In 1849 William Trench, the agent of Lord Lansdowne landlord of the Kenmare Estate, took a census of the local population. Having taken on board the decimation of the local population through disease and famine, Trench came up with a plan. He recommended to his employer, Lord Lansdowne that it would save the estate money if, rather than provide workhouse shelter for the destitute widows and orphans of Kenmare, it would be cheaper to pay for passage to the United States or Canada.
The cost of such passage was estimated to be £5, for a new lifetime, and less money than the cost of food and lodgings for one year in a Kenmare workhouse. Thousands of Kenmare residents took up the offer, and in spite of the harsh conditions of a winter passage and no appropriate clothing, many landed in New York where they settled in the notorious Five Points, as featured in Martin Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York.
Baxter Street, Orange Street and Worth Street (Chinatown and Little Italy today) groaned with the new numbers of residents, and such was the deplorable condition in which they arrived, that the New York papers were prompted to write articles about the state of the newly arrived Irish.
Even Dickens wrote of the harsh conditions in which they lived, (in American Notes) but this belied the reality of the new emigrants. A wooden flea infested overcrowded tenement was still better than a smoky damp hovel with no food. The Kenmare Irish, having survived thus far were also entrepreneurial, finding employment in the tanneries, the taverns, selling food on the street and even in prostitution. The Emigrant Savings Bank of New York soon had records of plenty of money being sent home to families in Kerry.
One such survivor was Tim Sullivan, the boy of two of Kenmare’s human exports. Starting off with paper rounds and shoe shining, Tim grew a network and was soon running entire newspaper distribution rounds, before moving into taverns, theatre and of course politics. ‘Big Tim Sullivan’ was one of the first great characters of the famous Tammany Hall. His ‘cute hoorness’ was only matched by his philanthropy, Christmas balls for the Irish poor, where food was plentiful and free shoes were distributed, while cleverly making friends with all local ethnic groups; the Germans, the Jews and the freed Negroes. This resulted in his election to the US Congress; not bad for the son of enforced penniless emigrants from Kenmare. There Big Tim supported the bill obliging citizens to show their firearms or weaponry in public and he also campaigned for women’s suffrage.
Big Tim died in shady circumstance; his syphilis body remained unidentified for weeks before an enormous funeral on Mulberry Street in the original St Patricks Cathedral. 20,000 lined the streets to pay their respects.
But Tim did one thing in memory of his mother which is still there today. He got to name a street in New York City – and today Kenmare Street in Manhattan’s trendy Nolita, still stands as testimony to Big Tim Sullivan and those other thousands who benefited from a bizarre economic twist of fate.
In this radio documentary, Yvonne Judge hears the story of the Kenmare emigrants from Senator Mark Daly and historian Ger Lyne. She then meets with two direct descendants of Big Tim Sullivan who carry his spirit strong today in New York.
Philanthropist and restaurant owner Tyrone Sullivan and Bob Wagner, librarian and local historian, and Big Tim’s great grandson from an affair with a New York actress. And that is another story in itself.