Irish artist’s Ellis Island photos highlight origins of today’s Americans

Colour images include portrait of Cork girl Annie Moore, the first immigrant through the gates

The day Annie Moore landed on Ellis Island in 1892 she was just 17½ years old. The girl from Co Cork, who arrived with her brothers Philip and Anthony to rejoin their parents, became the first documented migrant to go through the processing centre on the small island in New York harbour.

Yet when Matt Loughrey decided to colourise some old photographs of migrants who had passed through the checkpoint, he chose one of Moore that was taken more than 30 years later. "That was more representative of her," he says. "In that picture, I see the face of a woman who has lived her life as an immigrant in the United States. "

Moore's life wasn't easy. She spent her time in the Irish slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and died there when she was 50.

Loughrey’s interest in the faces of those who had passed through the immigration centre seeking entry to the New World was first piqued in 2014.


“I happened to stumble upon the information about it on the internet and was astounded by the numbers,” he says. “Some days 10,000 people would pass through the station.”

He discovered the New York Public Library had a store of photographs taken at Ellis Island, some of which it had bought and others which had been donated. He contacted the library, which then emailed the scanned images to him.

Most of the photographs had been taken in glass plate by Lewis Hine, an American sociologist and photographer. For others, the photographer is unknown.

Loughrey says the images have particular resonance today.

“If you look at Ellis Island those people were fleeing persecution,” he says. “That’s what’s happening now too. It’s very relevant in these times.”

In addition to Annie Moore, Loughrey also worked to add colour to pictures of other Ellis Island migrants, including German and Finnish stowaways, women from Syria, Albania and Czechoslovakia, a Romanian shepherd, an Armenian Jewish man and a little Italian girl who had found a penny.

Loughrey, who lives in Westport, Co Mayo, describes himself as a hybrid. “My father is from Gloucester and my mother is from Achill. My grandparents went to England for work and were persecuted for being Irish in England.”

With this work he hopes to highlight the origins of today’s Americans, many of whom have ancestors who passed through Ellis Island.

Loughrey has done five other colourisation projects, including versions of old black-and-white stills released by Nasa in 2015 published recently in National Geographic magazine, among other publications. One image shows astronaut John Glenn in 1962, for example, another is of control at the Kennedy Space Center in 1969. He also produced colourised photographs for the 1916 centenary celebrations.

Loughrey's work can be seen on his Instagram or on his Facebook page My Colourful Past.