BEIRUT: While no more than a relative newcomer to Lebanon – I have been here just over five years. There is something deeply familiar in the place and more so the people, who remind me profoundly of persons from my own ancestral homeland of Ireland.
The Lebanese are great travelers – sometimes by choice, sometimes by economic necessity or even worse, by war and famine– and as a group of people, the Lebanese are very entrepreneurial and adaptable against all odds. Like my Irish forebears, they have the gift of charm and gab, and no matter where they go they make friends.
In Beirut, there is a statue enshrining the Lebanese traveler as a key figure of Levantine society – who represents the hundreds-of-thousands of Lebanese who emigrated and whose descendant offspring ended up working in Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, Canada, America and elsewhere.
To name just a few of the many places the Lebanese Diaspora settled.
I am Timothy Kinahan Maloy, a Beirut-based journalist, named in part for an immigrant forebear from Ireland. My mother’s maiden name is Kinahan and her father James Jr. Kinahan, an architect, was the grandson of this gentlemen.
I am the namesake of my great-great-grandfather Timothy Kinahan, who -- like many of his fellow Irish -- came to America during the chaos and death of the Irish Famine, known as the Great Hunger.
Lebanon too has had a string of historical upheavals including several famines that forced many to leave, not to mention endless economic, political and military upheavals that still continue.
Of the Irish famine of the 1840s-50s, historical sources report that approximately one million Irish died and another one million emigrated during this period. Such was the death and leave-taking that Ireland has yet to make up the 8.2 million persons recorded in the 1843 census, to this day. The population declined at the time by an estimated 25 percent.
It left the island nation a sometimes haunting look where large swaths of the landscape are still scenically overgrown, and populated sparsely with abandoned stone cottages along with occasional ivy-covered castle, left to decay.
As if the floodgates had been unleashed, Irish immigration continued steadily after the famine years and well into the late 20th century.
I cite a short eyewitness account from County Mayo during the famine, to give just a small intimation of what the famine was truly like.
“…three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs ... perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation,” wrote English Quaker, William Bennet while traveling in Ireland.
The 21-year-old Timothy Kinahan managed to pay for passage on an old English transport. He left Dublin, almost penniless, on an ancient scow named the British Queen, and appears on the ships manifest both boarding and exiting – it is the exit that is the most dramatic.
The British Queen at over six-decades of age was one of the oldest ships running by the mid-19th century. She was originally a slave trader, "first put to sea in 1785...she then earned her owner further profits during the six Famine years.
Her “worthy” service ended dramatically in December 1851, when she went aground in the ice around Nantucket Island, USA ...her passengers and crew were rescued by the Islanders in a spectacular mission which remains part of the proud maritime history of the old whaling port...” reports an account of the Nantucket Harbormaster.
The British Queen left Dublin with 228 passengers on October 22, 1851. It must have been a difficult voyage...another two or three days might have seen her safely berthed in New York, in time for her storm-battered passengers to celebrate Christmas in the new country.
According to famine historian and author Edward Laxton, the ship faced danger when she reached the "narrow channels ...and shallow waters" ...around Nantucket...she became "stuck fast on the sandy seabed" and began "to keel over..." The ship's passengers and crew waited all night for rescue, but none came.
By morning, in the freezing temperature, they all still waited. Fortunately, the look-out at the Unitarian church spotted the Union Jack on the ship 12 miles out and noticed "that the flag was flying upside down," (a common signal for distress.)
It was not until the next day, after the storm had abated, that the Islanders could manage to heroically rescue them. Two of the passengers died overnight, but during the rescue, not a single passenger was lost. The Islanders cared for the immigrants for six days, and then on Christmas Day, most of the passengers "went aboard the old paddle steamer, the Telegraph, and set off for New York to complete their journey."
Instead of settling in the burgeoning metropolis of New York City, Timothy Kinahan came to reside in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A humble, but hardworking man, he married a fair Irish colleen, Ann, was a factory worker, and within several years joined the US Navy during the bloody US Civil War.
His military records show TK as having hazel eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion. Also noted he had a tattoo. Military records cite simply specifically, the tattoo of the Irish harp, a common sentimental marking in honor of the homeland favorite instrument.
His post-War photo, which I saw for the first time just a few years ago, shows a handsome, gentleman of indeterminate age – it is a black and white picture and one assumes his hair is white, perhaps having turned early from tough living. His face is open, proud, unlined, but also with the hardened sternness that was common to that era.
He is wearing a GAR uniform, popular for reunions and such long after the war – the “Grand Army of the Republic.” Still, trim, he fits his uniform well and like many immigrants, no doubt held great value upon his service to the US Navy and Uncle Sam.
Timothy Kinahan, immigrant, factory worker, and sailor, subsequently lived to 66-years-old, passing away in 1895.
The resilience and drive of this man and all the migrants of that era never fail to bolster my own will to succeed during hard times.
It was starting in this same era around 1860 that war broke out in Lebanon, first between Maronites and Druze and then spread to become intercommunal violence throughout the Ottoman region. From this date, many Lebanese began leaving.
The later famine in Lebanon, (what was still then an Emirate of the Ottoman Empire) was during the WWI era and the result of an Allied naval blockade of the Turks which had the unfortunate effect of causing the death of many Lebanese, particularly in Beirut. For this and other reasons of wanting to escape the Ottoman-ruled Levant thousands-upon-thousands left to settle around the world! The ongoing story of the Diaspora, which continued into the modern Civil War era shall be left for another time, but suffice it say it is a meaningful chapter in Lebanese and regional history.
Dearborn, Michigan is one of the largest single populations of Lebanese, Maronites, and Muslims, outside the Middle East. There was a huge need for autoworkers for the Detroit based industry in the 1920s, so many of these Lebanese families can now boast of having been in the States for over a century. They, like many other immigrants, are a longtime part of American society.
For my Irish forebears and the Lebanese citizens of Dearborn they were never called “Refugees” at the time, they were part of a huge wave of immigrants that came into the United States. These people were workers and the US, a big empty country, then, needed such men and women.
Even with the distance of time, I look back at these people, Irish, Lebanese, Italian, German, Chinese -- all the colors of the rainbow who set forth from their home and family -- to a new land. One that required all the toughness and adaptability they could muster to get on with it - these are the brothers and sisters of the Lebanese traveler and my great, great grandfather.
Wherever these immigrants went, to all the many lands, they built a rich social and historical tapestry that has withstood for generations.
Annahar is featuring an occasional series of personal essays, entitled "Beirut Notebook," from our readers, citizen journalists, and our own correspondents, on their life experiences, ranging from work, travel, encounters, Lebanon living, solutions, fashion, cuisine, culture, family, tech, sport, study, and more. No politics, just Life.
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