Echoes of Irish History

The immigrant voyage of millions of Irish to America in the nineteenth century was staggering in its hardship.  Many know of the Coffin Ships during the Great Hunger and the incredible death toll associated with the 6 to 8 week journey on inadequate vessels designed for hauling cargo rather than passengers.  However, little known but just as significant were the tragedies attending those who fled the imposed cruelties in Ireland before the blight even occurred in 1845.  Before that tragedy, mass emigration from Ireland accounted for one- third of all traffic across the Atlantic.  Between 1825 and 1840, 220,000 Irish emigrated to the U.S. at a time when there were few maritime or immigration regulations in place.

Perhaps none who ventured across the Atlantic seeking a better life had as tragic an end as the 100 Irish men, women and children who set forth on October 16, 1836 on the ship Bristol and the 116 who followed 8 days later on the ship Mexico.  Little remembered today, both of these ships wrecked, with a loss of 216 lives, off Long Island’s south shore within weeks of each other.  The double-tragedy shocked all who read the spectacular headlines for months to come. The wrecks were among the deadliest maritime accidents in U.S. history up to that time.  Their fates brought about  sweeping changes in the government’s neglect of the maritime industry, with measures to insure safer travel, including tasking federal ships with sea rescues which evolved into the Coast Guard.  So many avoidable deaths so close to land and perishing so horribly, gripped the nation’s emotions.  Even  Walt Whitman  wrote about the event in his poem, The Sleepers, from Leaves of Grass.

I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as she strikes,
I hear the howls of dismay, They grow fainter and fainter.

The Bristol departed Liverpool on Oct. 15 and reached the shores off Far Rockaway on Sunday, November 20 awaiting a pilot escort to guide them through the Narrows.  Local boatmen acted as pilots bringing arriving vessels into port safely.  Though licensed by the harbor, pilots were generally self-employed.  The ship waited for a pilot to arrive, but the New York pilots, who had little regulation and cared less for Irish immigrants, ignored the captain’s signaling, preferring not to work on Sunday!  Later that evening, a storm and strong currents drove the Bristol toward Rockaway Shoals.  The ship grounded and the captain told the passengers to go below and give the crew a better chance to work on deck.  In about an hour, a tremendous wave struck.  Life boats  and everything moveable were swept off the deck. The hatches were ripped off and the vessel filled with water.  Of the 82 steerage passengers below, none but a few close to the hatchways, were saved.  Not a sound was heard; death was instantaneous as 60 persons swam unprepared, into eternity.

The Mexico left Liverpool eight days later but had a more difficult crossing, encountering storms and pummeling seas.  She took twice as long as the Bristol, to reach New York.  Arriving on New Year’s Eve, Captain Charles Winslow signaled for a pilot, but callously, the pilots had adjourned to a Manhattan saloon to ring in the New Year.  Winslow tried to keep the ship away from the treacherous shoreline while he waited for a pilot to respond to his signals, but currents and a storm carried his ship to the Long Beach shore.  The ship was also overloaded with a cargo of iron bars and coal, which added to the difficulties in controlling her.  To the  owners, the passengers were simply another commodity, occupying a cargo deck leased to a passenger broker.  The crew, weakened by the weeks of battling high winds and flailing seas, and hampered by freezing temperatures, lost both lifeboats in launch attempts.  Not till 3 p.m. did a rescue boat reach the Mexico, led by 51-year-old local wreck-master Raynor Smith, who ignored the perils posed to his long boat and six-man crew.

He took in 8 survivors, including Capt. Winslow, 4 crew members, and 3 passengers who had volunteered to help the crew.  The remaining famished and terrified passengers were left behind praying that the boat, or others like it, would return for them.  As day turned to night, Smith, his crew and other would-be rescuers refused to risk another trip to the Mexico as the seas churned unabated.  The weather was so intensely cold, that it was difficult for anyone to remain on deck longer than half an hour at a time.  Fifteen minutes after the rescue boat had departed, the ship struck the bottom at Hempstead beach, not more than a cable’s length from the shore.  It is believed that none drowned, but all froze to death.

A correspondent for the Morning Courier and New York Express later reported: When (passengers) perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until one by one they diminished. The next morning the bodies of the many unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice.  Of the 104 victims, two-thirds were women and children, all of whom stood praying on the deck of their broken ship in zero-degree weather just 200 yards off Long Beach where they slowly froze to death in sight of the land of their dreams.  Only their tears made it to shore!

