Home / Blog / Article




October 31 2014

What We Could Learn from Mary Jane Byrne

Charlotte Hays

If you only read one column today, make it Peggy Noonan’s on her great aunt who came to America in 1909 from Ireland.  You can derive several insights from the article: one is about humility of truly great people such as Peggy’s aunt who came to this nation, helped build it, and are by far more honorable than the egotists who soak up so much airtime today.

On a bookshelf in my home in a glass-and-brass frame I keep my great-aunt’s Ellis Island health card. It’s cardboard, about as big as your hand. She wore it on her coat during her nine-day journey from Ireland. Every day the ship’s surgeon (possibly brusquely, probably officiously) examined her for signs of acute or long-term illness. The card noted her details—immigrant, steerage, age about 20—and other facts. SS California out of Londonderry, 1909, Mary Jane Byrne, last residence Glenties. On the back it says, “Keep this Card to avoid detention at Quarantine and in Railroads in the United States.” If she failed the physicals she would be held at Ellis Island or sent back. There’s a little notch to mark each day the doctor found her healthy. In the end there were nine.

She disembarked at Ellis Island where, so enraged at this crude, assaultive violation of her civil liberties—being subjected to intimate questioning by a stranger, feeling harassed by the daily threat of rejection and expulsion, being, in effect, immigrant-shamed—she got a lawyer, sued the U.S. government, and, with Emma Goldman and Floyd Dell, started a civil-liberties movement that upended American immigration law.

Wait, that’s not what happened! She accepted with grace the needs and demands of her new nation, took no offense, and acknowledged the utility of a quarantine or ban—why would America be bringing in sick people who could spread disease? She settled in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard and became a maid, a job she worked as a true profession, for half a century. Thus was America built.

Peggy’s column appears as we see “doctors without scruples” who defy quarantine and La Raza issuing instructions to non-citizens on how to vote in the upcoming midterms.

 



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
Follow us