Paul Linehan loved the melody of a ballad he performed onstage for years, but the place and person it featured felt far away from his life.
… the first to cross the threshold
Of that isle of hope and tears
Was Annie Moore from Ireland
Who was only fifteen years
Annie Moore was the first immigrant who walked through the doors when Ellis Island opened more than 130 years ago. These days, there are statues of her in Ireland and at the historic US site. Her name is on a pub in New York City, a National Park Service boat and even an AI platform that aims to help match refugees with communities where they can resettle.
Linehan is a 54-year-old primary school teacher and professional singer in County Kildare, Ireland. And as far as he knew, when he started performing “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” as part of his repertoire, being Irish was the only thing he and Annie Moore had in common.
“I enjoyed singing the song,” he says, “but it was about a remote historical figure for me.”
A surprising discovery in 2016 changed his perspective on the tune – and changed his life in ways he never expected.
That year Linehan learned the first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island wasn’t merely a remote historical figure. She was his cousin – more precisely, his first cousin three times removed.
All those years as Linehan had been singing the ballad, an American genealogist had been searching for Annie Moore’s descendants. With the help of a fellow genealogy buff in Ireland, she tracked down several of Linehan’s family members. Linehan says they were as shocked to learn of the connection as she was thrilled to find them.
“This was completely out of the blue. … We didn’t know anything about this,” he says.
More than 4.5 million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1930. And now, about 31.5 million people in the US claim Irish ancestry.
Linehan notes it’s not uncommon for people living in Ireland to pass down stories of relatives who left. But that hadn’t happened in his family.
After discovering his family’s connection with the first of more than 12 million immigrants to pass through Ellis Island, Linehan was inspired to go on a journey of his own.
“The story of Annie Moore has led me places and has gotten me involved in a creative process I never expected,” he says.
This spring, he’s back onstage singing “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” once again. And he’s singing a collection of new songs, too, as part of a show he’s written about Moore’s life.
There’s still so much to be learned from Annie Moore and her story, Linehan says, and he’s determined to share it with a wider audience.
‘A rosy-cheeked Irish girl’ arrives in New York
The story of Annie Moore captivated audiences from the moment she arrived on American shores. On January 1, 1892, reporters from New York newspapers looked on as Moore walked through the large double doors of the new federal immigration depot at Ellis Island. She’d traveled on the SS Nevada on a 12-day journey from Queenstown, Ireland, with two younger brothers by her side.
In its headline describing the day, the New York Times described Moore as a “rosy-cheeked Irish girl.” The New York Tribune’s headline noted she’d made the journey to join her parents. “SHE GOT SEVERAL PRIZES,” the New York Herald pointed out.
According to the newspaper accounts, a Catholic priest blessed Moore and a top official handed her a $10 gold coin to commemorate the occasion. Then she and her brothers were escorted to a waiting room to reunite with their parents, who’d been living in New York for four years.
From there, the teenager’s celebrity faded. But her name became a storied part of American and Irish immigration history.
Who was Annie Moore? And what became of her after her much-celebrated moment in the spotlight?
Those are questions that professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak has thought about for decades.
“She’s my grand obsession. Every time I reach the finish line, she finds a way to pull me back in,” says Smolenyak, who also works as a cold case researcher for federal investigators, delves into the family histories of celebrities and was once the chief family historian for Ancestry.com.
Smolenyak was working on “They Came to America,” a PBS documentary about immigration, nearly 20 years ago when she started to dive into records as she worked to tell Annie Moore’s story. Popular lore and even a few books had previously told the story of an Annie Moore who’d moved to Texas, married a descendant of a famous Irish patriot, been one of the first White settlers in New Mexico, run a hotel and died in a streetcar accident.
But Smolenyak, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, says she discovered something surprising when she looked up Census records: That particular Annie Moore was born in Illinois.
For years, historians had been telling the story of the wrong Annie Moore.
So what was the real Annie Moore’s story?
With so much uncertainty and a deadline looming, Smolenyak cut Moore from the documentary. But she kept asking the question.
Finding the answer seemed like an impossible task, given that a name like Annie Moore is almost as common as John Smith.
