This is hardly surprising, given the fact that upward of 16 million immigrants passed the statue as they entered New York Harbor on their way to the inspection station at Ellis Island. Yet for the great majority of the millions of Irish who came to America, neither Lady Liberty nor Ellis Island played a role in their experience. The reason is simple enough: most Irish immigrants arrived before the statue (1886) and Ellis (1892) were built. The great symbol of Irish migration to America, and the one that opened in that summer of 1855, stands only a half mile away from these landmarks at the tip of Manhattan Island: Castle Garden.
Castle Garden’s Irish roots actually predate its years as an immigration depot. Originally built as a fort on the eve of the War of 1812, it was named Castle Clinton after New York’s Irish American Mayor DeWitt Clinton, whose grandfather Charles Clinton emigrated to America from County Longford. In the 1830s and ’40s, after Castle Clinton was converted to a public entertainment venue, it hosted gala receptions for Irish American Presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk when they arrived by ship for visits to New York. In 1852, famed Irish rebel and future Union Army General Thomas Francis Meagher arrived there to similar fanfare after his great escape from exile in Tasmania. By then, a large opera house called Castle Garden had been built atop the fort.
But the opera house’s days were numbered. Immigration from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia surged to record levels in the 1830s and ’40s, with 70 percent of them entering America through New York City. After years of pleading by city officials, the state assumed control of immigration in 1847, at the height of the Famine migration. By 1855, when it became clear that the proper registration of the huge numbers of new arrivals required a single building, Castle Garden was selected. The opera moved uptown theaters and workmen quickly converted the building into an immigrant receiving center.
Over the next 35 years, more than 8 million foreign arrivals were processed there, a total second only to its successor, Ellis Island. Of that number, nearly 2 million hailed from Ireland, making Castle Garden the Plymouth Rock of the Irish immigrant experience and a site referred to in countless Irish American poems, songs, and plays.
Despite laws preventing the landing of impoverished or diseased immigrants, the newcomers landing at Castle Garden faced few obstacles in their desire to enter America. They did, however, encounter all manner of perils as soon as they left the building, most especially in the form of con men and unscrupulous boarding house owners who preyed on the immigrants’ ignorance and fear. Sadly, these men often used their ethnicity to gain the confidence of the newly arrived.
Fr. John Maguire, an Irish priest traveling throughout America in 1860, provided a vivid example of Irish on Irish exploitation: “The moment he [the Irish immigrant] landed, his luggage was pounced upon by two runners, one seizing the box of tools, the other confiscating the clothes. The future American citizen assured his obliging friends that he was quite capable of carrying his own luggage; but no, they should relieve him — the stranger, and guest of the Republic — of that trouble. Each was in the interest of a different boarding-house, and each insisted that the young Irishman with the red head should go with him. . . . Not being able to oblige both gentlemen, he could oblige only one; and as the tools were more valuable than the clothes, he followed in the path of the gentleman who had secured that portion of the plunder. . . . The two gentlemen wore very pronounced green neckties, and spoke with a richness of accent that denoted special if not conscientious cultivation; and on his (the Irishman’s) arrival at the boarding-house, he was cheered with the announcement that its proprietor was from the ould counthry, and loved every sod of it, God bless it!”
Immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere also faced crooked money changers, railroad ticket sellers and employers who operated in a similar manner.
But Irish men and women also worked hard to protect immigrants. The Irish Emigrant Aid Society, for example, posted representatives at Castle Garden to assist immigrants in avoiding con men and finding good jobs, especially Irish women looking for work as domestic servants. In 1880, Irish-born Charlotte O?Brien opened Our Lady of the Rosary Mission to Irish Immigrant Women just across the street from Castle Garden. Between 1880 and 1930 it placed more than 30,000 Irish women in domestic service jobs.
Castle Garden’s days as an immigrant depot ended in 1890. By the late 19th century, continued increases in annual immigration and growing fears of the newcomers, now hailing principally from Italy and the Russian empire, prompted Congress to take control of immigration and enact tough new criteria for admission that excluded the destitute, the criminal, the radical, and those afflicted with incurable diseases. To enforce these new measures, Congress authorized construction of a new federally wrun immigration depot at Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1924 some 16 million immigrants would pass through the facility, including 525,000 from Ireland, less than one-third the number processed at Castle Garden.
Soon after it closed in 1890, Castle Garden was transformed yet again — this time into the city’s most popular attraction: the New York City Aquarium. By the early 1940s, however, the Castle’s remarkable history seemed to be at an end as the city announced plans to demolish it to make way for a massive bridge. But a group led by none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt successfully blocked the plan, thus granting the Castle still another distinction as the first major victory for the city’s nascent historic preservation movement. Since then it has reverted to its original name and serves as a ticketing center for ferries running to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Happily, a major renovation is planned for the site to transform it into a full-blown visitor center, performance space and museum.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Aug. 2, 1943: The Japanese destroyer Amigiri rams and sinks PT 109. Despite a back injury that would plague him for the rest of his life, Lt. John F. Kennedy, with 10 crewmen, survives the ordeal. Cliff Robertson would later star as JFK in the 1963 film “PT 109.”
Aug. 3, 1916: Convicted of treason for his role in plotting the Easter Rising, Roger Casement is hanged.
Aug. 2, 1924: Emmy Award-winning actor Carroll O’Connor is born in New York City.
Aug. 3, 1823: Irish revolutionary, Union Army general and governor of the Montana Territory Thomas Francis Meagher is born in Waterford.