On the 1st day of January, 1892
they opened Ellis Island
and they let the people through

~  Brendan Graham, Isle of Hope Isle of Tears

These are the opening lyrics to an all-time favourite song of mine which has been performed by many, usually Irish, entertainers including Celtic Woman, the Three Tenors and Tommy Fleming.  It is a magical song conjuring images of the incredible history of this small island in the mouth of the Hudson River south-west of Manhattan Island, just near the Statue of Liberty.  According to the song, between 1892 and 1943, 17 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island Immigration Centre.  The buildings on Ellis Island have been converted into a museum informing over 3 million visitors each year about the mass migration into the USA through this single port during the decades it was operational.  It is a history rich with stories, the most famous of which is that of Annie Moore, a 15yo Irish girl recorded as the first immigrant to enter through the Ellis Island Immigration Centre on the day it opened, and who Brendan Graham’s lyrics are about.

On my last visit to New York a few years ago, I visited Ellis Island and also the notorious Tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where millions of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Russian and other immigrants found themselves surviving in destitution after passing through Ellis Island.  I was unaware as I wandered through the Great Hall and other rooms at the Ellis Island museum, that my mother’s maternal grandmother passed through here as an Irish immigrant in the late 19th century.  Even without this family connection, Ellis Island was a compelling place to visit.

Reading the placards throughout the Museum was evocative of the way many Australians consider refugees and immigrants in this day and age.  Fears exist to this day about such things as:

  • infectious diseases (Tuberculosis and Trachoma rate special mentions on Ellis Island – Tuberculosis has never really left the communal consciousness where immigrants are concerned);
  • jobs being taken from the local workforce;
  • public safety concerns, most recently related to Islamic terrorism but the first act of terrorism in New York that I can find online, was a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon on Wall St in 1920.  The culprits were never identified but were believed to have been Italian anarchists.  This is only the first terrorist act connected to the word “terror” and it’s likely that many previous acts of violence occurred in New York over previous centuries which today would be defined as “terrorism”;
  • political security;
  • and of course the age-old race issue.  In the days of Ellis Island Immigration Center, southern Europeans were considered to be inferior to the Northern and Western Europeans.  Chinese and Irish were particularly inferior.  There was a Chinese Exclusion Act whereby immigration of Chinese nationals was prohibited for many decades, and extended to include people from the Asian sub-continent as a whole.  It was not uncommon for rental advertisements to read “No dogs.  No Irish”.

I feel a part of this history, perhaps because of my Irish-English ancestry?  Which may also have something to do with the connection I feel to New York, where Anglo-Celtic culture flows through the streets aside the many other cultures blending together in this melting pot of alluring diversity.

I was born in Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory and despite my Anglo-Celtic background have always felt an affinity with Australian indigenous people, perhaps because, as indigenous activist, character and watercolourist Wenten Rubuntja once told me, I’m a “Yeperenye Baby” (ie, born to the Yeperenye Ranges of Alice Springs).  Another place and people I am connected with, is New Zealand, where I have spent the past month visiting friends and family and enjoying the dramatic land and seascapes through the North and South Islands.  In the past few weeks Mum and I have travelled through neverending farmland where sheep and cattle graze, hills and valleys heavy with native flora, past blue lakes, emerald rivers, coastal bays, snow-topped mountains, bubbling pools of mud and cliffs tumbling down into yacht-filled marinas.  Where once my eyes which grew up on this land saw nothing but the ordinary, now they feast on a staggering beauty which I can’t believe I ever took for granted.

I’m now in Rotorua, in the centre of the North Island, a tourism destination thanks to many lakes dotted through the region, threaded together by rivers in an area of geothermal activity causing mud to boil and underground water to billow into the sky at regular intervals at some of the world’s most famous geysers.  Maori culture thrives here and there are many cultural shows tourists can attend to learn more about the civilisation that populated New Zealand until European arrival in the 1800s.  Some of these arrivals were my own Irish forebears who traveled here to escape the Potato Famine and develop farms on the coastal foothills in Marlborough.  In my adolescence I lived in a rural village, where I spent most of my time with Maori teenagers, leading each other astray in all manner of youthful mischief.

At the end of my adolescence I moved to London and spent the following six years becoming acquainted with the English and their ways.  In jest, my English friends believed I was a colonial hillbilly who needed to be enculturated and in many ways they were correct.  But I have my own culture, as we all do.  Mine is an integration of all of these aspects to my family and personal history.  The reason we connect strongly with certain people and issues has to have a cultural foundation, infiltrating genetic predispositions and other innate qualities to form our unique characters and perceptions of the world.

Last night in Rotorua we went to the cinema and I felt a really strong connection from the opening scene until the credit roll, with the film Jimmy’s Hall.  The bright green Irish moors on an icey winter’s day captivated me immediately and it only got better.  Without recognising a single cast member, I enjoyed their portrayal of a poor Catholic community in the Irish border region of the 1930s.  Based on a true story about Jimmy Gralton, the film depicts a historical Ireland where poor farmers lived and worked on land owned by wealthy absentee landlords, where the Real IRA held community influence parallel to priests and communities struggled through an economy flattened by the Great Depression.

Gralton spent ten years living and working in New York before returning home to his mother’s old stone cottage in rural Ireland.  He almost immediately fostered his reputation as a rabble-rouser by opening a community hall where education outside the confines of the church’s control prospered within the district.  Lay teachers held art, music and dance lessons.  Community meetings and dances took place.  This upset the church and other authorities, dividing the community and making Gralton a target of clandestine intimidation and of the authorities.  He was an open Communist and eventually the Irish government of the time had him extradited to America without trial.

So here in New Zealand on a cold, early summer’s night, I learned a piece of history from across the opposite side of the planet and felt like it was partly “my” story.  Because it is!  This, days before I make my way to New York for Christmas, where I will be staying with a friend in SoHo, in Lower Manhattan.  Her apartment on a cobblestone street in a historic building sits 1.2km from the Tenement Museum on the Lower Eastside.  But the Tenement Museum informs us of lives which existed infinite worlds apart from my imminent SoHo experience, in both time and circumstance.  The dark, crowded, impoverished lives of the Tenements of 1800s New York resembled in some ways, today’s Cambodia, although there are obviously also many contrasts.   An example which comes to my TB-drenched mind is the way that infectious diseases affect(ed) the lives of both populations.  In particular Tuberculosis, which occurs in today’s Cambodia at a rate very similar to the rate of TB which occurred in New York’s tenements in the 1800s to early 1900s.  When laws related to living standards were implemented, public health improved and rates of infectious diseases began to plummet.

The history of Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases in New York is particularly intriguing so I’ll probably blog about it sometime over the next month.  My dream of living in Manhattan <faking it> as a writer is about to come true.  I may have to start a whole new bucket list!  Meanwhile, the point of this post is to highlight my belief that our cultural roots, which help define us, cannot be represented by a single time, place, event or characteristic, but are multi-dimensional and interconnected fragments, woven together in often unexpected ways.

2 thoughts on “Roots

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