Prior to 1845, Ireland was on the verge of disaster. Three quarters of the work force could not find jobs, and housing conditions were appalling. Impoverished land tenants were paid a minimal wage and lived in shacks. Beds and blankets were a luxury; potatoes and water their only nourishment. Add insult to injury: The Potato Famine. The Irish were starving. The potato blight receded in 1850, but the effects of the famine spurred Irish immigration into the 20th century. Still facing poverty and disease, the Irish set out for America by the thousands. On their shoulders they carried anxiety, fear, and hope. And they brought music…hauntingly beautiful ballads and hilariously happy tunes! One of the most poignant songs tells the story of young Annie Moore, the first immigrant to cross the threshold of Ellis Island. She had in tow her two younger brothers, and they were meeting their parents who had immigrated four years earlier.
“On the first day of January, 1892,
They opened Ellis Island and they
Let the people through.
And the first to cross the threshold
Of that Isle of hope and tears
Was Annie Moore of Ireland
Who was all of fifteen years.
In a little bag she carried
All her past and history,
And her dream for the future
In the land of liberty.
And courage is the passport
When your old world disappears
But there’s no future in the past
When you’re all of fifteen years.
Isle of hope, Isle of tears
Isle of freedom, Isle of fears.
But it’s not the Isle you left behind.
That Isle of hunger, Isle of pain,
Isle you’ll never see again,
But the Isle of home is always on your mind.”
(from Isle of Hope, Isle of Fear)
Many of our Georges Creek Valley miners carried memories, fears, and dreams in their knapsacks when they stepped onto the pier in New York City. Immigration was not a magical solution to their woes. They encountered prejudice and were labeled as uncivilized, unskilled hot-heads. Ads for employment were accompanied by signs that said “No Irish need apply.” Patrick Kenny found sanctuary and acceptance in the hills and dales of Western Maryland. Patrick came here with his family in the 1860s. Every morning, Patrick walked to work at the Ocean Mine, just as the mist was rising in the valley. The land reminded him a bit of Ireland, where fields, in 40 shades of green, were separated by low stone walls.
He saw the laughing brooks as they made their way to the Irish Sea. He heard the birds making music fit for angels, and imagined himself at home in County Wexford, Ireland. As the mist and his dreams dissipated, stern reality set in. Once again he faced the opening to the black pit before him. He entered, never to come out again. On May 4, 1893, Patrick was buried beneath a fall of coal. As he lay there waiting for rescue, his thoughts again returned to the Isle of home he’d never see again, and he whispered a prayer:
“And if there’s going to be a life hereafter,
And somehow I am sure there’s going to be;
I will ask my God to let me make my heaven,
In that dear land across the Irish Sea.”
(from Galway Bay)
Patrick was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Frostburg and a “Wild Irish Rose” was placed upon his grave. Our Irish ancestors never forgot their roots; they brought them here and planted them in their children and grandchildren, who passed them on to all of us, Irish or not. Today, no matter our race, creed or color, we’re all Irish. We’ll tell a tale or two about the leprechauns, maybe tilt a pint of Guinness, and of course, sing those wonderful Irish songs. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all. Erin Go Bragh!
Authored By: Polla Horn
How can you help?
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of the state Route 36 and the national Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor our Georges Creek Valley miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donantions can be mailed to the Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.Please email: Polla Horn or Bucky Schriver to share your thoughts and stories.