Earlier there had been steady emigration from Ireland of an average of 50,000 per year. It grew enormously in the immediate Famine period when it reached 250,000 in 1847 and averaged 200,000 per year for the following five years.
The cheapest fares were to Canada – 55 shillings (approximately €3.07) and the United States cost 70 shillings (€3.90). These unfortunate people were crammed into overcrowded steerage compartments of coffin ships and it is estimated that as many as 40% died en route or soon after landing.
On arrival, they were quarantined until they were deemed fit to enter. Castle Garden in the Battery area of Manhattan. was the immigration centre for New York and it processed over eight million people up to 1890. The federal government built a special immigration centre on Ellis Island beside the Statue of Liberty. Originally called Oyster Island, it was later known as Gibbet Island because a pirate was hanged there and when a New York business man, Samuel Ellis, bought it, he renamed it after himself.
When it opened on New Year’s Day 1892, there were three ships waiting to land. Seven hundred people arrived that day and Annie Moore from Cork was credited with being the first. She had travelled with her two brothers to join their parents. They sailed from Cobh on December 20 and their ship, The Nevada reached New York Harbour on December 31. She was followed by millions of others searching for a new opportunity. Some of those arriving made their name in the new world such as Hollywood star Charlie Chaplin (1912). Israel Beilin arrived in 1893 and became known as Irving Berlin while Angelo Siciliano, who arrived in 1903, became known as Charles Atlas. Others such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. were already well-known
Within a decade, the island was too small. Two new islands were built using landfill and rubble from New York and the centre grew from its original three acres to over 27. In its lifetime, Ellis Island handled over 12 million immigrants. The peak was 1907 with over one million. Very early America realised that it needed to control the numbers arriving in the country. Health and literacy tests were introduced and in 1920 the Immigrant Quota Act became law. Three years later immigration quotas were set for specific countries. The Great Depression brought an end to mass immigration and in 1932 more people left the United States that entered it.
During the Second World War the island was used as a detention and deportation centre but by the 1950s the numbers passing through had dropped to a trickle and the decision was made to close it. Many proposals were made for its future but none was agreed on. When it was put up for auction in 1961 it failed to sell.
Eventually it was re-opened as an immigration museum in 1990 and now attracts almost two million visitors annually, more than double its peak number of immigrants.
Ellis Island, the first place many Irish emigrants landed in the Untied States, closed its doors as an immigration centre on November 12, 1952 – 57 years ago this week.