Two Irish Girls Who Made It to New York

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Statue of Annie Moore and her brothers on the quayside in Cobh, Ireland

Statue of Annie Moore and her brothers on the quayside in Cobh, Ireland.
Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Two Irish Girls Who Made It to New York

By MAEVE HIGGINS DEC. 30, 2016 NY Times Sunday Review

In January 2014, a girl from Cobh, Ireland (formerly known as Queenstown) journeyed across the Atlantic, skipped rosy-cheeked off an airplane at John F. Kennedy International 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 1892, a girl 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 of her by the officials on the island. She was the first immigrant through the new processing center that opened its doors on Jan. 1 of that year.

I know she was rosy-cheeked, because this very paper 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 that left my hometown, but nothing about what happened next.

Cobh is an island in the mouth of Cork Harbor, the departure point for more than two million Irish people between 1845 and 1945. It was the last place the 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 death rate onboard 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 came here on an O-1 visa — I’m an alien of extraordinary ability. That ability is doing comedy and persuading friends who do voice-overs in cartoons to write letters to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, vouching for me. Annie was an unaccompanied minor without documents and she sailed right in. I think about her, and me, and the people who were simply born here, and the people who die trying to get here, and the people who have lived here since childhood, who are American in every way save paperwork, but without any path to citizenship. I mean, the sheer dumb luck involved in it all! I try to make sense of it in a podcast in which I interview a new person each week about their immigration story.

Annie Moore’s story was told to me by the genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, who is an expert in Annie’s journey. Annie lived her whole life in America just a couple of miles away from Ellis Island, on the Lower East Side. She lived with her parents and brothers before marrying a clerk in a bakery. They had some 10 children, but only five made it through to adulthood. Can you even imagine burying your children like that? No. I tuck that part away in the “she must have been different from us, with fewer feelings” folder, the delusional one full of current stories from far-off places, too sad to bear. Annie died at 50 years old. 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.

Not to boast, but I gained weight when I moved to New York, too. It was the citywide availability of soft serve that did it. On Thanksgiving, I went for a wander around Annie’s old neighborhood, and peeped into St. Mary’s, the local church founded by Irish immigrants, rebuilt after being burned down by anti-Catholic nativists in the 1830s. By the time Annie arrived, the Irish had a surer footing in the city’s political and social life. They were clannish, looking out for their own. 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.

What else has happened in the 125 years since Annie Moore arrived? Well, the ban on Chinese immigrants has been lifted, and a ban on Muslim immigrants threatened. Catholic churches are no longer being set alight by nativists, but synagogues and mosques are being vandalized by people on the same tip. A man whose own mother walked through the same Ellis Island doors as Annie campaigned for the presidency by slamming immigrants at every turn, and he won. We’re hearing echoes so loud they’ve become the sound of today.

I went home for the holidays. I still call Ireland home, but America is my home, too. I stood on the darkening quay side in Cobh on Christmas Eve, and looked at a statue of Annie there. She seems small and capable, her hands lightly resting on her little brothers’ shoulders, gazing back at a country she would never see again. An Irish naval ship had returned to the harbor earlier that week from its mission off the Mediterranean coast, a mission that has rescued 15,000 people from the sea since May 2015, though 2016 was still the deadliest one for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since World War II.

On my flight home to New York after Christmas, I imagined meeting Annie today. I’d make a pot of tea and tell her how her family turned out so far. She never made it out of the city, but her descendants are spread across the country — actors and doctors and financial consultants and stay-at-home parents, with Jewish and Latin and Asian blood mixed in with her own. Then I’d explain to her loudly and slowly how to rate and review my podcast on her smartphone or tablet.

Annie Moore never made a fortune, or wrote a book, or invented a computer, and why should she? Why should immigrants be deemed extraordinary to deserve a place at the table? She did enough. She was just one woman who lived a short life, a hard one. And she lives on today, not just in her descendants. She lives on in every girl arriving from a country shot through with rebellion and hunger, and in every immigrant that gives America her humanity.

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