Mary Ann Sweeney

mami-1Mary Anne Sweeney (Mamie)


Mount Errigal

Mamie said goodbye to her five younger brothers who were just leaving for their first day of a new school year. She assured herself that she would see some of them again.

Outside her cottage home the morning air was clear, and she could see Mount Errigal the crystal cone shape mountain that she remembered traveling to 17 miles away the furthest distance she had been in her 18 years.  The stony green fields and Dongloe Bay where her family made a living farming was all she knew of the world. Now she was setting out on a journey to a country 3000 miles away. Her cousin Bernard was coming up the road from the Paddy and Kitty Sweeney house. They were cousins of Mamie’s father Neil Sweeney. Bernard was returning to the United States after a short visit, and was going to accompany Mamie to the U. S., because no single woman could enter the country by herself. She said her final goodbye to her parents. Then her sister Bridget gave their baby brother, also known as Bernard to her mother. Bridget, also known as Ann wanted to accompany her cousin and Mamie down to the fishing dock. There a boat was waiting to take them with another family to Burtonport where they would catch a train to Derry. Prior to entering the fishing boat she said her goodbye to her sister. While the small craft launched out into Dongloe Bay she waved to her sister, hoping that she would soon see her again. Mamie sat on a bench in the stern, while her cousin Bernard talked to the fishing boats owner. Another family, a Mr. and Mrs. Patrick and Mary Walsh, and three children Grace 14, Annie eight, and James six were on their way to America. They told Mamie that Patrick’s older brother Seamus had started a plumbing business in Virginia and asked him and his family to join him to help out with the business. The fishing boats would often take passengers up to the train station at Burtonport when they were on their way to the fishing area in the North Dongloe Bay.


Passenger train

When they arrived at Burtonport Mamie got her first view of the passenger train. Never had she seen such an enormous mode of transportation.  Along with the Walsh family they entered a compartment that had its own door.  When the travelers were on board the whistle was blown and train slowly moved away from the station. This was a new experience for her since the only vehicle that she had ever traveled on before was a cart pulled by a pony.


SS Cameronia


3rd Class Passenger Steerage

When they arrived at the station in Derry they left the train and made their way to the ship dock where the S.S. Cameronia was moored. As they boarded the steamer, their names were recorded in the ships manifest. The ship was divided by wealth and class. First and second class passengers stayed in state rooms or cabins. But most people were in third class, called “steerage”.  Steerage was a large, open space at the bottom of the ship.

After a few hours, the steamer left the dock, and headed northeast towards the port of Glasgow, Scotland to pick up additional passengers. Being that it was a Sunday a priest who was on his way to America said Mass for those who were Catholic. After they picked up the passengers at Glasgow the ship turned towards the Irish Sea, and started its voyage to America. The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was rough. The ship was not the cleanest thing and at times the trip was often tiring.  At night the families slept in double bunks together, and single woman and single men slept in separate areas. The food they served to the steerage passengers was not the best. Mamie noticed that the steamer had two large sailing masts. She was curious, and asked her cousin Bernard, why they were not used. He said they were only there in case the steam engine failed, and would be used to get them into a port. During the day there wasn’t much to do aboard the steamer except to engage in conversation with the Walsh family. She got to know them quite well, grew fond of the children, and thought it was going to be sad when they parted in New York.


Thatched Roof Cottage

Mamie was now 18, and during this time her thoughts went back from the present to her early childhood. She was born to Neil Sweeney and Mary Doherty in place called Meemore, a small area in the northwest corner of Ireland, between the towns of Burtonport and Dongloe. This was known as the Rosses or Headlands, one of the most scenic areas of Ireland. Her home overlooked Dongloe Bay which is why she always loved the sea so much. She remembered a landmark in the bay called Butterrock. It completely disappeared into the bay when the tide came in. This area was one of the most beautiful in Ireland. It was also heather country – the most dominant color was purple, but there was also white, which was rare and highly prized.