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Joe Byrne and the Ancient Order of Hibernians

Joe Byrne arriving at JFK airport. (L to R) Congressman Eliot Engel, Eileen Byrne, Joe Byrne, Matt Reilly (member of the Fort Worth Five), Moira Reilly and Mairead Byrne is out in front.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians was formed in New York City in 1836 for many reasons, one in particular was to protect young Irish men who had recently immigrated.  While Joe Byrne was not considered by many to be “new” to America, his unjust arrest was enough for all who belonged to the AOH/LAOH to stand up and fight for him.

Early Friday morning, on July 28th, 2006, Joe and his family were met by 20 Armed U.S. Marshals at their home.  Joe’s daughter, Mairead, then three years-old, was the first to see these men.  Joe was arrested and brought to Valhalla, were he was locked up until his release on Friday, September 8th, 2006.  On that Friday morning, no one knew why Joe had been arrested.  The U.S. Marshals told his wife, Eileen, that Joe would be brought before a judge in White Plains at 10:00am.  It was there that they learned that Ireland had asked the United States Government to honor an extradition request of one Joseph Simon Byrne.

In 1996 and early 1997, in Dundalk, County Louth, Joe had been picked up for questioning regarding a robbery. Joe answered the Gardai’s questions and was released on his own recognizance.  Later in 1997, Joe went back to Gardai Station and informed them he planned on moving to America.  “Any problems?” he asked, “none” replied the Gardai.  In 2001, Joe had settled in Pearl River with his future wife when he needed to renew his Irish passport.  This was done in the Irish Embassy and his passport was mailed back to his home in Pearl River.  In 2004, Joe applied for his Green Card.  He reported on his application that he had been questioned in Dundalk Gardai Station about the robberies.  When INS asked the Irish Government about Joe’s reputation, he was issued a Certificate of Good Standing from Ireland.  Joe’s Green Card had also been sent to his address in Pearl River.

Sometime in 2005, the Irish Government issued an extradition order for Joe.  No one knows why it took the U.S. Marshals over a year to find Joe, but I will always remember a quote in the local Journal News on Saturday, July 29th – “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  I have since forgotten the name of that US Marshal, but clearly, Joe was not hiding in Pearl River.  He could be found on just about any job site, in Hibernian House, at a Division 3 meeting, Shop Rite, marching on the avenue for Rockland’s annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, etc…  He was truly out and about in town.

I received the first of many calls regarding Joe’s situation around 6:15am that awful Friday morning.  I immediately started making phone calls to members of AOH/LAOH Division 3 and one person actually went and woke up our local Town Councilman.  Throughout the course of the day, as the bad news travelled, I received phone calls from many AOH/LAOH members, asking what they could do to help.  I remember thinking then – if the number of phone calls was enough, Joe would be home by midnight.  Of course, it didn’t happen that way, but no member of the AOH/LAOH walked away from Joe, his family or Division 3.  As each call was answered, they were all told the same thing, reach out to your politicians and ask them to join New York State Congressman Eliot Engel in helping get Joe out of jail.

From July 2006 till February 20th, 2008, I always knew that Joe and his family could count on the AOH/LAOH to help try and put a stop to his extradition.  But on that fateful day of February 20th, 2008, word came down that then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, had signed Ireland’s request for Joe’s extradition.  On February 29th, 2008, Joe arrived back in Dundalk, County Louth.

While Joe’s fight shifted from America to Ireland, the AOH/LAOH in America never forgot about Joe and from the e-mails I received over the past 29 months, all of you kept the faith that Joe would one day come back to America.  From New York to California, Wisconsin to Texas, Maine to Arizona, Florida to Washington and everywhere in between, all of you never forgot about Joe and the injustice that was done to him and his family.  You all had one goal in mind – to reunite Joe with his family, right here in the United States of America.   One of my last e-mails to all in 2008 stated:  “While we came up short on the extradition, we know that the nobility of the Irish character is to be never broken by temporary defeat but to come back stronger and more determined than ever. “

Oh, how true those words are!  And I am proud to say that with Joe’s return to the United States on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 (one day short of a four year nightmare), it was due in part to Congressman Eliot Engel and his belief in Joe’s innocence and every member of the AOH/LAOH.  We proved that we will never let the nobility of the Irish character be broken and we will always come back stronger and more determined than ever.  God Bless the AOH/LAOH.  I am extremely proud and humbled to be a part of this organization.  United We Stand, Divided We Fall!  Good Luck, God Bless and God Speed to one and all!  Thanks for an awesome job!

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