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Annie and Ellen

January 19, 2017


Picture copyright – Brooklyn Public Museum

Genealogy is a capricious beast.

My grandfather and four of his five siblings emigrated from Co Leitrim to Brooklyn in the late 19th century. After a few years, grandad and his brother re-crossed the Atlantic and joined  their other brother in Edinburgh.

The three girls never returned, and, having married, and taken new surnames, were difficult to trace, though I had tried since I was in my twenties.

Then, suddenly, and by chance, last week, I discovered two of them, and their life stories. And, after years of searching and wondering, they became real to me, in only a couple of days.

Their stories were not totally joyful. Both endured widowhood, one of them twice. There were infant deaths and enough hints at poverty and ill health to give pause for sombre  reflection.

Phrases like “no education” “destitute” “aged and infirm” “day labourer” and “servant” provide a background which takes on vivid hues when applied to relatives, real people, named persons. Folk from whom I have maybe inherited a way of smiling, a nervous cough, a look around the eyes, some small movement that people say is  a “McPartland trait”.

Equally, the understanding that my folk were not specially chosen for hard and challenging lives, but were just individuals amongst thousands in an overwhelming cacophony of desperate living and crushed hopes,  brings home the  conditions in Brooklyn towards the end of the 19th century.

Given the nature of society, it seems almost predictable that my grandad and his brother (one  a trolley conductor, the other a labourer)  made their money and their decision, and came to Scotland after a few years, while the women, soon married, did not have that choice.

By coincidence, both my grandmothers also spent time in Brooklyn in their early twenties, but remained single, and young enough to flee from what both reported as the “oppressive” heat, noise, and atmosphere.

Not so my grand aunts.

They stayed, and were at different times, housewives, housekeepers, grocers, servants and seamstresses according to the various, hurriedly scrawled, census returns. Even allowing for the rapid urbanisation and mechanisation of the last hundred years, it is hard to imagine the reality of Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century

Like the medieval peasants who lived in shacks beneath the walls of the castles, seeking protection and a means of earning a living, these immigrants were in the centre of a vast mushroom cloud of economic growth – but they were not part of it. They made the wealth, but never had a share in it.

They turned the machines,unloaded the ships, loaded the carts, brushed the discarded wood shavings from the floors of wealth creation, served in the houses of the rich, drove the trams for their fellow workers,  and fought to keep a roof over their families, and bread on their tables. They kept their heads down and their minds busy, because stopping to wonder if emigration had been the right choice brought thoughts as haunting  as any ghost from their childhoods.

The industrial revolution created huge cities at a frantic rate, the need for transport of people and goods kept pace with this growth. If New York grew unimaginably towards the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn was the powerhouse of that development. 

Reflecting the millennium’s position between the old and the  new, they came on sailing boats and steam ships, wooden vessels and iron monsters. The boats struggled for space at the  piers, just as the people jostled for a tenement room or an outhouse floor.

The snap of the sails and the wail of ships’ sirens was drowned out by the noise of hard working, desperately striving, humanity. And it came in many languages – Irish, Scottish and English accents fought for a hearing over Italian, German, Norwegian,Yiddish, and a dozen Eastern European tongues. Brooklyn was a place were foreigners found home – the New Americans had arrived.

Many of them came from basic huts in remote country areas – they had no means of ever imagining the noise, the dirt, the crowds and the bustle to which they were headed. Even those used to town or city life had never seen anything like this twenty four hour, nonstop show, of work and commerce, buying, selling, making and dealing.

They came, and tried to survive, for many reasons. Some were fuelled by ambition, driven to test out “the American Dream”, but most were there because they had no choice. They were leaving lives that were so poverty stricken, hopeless, dangerous,  or insupportable,  that they had more faith in the unknown than the familiar. It had to be better.

For some it was an improvement, a chance at a new start, but for many came the realisation  that it can be hard to outrun poverty, illness, or despair.

They were there in their millions – the flotsam and jetsam of an economic system which needed their labour but was unwilling to fairly reward them.

Brooklyn was a paradigm of the world in those years: a coming together of nations and cultures, a last hurrah perhaps for the intrinsic strength of family and community life, made more precious by the absence of loved ones and familiar places.  In the years my family were most numerous in Brooklyn, the Borough grew three times over, well on its way to  becoming what would be the fourth “city” of the USA in population.

The noise, the dirt, the overwhelming sense of busy-ness must have been almost beyond understanding to many of the new Americans. Some, who had the opportunity, must have returned to their old countries, as did my grandmothers. Many, likewise, must have been trapped in a maelstrom of desperate poverty, the future made dark by a lack of hope, just as the streets were put in shadow by the ever growing tenements.


My grand aunt Annie had born seven children by the time she was 34 – only one survived, and, cruelly, that survivor, Mae, died when she was 19. In the end she was still working as a housekeeper in her 70s whilst her husband ended up destitute in the “Home for the Aged and Infirm”. Her sister, Ellen, lost one child after seven days, and then her husband when she was only 34. By the time she was fifty, she had been widowed again.

These statistics are hurtful when they refer to your own flesh and blood, but the real impact is in the understanding that these two women are just representatives of Brooklyn life at the turn of the millennium. It is tempting to recall that famous phrase used of the Hindenburg disaster across the river in New Jersey in 1937: “Oh the humanity!”

And, inevitably, conflict produced energy. The strength of the fight challenged folk to great levels of achievement – for some that was  mere survival, but for others it was the discovery of strengths and talents  hitherto unsuspected.

The next generations of Brooklynites were special. Lights shining out of dark cellars.  It was as if the struggle faced by their parents and grandparents made them grasp at every opportunity for advancement – and often it came through creativity and the arts. George Gershwin, Arthur Miller, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allan, Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Carl Sagan, the Brill Building’s Carole King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin and many more. The success of the children is often the reward for emigration.

