Category: Archive

8 decades later, Mary Durkin Keane makes a return trip to Ellis Island

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

New York Harbor was choppy as the ship heaved toward Ellis Island, but the sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky. Mary Ellen Durkin Keane, a native of Charlestown, Co. Mayo, was bearing down on the grim, daunting immigration halls — on this, only her second visit.

This time, the boat trip took only a few minutes, compared with the 10-day voyage on the SS Cedric that she had taken in 1921. Then, as an 18-year-old, she looked toward what would be her new home, the USA, with mixed emotions. Last Thursday, on her second trip to Ellis Island, she could afford herself some reflection and a chance to crack a joke or two about her long life in her adopted land.

Keane’s visit last week took place on July 11, one day before her 100th birthday. As she arrived in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, she was quick to remind her many family and friends who accompanied her that while July 12 would be a momentous anniversary for her, “today I’m still only 99.”

Keane’s family, particularly her granddaughter Lynne Keane Fitzgerald, had organized her trip back to Ellis Island, when they realized what significance her 100th birthday held, and also having heard her many memories after 81 years in the new world.

Keane agreed to make the trip, accompanied by her son Chris and members of her large family.

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“I presented the idea to her and she was all gung-ho,” Fitzgerald said of her grandmother, who spent most of her life in Pennsylvania and now lives in Connecticut.

As Mary Keane cast her mind back over a long and happy life that started with the journey from Mayo to Liverpool, where she boarded the Cedric, she also wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion, which she decided to give to the museum on Ellis Island.

And she agreed to be interviewed by the museum’s oral historian, Janet Levine. Ellis Island maintains a recorded history of immigration, comprising the spoken memories of thousands of immigrants, a project that was started in 1972. While waiting for Keane to arrive, Levine described how she conducted the interviews.

“I start out with life in the old country,” said Levine, who has conducted hundreds of such interviews, which give a portrait of what the Ellis Island experience was like for the 12 million immigrants who passed through its doors.

“The decision to leave, the journey itself, create strong memories,” Levine continued. “I notice that the Irish are always very good storytellers. I just let them speak and organize the interview as it goes along.”

All immigrants who came through Ellis Island, Levine added, are encouraged to come back to Ellis Island and record an interview for posterity. The island closed its doors to immigrants in 1954, after which it fell into disrepair, before being resurrected as a museum in the ’90s.

Facilities on Ellis Island make it much more than a record of the immigrant experience. The American Family Immigration History Center is a fully computerized laboratory where families may come to trace their ancestors’ passage through Ellis Island, using the extensive records such as ship manifests.

During her visit last Thursday, Mary Ellen Keane received a copy of the original Cedric manifest with her name on it. She recalled the journey vividly.

With a friend, she ventured up on deck during the voyage, where a deckhand playfully squirted them with water from a hose. The incident so shocked the two, who had never seen a water hose before, that they stayed below deck for most of the 10 day trip.

As her son Chris Keane helped her toward the recording studio for her interview, her sense of humor flashed again.

“You’re going down in history, Mom,” her son said.

“Indeed I am not,” she replied, laughing.

Once in the studio, Janet Levine welcomed her and began the interview.

“My birthdate is July 12, 1902,” Keane said. Then she added emphatically, “and today I’m still only 99.”

Her tough early life in Mayo was recalled. Keane had grown up with five brothers and five sisters, and remembered her school as well as working on the farm, helping to sow potatoes.

“We didn’t have much time for fun,” she said. “In the summertime, we used to have dances on the corners of the streets.”

When the decision was made that Mary would leave Ireland, a letter was written to her aunt in Philadelphia to alert her to her niece’s arrival on the Cedric. The letter never reached her aunt, and she remembered arriving and surviving Ellis Island, and then spending two nerve-wracking days before she was able to track down her aunt.

“She didn’t get the mail that I was coming, and I had to spend two days in a girls’ home,” Keane said. “I was a real greenhorn. We never left the farm in Mayo except to go to church.

“When we sailed into New York harbor, I had no idea what the Statue of Liberty was. But I do now.”

After finding her aunt and settling into life in her new home, Keane found work assembling radios in an Attwater Kent factory. And soon, the young Mary Ellen Durkin came under the gaze of a young Corkman named Joseph Keane, who had been in the U.S. two years longer than her.

“I think he married me for my money,” Keane said, laughing. “When I arrived in America, I had $25 in my pocketbook. When he arrived, he had only $20.” She and Joseph married, and had four sons.

Reflecting on her life in the U.S., Keane, who has returned to Ireland once, in 1976, said she has no regrets.

“I don’t think my personality changed,” she said. “I was always a little bit silly, well, not silly — I think you know what I mean. Chris has been my greatest inspiration. I cannot explain how good he is to me.”

Then, to a delighted audience of family and friends and an appreciative Janet Levine, she read her poem:

“Ellis Island here I come,

Can’t forget the year ’21,

At the early age of 18,

I sailed the Cedric from England’s shore,

Seeking independence but found much more.

On the 7th day of May

I landed at Ellis Island in the U.S. of A.

The Statue of Liberty seemed to say:

‘Welcome, stranger, please stay.’

A citizen of the U.S. I soon became,

And proud to be

Making my home,

In the land of the brave and the free,

Many thanks to all, I bid you adieu,

With a bit of the brogue to you,

God bless America and Ireland too.”

After her interview with Levine, Keane and her family visited the memorial walls outside the museum, where she was able to see where her name will be added to the thousands of other names of immigrants whose descendants have enshrined the names of those who shared the Ellis Island experience.

She also had a chance to view her online family scrapbook, which her granddaughter Lynne had prepared at the Ellis Island website (www.ellisisland.org). People who successfully trace an ancestor’s Ellis Island record through the website can then open a free, interactive family scrapbook for posterity.

As the sun began to wane in the west last Thursday, it was time for Mark Ellen Durkin Keane and her family to take ship again, to bid farewell to Ellis Island and to head for O’Neill’s Bar in Norwalk, Conn., for some “good Irish food,” as Chris Keane put it.

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