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Readers Blog: America needs to remember its own story

It is ironic that, on the day the Irish Hunger Memorial, which faces the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, reopened, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, introduced legislation sponsored by two Republican senators, which will “... favour applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy.”

Something snapped in my Irish spine when I read that Republican senator, Tom Cotton (Arkansas), one of the bill’s creators, said that the current immigration system doesn’t attract “the very best talent” and gets mostly low or unskilled workers.

To repudiate that insult to my Waterford ancestors, I would like to tell the story of my first American relatives, whose experience resonates with that promised to immigrants “yearning to breathe free”. In a pest house in New York City, my great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Ellen Lyons, had their first glimpse of their new home, America. Forced to flee famine and oppression, they left Dungarvan in 1845.

Filled with hope and $1,500 sown in Jeremiah’s underwear, they made the crossing. But when Jeremiah caught cholera aboard ship, he was isolated from his wife and two young daughters, Bridget and Margaret. Upon arrival in New York, unknown to Ellen, Jeremiah was placed in a pest house, nursed by anonymous caretakers.

For three months, Ellen searched every shanty and shack in New York City, until, in the words of the story recited at every family reunion, one day a man replied: “Well, yes, but it just couldn’t be him, he was so old and bearded and thin.”

If she wished, she may come in and look. There were no records on the book. He seemed to be travelling alone. His memory was gone, and he was without name or home.

Thus, she found her Jerry, lying on a bed of straw. He raised his head and whispered: “Ellen.” The money had disappeared. What had happened to him in the intervening months was not established. After Ellen nursed Jerry back to health, they joined with Chinese labourers to build railroads from New York to Chicago.

Near that windy city, with a growing family — including my grandfather, Will — they became successful farmers and later moved to Iowa and, finally, Dakota Territory, where they spent the autumn of their lives with their pioneer sons and daughters.

Ellen and Jeremiah brought with them, and passed to their children, and their grandchildren, a passion for education and a strong commitment to the civic virtues of their new country.

They were the real radicals in America’s history. These people lived in their adopted land, not as victims, but as confident and contributing citizens, whose fulfillment was in helping to build this country.

When I reflect on their odyssey, I realise that the journey to my home began in a pest house in New York, where the kindness of strangers gave my first American relatives a taste of the goodness and greatness of its people.

To the president and the sponsors of this horrific bill, I urge them to go to the Irish Hunger Memorial, and pay their respects to the millions of immigrants, of all countries, who took entry-level jobs to build America.

As they walk among the field-stones, which are engraved with the names of all the counties of Ireland, they will see that in this patch of earth “is packed the memory of the calamity” and of opportunity in a new country. And when they emerge, the president and legislators can “gaze north and south at the canyons of capitalism, and marvel at the certainties of the rich”. (Simon Schama, New Yorker, 08-19-2002).

America is great, and will become greater when it acknowledges all those who made it so in the first place.

Robert F. Lyons


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