However, immigration and poverty go hand in hand: the work comes and goes, the successful move on, and those who cannot move face deterioration of neighbourhoods and facilities. When my relatives went to Brooklyn, less than one per cent of the population were African Americans, now the figure would be around  40%, along with 20% Hispanic. Immigration comes in waves, driven by economics rather than by choice. The Borough, like the rest of New York, went through harrowing times, but the rate of immigration has doubled since the 1970s, areas like Williamsburg are being gentrified. In neighbourhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, there is grinding poverty, but you will also find magnificent examples of community action, and dynamic school leadership, as there always have been. The immigrant community roller coaster continues to rise and fall – bringing with it the screams of excitement and the gravitational pull of the downward slope.

In the end, through death and poverty, the first generation of Brooklyn McPartlands failed to make it. The reason I had trouble tracing their descendants was that  very few survived or made their life there. But the story of immigration, like the people it involves, is one of perseverance and legacy. A number of the following generation, having heard the family tales of New York, were not put off, and tried their luck in the New World – my Uncle Frank brilliantly timing  his arrival to coincide with the Wall Street Crash!

Despite that, their descendants flourish – in the East End of Long Island, and in Massachusetts, across in  Michigan, and over in California. In Queens, in Jackson Heights,  the most diverse community in the country, my cousin’s daughter, married to a Spaniard, raises their children among a dozen cultures – what better way to learn and grow and understand our world?

And so the story of a family illuminates the history of a Borough, the progress of a Borough informs the development of a city, and a city’s growth parallels that of a nation, and, at the heart of all this, are emigrants who bring their rich diversity to lend old world strength to new world insecurities.

If you seek to keep out this new blood, your communities will stagnate, they will fall prey to the greedy exploitation of those who are desperate to control and profiteer, and there will arise a self serving myth of “superiority” which will become “truth” in the absence of anyone to challenge it. It is the foundation of bigotry and prejudice.

I’ve struggled to write in reaction to Trump’s election since November, but my grand aunts – Annie and Ellen – and the lives they led, the strengths they showed, their transference of tenant farmer hard graft from Co Leitrim to the lodging  houses and rented apartments of Summit St, 8th St, Bergen St, Lewis Ave, Henry St, 8th Ave, Luquer St, Chauncey St, 14th St, 5th St, 9th St, and all the other places they called home in their new country – these two formidable women  have made the point eloquently and by example.

The disaster of Trump’s election does not lie in his clear incompetence, his knowledge of  the price of everything  and the value of nothing, his lack of any kind of intellectual or humane hinterland – though all these things are terrifying.

The horror lies in his ability to blind millions of Americans to the strengths of their nation: the power of diversity, the refreshing optimism of those who come to its shores and choose to become new Americans; the fact that the true “American Dream” is not about  making a lot of money, but rather the opportunity to fuse the old world with the new, to take the best of “then” and use it to make a better “now”. In simple language, it is, still, a young country which can offer opportunities – not to become rich, but to become happy, confident, comfortable with your own history, and that of your neighbours.

Of course, this is an aspiration. There are many examples of how, despite three centuries of trying, in the USA  many of the dreams of its founding fathers are not yet accomplished. However, the point, surely, is that it must remain a country, not only founded on those aspirations, but driven by them.

In this respect, Washington DC is, to me, a wonderful city.

Yes, I know, it is filled with self seekers and those for whom power is an end in itself, and, yes, you might struggle to find too many residents who are there for philanthropic or selfless reasons – but it was built as a symbol – a symbol for democracy, the people’s power, and the coming together of states and nations, cultures and  traditions.

It’s got a way to go to represent all of  that successfully, and the country of which it is the capital also struggles to live up to its constitution, but, when I walk its streets and view its buildings, it tends to be the vision I see rather than the reality – the city built in the swamp needs to be the city standing on the hill. Many Americans, irrespective of political leanings, come to DC, bring their children, point to the White House, the Capitol, The Library of Congress, and describe with awe what they represent.

Now, you can laugh at that as delusion, or you can use it as inspiration.

America needs people who are inspired by the dreams of their ancestors, not those who are well versed on how to rip people off so that they can make a quick buck.

Many times I have had my perfect breakfast, sitting in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with a coffee and a pastry, reflecting on the symbolism of that mansion designed by an Irishman and built by slaves.

The USA can be a power for good or evil. I’ve followed her politics since 1960, and, while I don’t believe I have ever agreed with her foreign policies, I’ve taken plenty of inspiration from her greatest leaders, I’ve respected the aims on which their constitution is founded, I’ve cherished that naive aspiration that it is possible to have government of the people by the people and for the people; a living Republic.

That bench in Lafayette Square will not be graced by my presence in the next four years, that’s for sure. There are times when the strongest vision, the greatest symbol, can be obliterated by crass stupidity, greed, and a basic lack of humanity.

When the Soviets built a wall across Berlin, they said they were building it to keep out the westerners. Everybody knew it was to keep in the easterners, and try and isolate them from fresh and innovative thinking.

How ironic, then, that Trump talks of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, when his true building project is to isolate Americans from the very diverse influences which have made them great.

Constructing walls is easier than building bridges, and, traditionally, people cross bridges but knock walls down.

Progress cannot be stopped, history teaches the way forward, greed has a short shelf life, and, in the end, politics is about people, not politicians.

I remain optimistic that the dance they call America will waltz around Trump, and return the country to its true values.

That’s the future which is deserved by the story of Annie and Ellen McPartland, and so many millions of others.

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