“It was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Smolenyak says.
On her blog, Smolenyak offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could help her unearth the truth.
In the end, researching Moore’s younger siblings gave her the clues she needed to unlock the mystery.
A phone call helps uncover the truth
Michael Shulman still remembers the call he got from Smolenyak.
“Is this Michael Shulman, the son of Anna Moore Shulman?” she asked him.
At first, he feared the caller was a debt collector. When she said she was a genealogist, Shulman says he knew instantly why she’d reached out.
“I said, ‘Oh, are you looking for Annie Moore?’” Shulman recalls. “And then there’s this pregnant silence on the phone.”
Smolenyak seemed taken aback by his response. But Shulman, a financial adviser in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says his branch of the family had grown up hearing about their connection to the legendary immigrant for years.
“We’ve always known that Annie Moore, our grandfather’s sister, was the first person at Ellis Island,” he says.
Shulman put Smolenyak in touch with his sister, who’d learned many details of their family history from their mother. She provided the last name of the baker’s son Moore had married: Schayer.
That, Smolenyak says, was a key detail that pointed her in the right direction. “At last, I had something to go on,” she says.
Another key piece was a naturalization certificate New York’s records commissioner helped track down for Philip Moore, which helped confirm that family members had remained in New York City. Church records also helped verify more details of the story.
Smolenyak says she’ll never forget how it felt when things finally started coming together after years of searching.
“That moment when you solve the mystery that you’ve been living with for a long time, that’s what motivates me,” Smolenyak says. “To finally get traction on her, that’s the first step to tell her story. It was a very special moment.”
Records revealed the real story of Annie Moore
Despite what the song lyrics say, Smolenyak says the real Annie Moore was 17 when she arrived at Ellis Island. Some records give a different age; Smolenyak says that’s because Moore likely lied about her age to get a lower fare, a common practice.
The real Annie Moore never traveled out West, founded a hotel or perished in a streetcar accident. Her story, Smolenyak says, was far less eye-catching. And that, according to the genealogist, is what makes it so powerful – and important.
“She was so much more representative of the American immigrant,” Smolenyak says.
After arriving in New York’s Lower East Side, it’s likely Annie Moore never left, Smolenyak says. She married Joseph Augustus Schayer, the son of a German baker. Over the years, they lived at multiple addresses in the neighborhood. They had at least 10 children; many didn’t survive.
“She watched half of them go to the grave by the age of 3,” Smolenyak says. “If you look at their death certificates, it’s a variety of causes, but they all track back to poverty. They all tie to life in tenement slums.”
Moore herself died when she was 50 years old. Heart failure was listed as her cause of death.
In 2006, Smolenyak unveiled her findings at a press conference at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. A group of Moore’s American family members sat in the audience, swapping stories. They’d come from across the United States after being contacted by Smolenyak. And to the genealogist, another thing was striking.
In her presentation, she showed a slide of 10 surnames of Annie Moore’s descendants. Many ethnicities were represented in the group.
“I liked that her family was typically American. Within just a couple generations, they climbed the socioeconomic ladder and they had married people with all sorts of different backgrounds. That, to me, is part of the magic,” she says. “Annie’s story is our story.”
Moore, like so many immigrants who came after her, left everything she knew behind for the promise of a better life.
“Especially when you’re talking about Annie’s phase, the Ellis Island age, people making that decision – boy, that took guts,” Smolenyak says. “The best they were going to do was communicate by letter (with the loved ones they left behind). It was like going to the moon.”
The musical about Moore’s life begins with an ‘American wake’
“Annie Moore - First Immigrant,” Linehan’s show about his cousin’s life, begins with a wake.
It’s the kind of gathering that would frequently happen before family members set out for the United States. They became so common that the Irish developed a new term to describe them: “American wake.”
“In Ireland, when people were emigrating, it really was considered a wake – that someone was dead and wouldn’t be returning,” Linehan says.
Emotions were mixed.
“The atmosphere was that mix of excitement from those who were leaving and the sadness of those who were remaining, with the knowledge that this was the last time that they would see these people,” Linehan says.
