A little piece of home in NYC
Published 02/12/2012 | 06:00
A new radio documentary explains how Irish Famine emigrants left their mark in the US – in particular one Big Tim, says Ailin Quinlan
On a recent visit to New York, radio producer Yvonne Judge was intrigued by a little street right in the heart of the Big Apple.
Why, she wondered , was a road smack in the middle of Lower Manhattan named after a picturesque Kerry town?
Judge investigated the history of Kenmare Street, and unearthed a turbulent story with its roots in the Great Famine as well as a bizarre process of enforced emigration that saw large numbers of people leave Kerry forever.
Yet for many of these peasants, the harsh voyage to America and the struggle to survive in some of New York's worst tenements resulted in better lives than they could ever have imagined at home.
The story begins in 1849, when William Trench, agent to Lord Lansdowne, landlord of the Kenmare estate, took a census of his employer's sprawling plantation.
After assessing the decimation of the local population through disease and famine, and calculating the annual cost of keeping destitute widows and orphans in the local workhouse, Trench suggested that Lord Lansdowne would save money by providing famine survivors with free passage to the US or Canada.
"Trench figured that the amount of money it cost to provide for a person in the workhouse per year was more than a passage to the US – which, at the time, was around five pounds," says Judge.
The scheme proved to be immensely popular with the locals.
As to the real motivation behind the scheme, opinions are mixed. Some see it as an example of benevolent economics; others deem it to be little more than a form of ethnic cleansing.
Although free, the passage to America cost many their health; they endured squalid conditions on board.
The majority travelled in the freezing winter months – probably because the winter passage was cheaper – and survived primarily on "very basic seamen's rations", says Judge.
When they finally disembarked in New York, their ragged appearance and poor health prompted a number of articles in the ' New York Post'.
"To some, this could be perceived as a sort of coffin-ship passage. The Kenmare emigrants were starving, diseased and impoverished," Judge says.
Many of the emigrants settled in the Five Points slum, which features in the movie 'Gangs of New York'.
"This was the poorest and cheapest area of Manhattan and a notorious slum, to the point that Charles Dickens had written about it," says Judge.
The residents of Manhattan would regularly take sightseeing tours through the area to view for themselves the debauchery, drinking and gambling.
The influx of destitute immigrants was massive – Baxter Street, Orange Street and Worth Street, which today comprise parts of the neighbourhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy, were crammed.
The Kenmare Irish, however, quickly found their feet. They found employment in local tanneries and taverns, sold food on the street and went on to get respectable jobs as house cleaners.
Their descendants gradually climbed the social ladder through what became the fire and police departments.
Many were able to send home large amounts of money through the Emigrant Savings Bank.
A classic example of a poor boy making good was Tim Sullivan, known as Big Tim. The son of two Kenmare emigrants, it's believed he was born just as his parents arrived in New York.
By the time he was seven, Sullivan had a newspaper round, which he went on to develop into a wide-ranging distribution system.
Smart, charismatic and determined, Sullivan expanded his range of expertise to other forms of business, including taverns, saloons, theatres and eventually politics.
He is believed to have had connections with the criminal underworld of gambling and prostitution, yet at the same time became renowned for his benevolence. He never lost sight of his roots.
"He held Christmas balls for the Irish poor, where food was plentiful and free shoes were distributed, while at the same time making friends with all local ethnic groups," says Judge.
A prominent businessman and a man of great influence locally, Sullivan supported the bill obliging citizens to show their firearms or weaponry in public and he also campaigned for women's suffrage.
It was during his time on New York City Council that he became deeply involved in the construction of a new street to alleviate traffic congestion.
In 1912, he convinced the council to name this new street Kenmare Street, in honour of his mother.
However, the following August, Sullivan – then a married father with two children – was hit and killed by a train in upstate new York.
His body was, for some reason, not identified for two weeks.
It was eventually brought to the original St Patrick's Cathedral, just around the corner from Kenmare Street.
Some 20,000 mourners watched his funeral procession.
To this day, Sullivan's legacy lives on. Judge met with his great-great-grandnephew, Tyrone Sullivan, who has visited Kenmare, and his great-grandson Bob Wagner.
Wagner is a direct descendant of Big Tim's son – a child born to a New York actress and adopted by an American-Italian family who, ironically, lived only a short walk from Big Tim's offices.
The story goes, says Judge, that before being adopted, this boy was put into an orphanage, and every six months a substantial sum of money would arrive for his upkeep.
Sullivan's funeral brought another twist. "Records show that when Big Tim's funeral took place, one of the altar boys was that son," says Judge.
'Kenmare Street, the Documentary on One' is broadcast today on RTE Radio One at 6.05pm