Farming in the area was somewhat difficult because of the rocky land which only provided small spots of fertile land. She recalled her childhood living in a small thatched roof cottage where her mother cooked meals over an open fireplace using peat. This area had many small farms, but some of the men earned a living from fishing. Most families had a few cows, some chickens, and almost everyone had a pony and a black and white Border collie dog.


Paddy “the Cope” Gallagher

As a child she played with the neighborhood kids and cousins. She was very fond of her aunts and uncles, who lived down the road, and her father’s parents Edward Sweeney and Mary Boyle. There were several small streams that fed into the bay. Children were warned to stay clear of the streams, because they belonged to the fairies, and if they played there harm might come to them.  She also had a close relationship with her his mother’s parents Anthony Doherty and Mary Gillespie. She learned the skills of cooking and sewing from her mother and aunts. She completed her education by the age of 16 and obtained a job as a seamstress for Patrick Gallagher known as “Paddy the Cope” a kind of a local hero to the people of the area. He founded a cooperative where people could sell or trade goods they produced with others for things they needed to survive.

Mamie had been corresponding by mail with her father’s sisters, aunts Ann O’Donnell and Mary Gallagher, for several years. They had moved to Western Pennsylvania before Mamie was born. She was also corresponding with Ann’s daughters who were all born in Pennsylvania and were about the same age. They explained to Mamie how their mother’s life had been much better in America than in Ireland. They explained how they had finished school and were working at good paying jobs. They encouraged Mamie to think about making the trip to live in Pennsylvania. And so here she was on a steamer heading for America.

When the steamer was able to make ship to shore communications, a message was sent to a land based receiver with information on an estimate of the time of arrival to New York Harbor. This information was then printed in the New York newspapers for friends and family to know when they could greet passengers exiting the Ellis Island processing center.


Statue of Liberty

Early one morning after 10 days at sea she was awakened by a large clamor made by the passengers outside the steerage compartment. She proceeded to the top deck of the steamer to find out what it was all about. The sun was starting to rise behind the ship. Everybody was cheering and waving their arms and hats, some people made the sign of the cross, and they were all looking at the statue on a brown stone building at the entrance to New York harbor. She’d never seen anything as big as this before. It was a statue of a crowned lady with her right arm extended straight up holding a torch, and it was facing toward the sea. She found her cousin Bernard and asked him what was going on. Apparently she didn’t know about the statue. He told her that was the Statue of Liberty and it was a symbol of freedom and liberty that this country stood for. Suddenly, she got the same feeling you get when you knock on someone’s front door, and the person who opens the door is facing you and invites you in.  This experience brought a tear to her eye.


Ellis Island

When the steamer was moored to the New York City side of the dock, a health officer boarded and looked for signs of any major health problems. Then doctors checked the health of the passengers in first and second class. These lucky few could leave the ship at the New York City side of the harbor for processing through customs. But the third class passengers would wait for a ferryboat to take them to Ellis Island for processing.  Mamie and Cousin Bernard had to wait for the second ferryboat trip because they could only carry a small number of passengers at a time.

Officers wearing uniforms greeted the ferry boat as it docked at Ellis Island.


Immigrants landing at Ellis Island

They motioned passengers down the gangplanks, and into the front of the main building. The officers passed out numbered identity tags which people hung around their neck.  The commotion was overwhelming. Men, women and children struggled off the boat carrying trunks, cloth sacks, and suitcases. They followed one another along a path and entered the imposing red brick building.

Wearing their numbered tags, they entered the Baggage Room on the building’s ground floor. Next they went upstairs to the Registry Room.  The Registry was quite large. Mamie had never seen a room this big inside a building. This is where the medical and legal inspections took place. The medical exam only took about six seconds. The doctors looked for immigrants who needed medical attention. Next they passed through a maze of metal rails toward the far end of the hall for the legal inspection.


US inspectors asking the 29 questions

Each arriving steamship’s crew gave the officials at Ellis Island a list of names, and also the manifest made out before departure. The manifest had the names and a description of each passenger.  When Mamie’s name was called she came forward to speak to a uniformed inspector seated on a tall stool behind a high desk.  Twenty-nine questions were asked, what was her name, where she was born, if she was married, what was her occupation, how much money she had, what was her destination, and so on. After the processing there was a window where she could exchange her money into U.S dollars. Prior to leaving the building she said goodbye to the Walsh family and wished them luck in America.

