Ahoy there – An Irishwoman’s Diary on how the US navy wooed the women of Cork

Veronica Harris’s passport photograph, part of the exhibition “Portraits: Women of Cork and US Sailors’ Irish Wives, 1917-1919”

Veronica Harris’s passport photograph, part of the exhibition “Portraits: Women of Cork and US Sailors’ Irish Wives, 1917-1919”


Wearing a United States navy sweetheart brooch pinned to her wide-brimmed hat, Veronica Harris (née Dillon) from Castlemartyr, Co Cork, looks straight to camera for the passport photograph that was taken of her prior to emigrating to Brooklyn to join her American sailor and electrician husband Frank Harris, whom she married in Aghada, Co Cork in 1918.

Veronica is one of 20 Cork women featured in an exhibition at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh entitled “Portraits: Women of Cork and the US Navy 1917-1919”. It’s part of the centenary commemorations recalling the US navy arriving in Cork during the first World War.

The navy’s responsibility was to protect the convoys bringing American soldiers to France, and engage in war against German U-boats.

The story of the Americans in Cork is as much social as military. Their wooing of Cork women was far from plain sailing. It did not go down well with the natives, whose jealousy of these adventurous and flush young men led to street violence.

Historian Damian Shiels, who researched and curated the exhibition, says that while the US sailors turned the heads of young Cork women and married dozens of them, they were not generally liked in their temporary base.

There were about 6,000 of them; mainly in Cork and Cobh, but also in places including Bantry Bay, Bere Island and Whiddy.

“There were rising tensions in relation to what was going to come out with the War of Independence,” says Damian.

Added to that was this serious competition for the hearts of the local women. And it got ugly.

Margaret Lapenta (née Ring), known as Madge, from Cork city, had been to the theatre in Cork with a friend, Rose Blackshields, and their American dates on September 3rd, 1917. While making their way home, they came across “a mob of young men who had been harassing US servicemen. The crowd prevented the couples from passing, and the sailors fled the scene. When they attempted to follow, Madge was struck in the eye by one of the mob while Rose was hit in the mouth. The events of the night ultimately resulted in a police baton-charge. Madge apparently lost her job as a result.”

Some weeks later, at the hearing into the incident, Madge was asked if she would go out with an American again. “Sure I would”, was her emphatic reply, and true to her word, on April 13th, 1919, she married Anthony Lapenta, an Italian-born machinist’s mate, in Essex.

Madge arrived in New York on August 29th, 1919. The couple had two children: Thomas Lawrence and Eileen Mary. Madge died in 1992 and is buried in Brooklyn.

For these women, most of whom had never before been outside of Ireland, emigrating to America was a courageous – and romantic – move.

Mary Josephine Clark (née Dea), known as Mollie, from Youghal, married Eugene Clark, a first-class gunner’s mate, from Floyd County, Iowa, in early 1918. The couple’s daughter, Mary Josephine Gene was born in Cork on October 21st, 1918. But by the time of her birth, tragedy had struck the young family. Two weeks previously, Eugene, while working on his vessel afflicted by heavy seas, was swept overboard and drowned. When she gave birth to her daughter, Mollie was unaware of her husband’s fate. A cablegram in the National Archives, Washington DC, dated October 25th, 1918, states: “. . . next of kin wife Josephine Clark 13 Smith St. Cork Ireland now critically ill we will inform her as soon as her condition warrants”.

Despite being widowed, Mollie went ahead with her planned move to the US and lived with her deceased husband’s family in Waterloo, Iowa. She married her late husband’s brother, Harry.

The couple had children of their own, but by 1930, Mollie was recorded as divorced, although still living with her parents-in-law. She died in the US in the 1970s and her Cork-born daughter died in Iowa in 2010.

The American sailors made quite an impact on Cork – so much so that the US navy permanently banned the majority of their service men from entering the city, given the trouble they inadvertently caused.

In Cobh to view the exhibition (which continues until September 17th), I saw a group of Americans in wind-cheaters and big sunglasses who were docked for a couple of hours from the cruise liner Celebrity Eclipse. On the terrace of a restaurant, they sipped beers and listened to a guitar-playing musician singing Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears. The song references 15-year old Annie Moore’s emigration from Cobh to “the land of liberty” in 1892.

Who’d have guessed that a couple of decades later, young Cork women would also make the voyage – for love rather than desperation.