New York Stories: Exhibition Opens In County Museum

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Historian Dr Maureen Murphy (right) and Kerry County Museum curator, Helen O’Carroll in front of one of the pieces of the exhibition at the museum on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Dermot Crean

A NEW exhibition on the Irish Mission in New York opens this Wednesday in Tralee and tells the fascinating story of the plight of Irish women who emigrated to the city from 1883 to 1954.

‘The Irish Mission at Watson House’ will be seen for the first time in Ireland when it opens in Kerry County Museum in Tralee on May 28.

The exhibition tells the story of a home for Irish immigrant girls in Lower Manhattan between 1883 and 1954. The Mission was set up in response to the huge flood of young Irish women arriving in New York, and it provided information, temporary accommodation, employment referrals, counselling and support for those just off the ship from Ireland.

It was the inspiration of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, daughter of the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien, who was transported to Tasmania for his part in the 1848 Rebellion.

She was dedicated to improving the lot of young Irish women who were leaving Ireland in their hundreds of thousands throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in search of work and opportunities that were unavailable to them at home. They were predominantly the surplus daughters of the small farms of the west of Ireland, from Donegal to Cork.

“The emigration of single women from Ireland was a unique phenomenon in western civilisation,” said to historian Dr Maureen Murphy, one of the creators of the exhibit.

“Other emigrants from Europe travelled as families, or, as the Italians, the men went first and later sent for the women. In contrast, women left Ireland in equal numbers to men, and they were just as active as the men, if not more so, in sending money back to support the family at home and to provide the means for their sisters, cousins, nieces and friends to follow on”.

In just 25 years, between 1883 and 1908, almost 300,000 young Irish women aged between the ages of 14 and 44 immigrated through the Port of New York.

Many of these women arrived in New York alone and relied on the Irish Mission at Watson House for support in their first few days in what was for them a bewildering new world. Agents from the Mission were on hand at the immigration processing depot in Castle Garden and later Ellis Island to provide assistance in locating relatives and friends or to offer temporary accommodation in the Home.

Over 100,000 young women were cared for by the Mission’s staff in this period and they found jobs for approximately 12,000.

The exhibition is in a sense a home-coming for the girls and it is a chance to reflect on what life was like for these young women when they got to America: where did they go and what did they do? How did they fit into this new world? What effect did the disappearance of all these young women have on Ireland in the 20th century?

The exhibition includes information about the women’s work and recreation, as well as images of Irish immigrant women in the political cartoons of the day. One part of the display links the Mission with the Titanic: some of the survivors were brought to the Mission, and all survivors were invited to gather there on 28 April 1912.

The Mission registers have been digitised and can be viewed online at HYPERLINK “”

The exhibition will be on display at Kerry County Museum until the middle of August and will travel from there to a number of venues in Ireland throughout the next twelve months

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