As Mamie and Cousin Bernard exited the building, there was a wooden crossway over to the New Jersey side of the bay. At the end of the crossway was Daniel, Bernard’s older brother his wife Bridget and Bernard’s wife Ellen.  She remembered meeting Daniel when he came back to Ireland for a visit in 1908. The long journey was finally over. Now she was in America.


Cousin Daniel Sweeney’s home – 89 W. 24th St,  Bayonne, NJ

Daniel drove Mamie and his wife the 6 1/2 miles from Ellis Island crossway to his home. Riding in a car was another new experience. At the house, Bridget made a home cooked meal. This was the first cooked meal Mamie had since leaving her home in Ireland. She also had a nice comfortable bed to sleep in. After spending a week with her cousin and his wife she decided it was time to move on to her aunt’s place in Homestead just outside of Pittsburgh. She wrote a letter to her aunt Ann in western Pennsylvania telling her when she would be arriving. They took the motor car up to the Newark train station for her trip west. After saying goodbye to her cousin, she boarded the train. This was the first time she would be traveling by herself. After finding a seat near a window, she heard that people speaking different languages. This was another new experience. The train journeyed down through the city of Philadelphia, and out into the farm district of eastern Pennsylvania. She noticed the fields held an abundance of grain and vegetables that were in the process of being harvested. There were large numbers of farm animals. Beyond the fields, she noticed thick forests. This was something new again because Ireland had very few trees. As they proceeded up through the Pennsylvania Mountains, the trees became denser.  Because it was early fall, the leaves on the trees were starting to change from green to breathtakingly beautiful colors of red, yellow and orange. This was their final farewell to summer and preparation for winter.


Pittsburgh Street Car

As the train got closer to Pittsburgh, the air became filled with a lot of smoke. When she arrived at the Pittsburgh railroad station her aunt Ann and her cousin Catherine were waiting for her. They boarded a streetcar for West Homestead. This was the first time she saw and had personal contact with her aunt and cousin with whom she had been corresponding for the last several years. They sure had a lot to talk about.

When they arrived at Aunt Ann’s home, Mamie met the rest of the cousins and her Uncle Daniel O’Donnell. They were all happy to see her and eager to hear about their relatives in Ireland. After a generous dinner, Mamie began to notice the changes in the living accommodations compared to the one in which was she raised in Ireland. There was a second story on the house. The rooms were a lot larger, and lit with tungsten filament lamps. The kitchen had a gas stove and oven. There was even a box to keep food cool which contained a large block of ice. There was a candlestick telephone into which you could talk to someone who was a good distance away. There were different foods to choose from at every meal. Back in Ireland people said this land was a land of plenty – oh they were so right!

Since most of Aunt Ann’s children were working a job or attending school, Mamie helped her aunt prepare meals and assisted with the house work.

At the end of November there was a special American holiday called Thanksgiving. A turkey was cooked and a great amount of food was prepared. Aunt Mary Gallagher and her husband John and their children along with Mamie’s Aunt Bridget and her husband Joseph O’Donnell, and their children came to the house for the celebration. On this special day they gave thanks to God for all they had received during the year.

Mamie stayed on until after Christmas, helping her Aunt Ann, learning the art of cooking with the gas stove, and how to prepare meals for a large family. She decided that she could find employment for herself.


St Paul’s Cathedral

Most single women who came to the United States worked in manufacturing assembly lines or found work as domestic servants. As Pittsburgh’s, main industry was the production of steel, which only hired men, she had to look for a job as a domestic servant. She applied for a job as a cook with a family in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh. It required her to live in the family household and manage the cooking and purchasing of food. The woman who was presently holding the position wanted to return to her native country in two weeks, so Mamie was asked to start right away. She worked six days a week with Sunday off.

The first Sunday she had off she went to Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral which was within walking distance of the home. The church had five altars – the large main altar and four side altars – very different from the small parish church she had attended in Ireland.

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