old soda bread again, I thought, what would we do without it? Everything he made was for a bake sale to raise funds for St. Pat’s for All—a parade founded by Tom’s husband, Brendan Fay, then in its 15th year. The title explains it: it’s a parade for everyone, for anyone who wants to join in.

“It’s easy not to think about these questions of Irishness and Irish-Americanness, until something big comes along that forces you to.”

Every Saturday morning in the months leading up to the parade, Fay and his committee meet in Molly Blooms, an Irish bar in Sunnyside, to organize portable toilets and pipe bands. They even send a truck to Brooklyn to collect puppets from a warehouse there. The puppets are free to use because they have been retired or rejected by theaters, so the committee takes them and distributes them to neighborhood kids who’ve come along to watch the parade and suddenly find themselves a part of it. I mean, rescue puppets? It’s almost too adorable to be true.

It is true, and there are more than 2,000 witnesses each year, the people lining the route from Sunnyside to Woodside. St. Pat’s for All was founded many acrimonious years after the 1992 ban on gay people marching under a banner at the Fifth Avenue parade. This ban seemed off to me, for many reasons. The first is the fact that parades are the gayest way to travel and should therefore never exclude gay people. And also, it showed how out of step the Irish-Americans behind the parade were with the country they claimed to represent. While they clung to their “traditional values” and fought to exclude gay people from their parade right up through the courts, Ireland itself moved on. In 2015, Ireland voted by a huge majority to legalize same-sex marriage, becoming the first country in the world to do so by popular vote. The big parade, the one that goes up Fifth Avenue, seems solemn and self-important and symbolizes to me the difference between the idea of Irishness and the reality of Irishness. We’re straight, we’re white, and the men know best! versus We’re all different and that’s fine, but we agree on one thing—we’re not English.

Last Thanksgiving, I went for a wander around Annie’s old neighborhood, and peeked into St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, the one that had been rebuilt after it had been burned down by anti-Catholic nativists in the 1830s. It was self-defense against this kind of violence and bigotry that led to the Ancient Order of Hibernians forming in the first place, and so I see that it started off out of necessity, and with valor. I had this romantic idea that when the Irish first started coming in droves to America, fleeing oppression and famine, they would surely feel an affinity with the people being oppressed in their new country. That’s not the way it panned out. By the time Annie arrived, the Irish had a much surer footing in the city’s political and social life than the generations before her. They were clannish, looking out for their own; perhaps they had to be.

I have mixed feelings about this. I’m glad that they made it, but sorry they often stood on the backs of other marginalized communities to do so. Annie and her family did not have an easy life here, living as they did in the tenements. But at least they had a network, hard won by the immigrants who came before them, people who looked out for each other and made their new life a little easier. The favor of hospitality extended to her is not extended to everyone, even today. It’s troubling to see how privilege accumulates over generations, particularly white privilege in the U.S., and, when people reach a certain level of safety, to see how they pull the ladder up after themselves.

The difference between the Irish in Ireland and the Irish in America has always existed. I love reading accounts of the time the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845. He spent four months traveling around the country and was a huge hit, appearing to a crowd of over 1,000 people in Dublin one day alongside the aforementioned emancipator/dreamboat Daniel O’Connell. The men were kindred spirits with a lot in common: both determined to resist their oppressors, both renowned orators, and both leaders in the worldwide fight for social justice.

O’Connell went as far as calling Douglass “the Black O’Connell,” a nickname that must invoke a healthy dose of side-eye in us all. First of all, Irish Catholics suffered hugely under the English, but their situation was not on par with slavery. In a fascinating paper by Lee Jenkins titled “Beyond the Pale: Frederick Douglass in Cork” published in The Irish Review, the writer notes the following. “The Belfast Banner of Ulster, 9 December 1845, reports Douglass’s feeling that Irish people did not always ‘sufficiently distinguish between certain forms of oppression and slavery.” The Cork Examiner reports Douglass’s insistence that “I stand before you . . . a slave. A slave not in the ordinary sense of the term, but in its real and intrinsic meaning.'” That truth, and the clarity with which it was spoken, are important to hold onto today too, as the American alt-right continues to cultivate the lie of white slavery.

Secondly, on the whole “Douglass is the Black O’Connell” thing, imagine deciding that someone is so wonderful that you simply must bestow upon them your highest honor: reducing them to one facet of their identity and comparing them to yourself. Try it! I did, and Jake Gyllenhaal, aka “the Male Higgins,” was thrilled and flattered.

Maeve Higgins
Maeve Higgins
Maeve Higgins is a contributing writer for The New York Times and the host of the hit podcast Maeve in America: Immigration IRL. She is a comedian who has performed all over the world, including in her native Ireland, Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Erbil. Now based in New York, she cohosts Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, both the podcast and the TV show on National Geographic, and has also appeared on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and on WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens.





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