Emigration has always been the safety valve for our country. Without it we would inevitably have succumbed to the terrifying depths of deprivation all too common in Third World countries. One of the earliest records of emigration is that found in the "Journal of the House of Commons of the Kingdom of Ireland" for 1796 which was published as a special report of the Commons Committee set up in 1743 to investigate abuses of enforced transportation during the previous seven years. The 2,000 or so transportees listed in the Report were convicted felons or vagabonds sent over seas between 1735 and 1743. Amongst them was Graham Bradford, a Freeman of Athy of whom it was recorded in the Borough Council Minute Book of the 16th of October 1738 "was convicted in his Majesty's Court of Kings Bench of wilful and corrupt perjury and that he was pilloried and is now transported into some of his Majesty's plantations in America". It is interesting to note that the Minute Book was signed by nine members of the local Borough Council including Alexander Bradford, George Bradford and William Bradford.
The millions who left Ireland to journey by sailing ship to America during and after the Famine are listed in the seven volume "The Famine Emigrants - Lists of Irish Emigrants arriving at the Port of New York 1846 - 1851". Included amongst them were many hundreds who left Athy and South Kildare during that time. Unfortunately the lists do not give the County of origin so that we cannot identify the local people who left Ireland to start a new life in America. The voyage from Liverpool to New York usually took three to four weeks, longer in winter months. The majority of the sailing ships carried between 200 and 300 passengers while some of the larger vessels were capable of accommodating up to 500 people. Those fleeing from the Irish Famine and its aftermath had the dubious distinction of being the last group to cross the Atlantic under sail. The accommodation provided in steerage for the poor Irish emigrants was a breeding ground for cholera and dysentery. Ship Fever grew to alarming proportions during the Famine years and in Black '47 the Irish who died at Grosse Isle, an Emigration depot 30 miles below Quebec on the St. Lawrence River, numbered in excess of 5,000. Subsequent changes in shipping law required ventilation of steerage quarters and other improvements which greatly enhanced the prospects of Irish emigrants safely arriving in America.
In 1868 John J. Bealin, whose late father Mark Bealin had a bakery in the premises at the corner of Leinster Street now owned by Mrs. Lehane, left Athy for America with his older brothers William and Mark. Born on the 28th of December 1854 John J. had attended the local Christian Brothers School but when his father died and his mother remarried the three sons went across to Liverpool to join one of the new fangled steam ships then plying their trade between there and New York. The journey which in the earlier sailing ships took weeks could now be completed in less than 15 days. Bealin and other Irish emigrants alighted at America's first immigration depot Castle Clinton, three hundred feet off the southern tip of Manhattan.
Emigration to America continued to increase throughout the 19th century leading to demands to regulate entry into that country. Immigration laws were passed denying entry to Chinese nationals and "any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge". On the 1st of January 1892 Ellis Island was opened as an immigration depot and the first person through its doors was 15 year old Annie Moore of Co. Cork whose statue now graces the refurbished Ellis Island Immigration Museum which is a major tourist attraction for New York tourists.
Between 1891 and 1901 the town of Athy suffered a population decrease of 1,267, many of whom can be expected to have emigrated to America. Amongst those who left may have been Bridget Greene, a 26 year old spinster who sailed from Queenstown as a steerage passenger with two pieces of luggage on the White Star Line R.M.S. Teutonic arriving in New York on the 15th of April 1897. She is now immortalised in print as one of the 141 steerage passengers on that boat whose names are included on a display panel in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York Harbour. Listed only as from Co. Kildare she was one of the thousands who daily went through the inspection process which one had to successfully undergo to gain entry to America.
On landing each immigrant had a number tag pinned to his or her clothing for identification purposes. Jostling three abreast they made their way up the steep flight of stairs to the great Registry Room. Public Health Doctors examined each person for any one of sixty diseases which would exclude a hapless emigrant from the mainland. The disease which resulted in most exclusions was trachoma, an infectious eye disease. Doctors used button hooks to lift up each persons eyelid for evidence of inflammation which would indicate the presence of trachoma. From there the frightened emigrant passed on to the next room where inspectors posed questions to ascertain each persons social, economic and moral fitness. It could take hours if not days to successfully circumvent the system of checks before one was permitted to take the ferry to Manhattan. If turned away for any reason the unfortunate person faced the sad, lonely boat journey back to Ireland.
Many of Athy's finest left the town for America in the early 1920's. The local G.A.A. Club suffered enormously at that time from the loss of young players who sought their future in the States. Sapper O'Neill and Michael Mahon, two County footballers were just two of the great footballers who left Athy for America in the 1920's. Mahon emigrated in October 1927 and on the night before the local G.A.A. Club, then called Young Emmets, held an "American Wake" for him in the Town Hall. Like so many others he was never to return to his home town.
The White Star Line which had boats travelling to New York and Boston from Liverpool, stopping at Cobh, operated through agents in Athy two of whom were T.J. Brennan of Duke Street and Edmund Mulhall of Barrow Bridge House. The price of a tourist cabin in 1928 for a single journey ranged from £22 to £25 depending on the time of year and the ship on which one travelled. This was a considerable sum at a time when a pint cost ten pennies, the equivalent of little more than 4p today.
One of the many interesting features of Ellis Island Immigration Museum is the American Immigrant Wall of Honour. Here are recorded some of the names of those 12 million immigrants from all lands who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Virtually ever nationality is represented on the Wall of Honour, the largest wall of names in the world which will remain for posterity in the shadow of the nearby Statue of Liberty. The names of all those who left Athy since the Great Famine of 150 years ago can never hope to be recorded. Some are remembered but for the most part they are forgotten, a lost diaspora which sought tolerance, opportunity and freedom in a foreign country.