So Linehan decided to imagine what Annie Moore’s last night in Ireland would have been like. In that scene, he plays her uncle, who she and her brothers had been living with for years before they left for the United States.
He invites members of the audience to join in as they sing traditional Irish songs and Annie Moore performs traditional Irish dances onstage.
“That was an important point for me to have in the show, that notion of the Irishness, that unbeknownst to her, she was going to be leaving behind as well,” Linehan says.
After she left in December 1891, Annie Moore never returned to Ireland
After decades, she finally got a gravestone
Little is known about Annie Moore’s funeral.
It wasn’t until 2008 – 84 years after her death – that a tombstone was erected at her previously unmarked grave at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
After Smolneyak’s sleuthing put them in touch, a group of her descendants led a campaign to give Moore’s grave a marker befitting her place in history.
Hundreds of people came to the dedication ceremony.
“It was really amazing,” Smolenyak recalls.
In addition to family members, Brendan Graham, the novelist and composer who wrote “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” was among those who attended the event. Ronan Tynan, one of the famed Irish Tenors, performed the song, which features a mournful refrain describing the uncertainty of arriving at Ellis Island and the sadness of leaving your home behind:
Isle of hope, isle of tears
Isle of freedom, isle of fears
But it’s not the isle you left behind
That isle of hunger, isle of pain
Isle you’ll never see again
But the isle of home is always on your mind
Annie Moore’s cousin hopes to bring his show about her life to New York
Historically, genealogical records in Ireland have been much harder to navigate, Smolenyak says. It was a decade after tracing Moore’s American family members when she finally managed to track down Moore’s Irish descendants in a process that she says took “considerable digging and a dash of good fortune.”
After she did, they suggested Linehan would be the perfect family representative to travel to New York in March 2016 and sing part of “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” before a group of dignitaries at a gala honoring Irish American history.
On April 2 Linehan will perform that song once again in his show about Moore, before an audience in the Irish county where she lived for the first 17 years of her life.
“We’re bringing Annie Moore back to Cork,” Linehan says, noting that he expects many of his extended family members to be there for the show.
“This is the first time, in a sense, that we’ll have the opportunity to celebrate her and to acknowledge her in our hometown, and have a gathering in her honor,” he says.
Next year, 150 years after Annie Moore’s birth in Ireland and 100 years after her death in New York, Linehan is hoping to find a way for the show to make the same journey his cousin made 131 years ago.
He’s still searching for financial backing and not yet sure how he’ll get the show to New York. But he knows American audiences will connect with the performance.
“A third of Americans can trace their ancestry to Ellis Island. … So much of American greatness has been tracked back through those immigrants who came,” he says.
For now, he says, his focus is on preparing for the musical’s upcoming performance in Cork and doing everything he can to share its message, which Linehan says is as relevant today as it would have been when Moore made her journey.
Immigration, he says, is “very much a live issue” in Ireland, where nearly 75,000 Ukrainians have taken refuge in the past year.
Linehan hopes audience members will realize, as he did once he learned about his connection with Moore, that it wasn’t long ago that members of their own families had to make such difficult journeys.
“We no longer have to leave our country. But now others are coming to us. And so…how do we smooth the road for them in terms of their settling in?” Linehan says. “Annie Moore and her family had the same needs as a family from Ukraine coming to my school in Kildare. People are looking for safety for their family. They’re looking for bettering their life.”
Linehan says his show doesn’t sugarcoat how hard life was for Moore and other immigrants who came to the United States. And those details of her story, he says, are often what resonate most.
He’s heard people in the audience crying during a song that describes the many children Moore lost. And after the show, many spectators have approached him to share stories of their own ancestors’ struggles to make it in the United States.
The most important takeaway from the show, Linehan says, emerges in its final song, when Annie Moore comes to realize that her difficult life paved the way for future generations to succeed.
As the actress who plays Moore belts out a triumphant melody, Linehan sings the harmony.
This is the first time he’s written a musical, and it hasn’t been easy.
But at the end of each show, Linehan says he looks out at the audience and smiles – grateful that he’s had the chance to help his cousin’s voice be heard, and that so many people are listening.
CNN’s Michael Besozzi contributed to this report.