narrative by Angela Carothers, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University (c) 2014 Angela Carothers. All rights reserved. photo research & captions by Marion R. Casey, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University
In 1823 a young Irishman named James Cunningham sailed to St John, New Brunswick, but he didn’t stay long; within a month he was aboard another vessel bound for New York.
When the US Census came knocking in 1850, James was living on Mulberry Street at No.233, with his wife Sarah and their four children. He told Census takers that he and his eldest son, Patrick, were employed as porters.
By the time he retired sometime around 1870 he had worked as a pencil maker, a card maker, and eventually seems to have owned or operated his own “card factory.” An 1868 report lists his income for that year at $1,282, and by the time the 1870 Census inquired about his financial status, he was worth $50,000 in real estate and personal goods (an increase of nearly $20,000 from the 1860 figure). But despite his good fortune, life in New York was clearly not without its challenges for the Cunningham family: his youngest daughter, Ann, born sometime in 1849 or 1850, never lived to see her sixth birthday. While we don’t know exactly when or how she died, we do know that she appeared on the 1850 US Census as being eight months old but was not listed as a member of the family just five years later, on the New York State Census of 1855.James was born at the turn of the century in a place called Fintragh, in the townland of Killybegs, County Donegal. While we don’t know what inspired him to leave home for America, we do know that he left well before the worst of the nineteenth century’s famine periods in Ireland.
By the time James opened his first accounts at the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank in 1851, his parents had died and one brother had emigrated to Tennessee. His other two brothers remained in Ireland, and his sister ended up in Scotland.
It’s not clear whether James married Sarah Devaney before he left home or after arriving in the New World, but we do know that the first of their children, Patrick, was born in 1829 in New York. The New York State Census of 1855 reported that Sarah had arrived in the city a year after James had. We don’t know for sure what part of Ireland she was from, but in 1848 a Charles Devany arrived in New York from Killybegs; in 1856 he and James Cunningham opened a joint account at the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, by which time he listed his residence as being 233 Mulberry Street. Charles’ occupation is listed, improbably, as “farmer.” While there was not much farming happening near Mulberry at that stage, it is possible he was farming farther outside of town but listed the Mulberry address because it was James’ and more convenient to the bank. What exactly the relationship between these two men was is unclear, but it seems likely that Charles was a relation of Sarah’s, and while he and James may not have been associated with one another in Ireland, they were both from the Killybegs area and at the very least had a bond in their shared homeland.
Charles is not the only other Killybegs resident to end up linked to James Cunningham and this block of Mulberry Street. During the period between 1850 and 1860, which coincided with the worst of the Famine years, the section of Mulberry Street between Prince and Spring Streets became a miniature colony of men and women from the same small corner of Ireland.
No. 233 Mulberry Street, in 1855, is recorded as being a brick building, worth approximately $7,000. The 1857 Perris Insurance Map shows two buildings at that address. The front is a “first class brick or stone” building, with a slate or metal roof atop it and a store below – likely a tenement-style building but it certainly seems to have been one of the nicer sort. The back building is of the same construction but lacks the store underneath.
Next door, at No. 231 Mulberry, was the same arrangement. Here, thanks to the EISB records, we know that at least eight individuals resided who claimed Killybegs and its environs as their original home. Even more interestingly, many of them shared an occupation, and several of the families seem to have intermarried (though before or after their move to the US is not always clear). There were, of course, many more people living on Mulberry Street in the 1850s, and more even within these few buildings, but these are the few we know so much about, thanks to the EISB records. Even this small sampling shows a remarkable clustering effect, with men and women sharing surnames, townlands, and other kinship and geographical ties, coalescing into a new community in their new home.
In the 1850s and ’60s, we know that James Cunningham worked in manufacturing pencils and cards. Many of his neighbors between 227 and 234 Mulberry Street , particularly – though not exclusively – those from Killybegs, worked in related occupations: at least 5 card makers and 16 peddlers (including one “Pedlar at the West” and a “Traveling Merchant” who might have been hawking James’ goods somewhere toward the frontier), along with a barber, a candle maker, a longshoreman, a marble cutter, three farmers, a pair of grocers, a porter and a dressmaker, together with laborers, housekeepers and domestics.
Of the card makers, John Haffey came from Meenaneary, Donegal (a mere five or six miles from Fintragh)*, John Bryce was from Fintragh itself, Ann and Mary Cunningham were both from Killybegs, and only Edward Lewis, who came from Ballybrood, County Limerick and lived across the street at No. 230 Mulberry, was from another area. Similarly, the peddlers had a common geographic background, only one hailing from outside Donegal, and only two of the remainder from anywhere more than ten miles distant from Fintragh, mostly within Killybegs. Based on the 1857 Perris map, it is even possible that they all worked within a block or two of their new homes: there are several buildings in the area which fall into the category that might house a small printing shop.
James Cunningham, as an already-established resident of the area and a businessman, served as an anchor and center of gravity for this group, employing many of his neighbors and opening shared or trust accounts at the EISB in their names. James is listed on 17 EISB accounts linked with his Mulberry Street address. Of these, only three are solely in his name. He opened trust accounts for his three children (Patrick, William, and Mary) in 1851, within a year of the EISB’s opening. He also had two accounts for his wife Sarah, and one for his nephew Patrick. Some of these accounts collected quite a bit of money (one of Sarah’s, at closing in 1855, totaled over $800). Many of those for his neighbors and likely employees grew slowly, in small deposits often of simply the previous year’s interest, but grow they did. In 1855 a Bridget Cunningham, born in Ireland and 20 years old, was listed as a servant in the Cunningham residence. By 1860 she is gone, but a young Mary Cunningham (also 20), who is working as a card maker, is living with them. Mary, who hailed from Killybegs, opened account 7810 at the EISB in 1854, just a year after arriving in the country. To have left Ireland at 15, during the worst decade of the Famine, and not only to be living with relatives but to be saving money so quickly, is impressive. She opened the account with $25 in savings, but within a decade had accumulated a healthy balance of over $300. Mary is just one example of the success to be had in the new life on Mulberry Street, thanks, in part, to James Cunningham and his family.
* The family names in the register of the Slieve League National School in Meenaveen at the end of the nineteenth century mirror the names in this Killybegs enclave in New York City. See http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~donegal/SlieveLeaguensb.htm