5 Irish emigrant stories that may surprise you

For the past 5 years, we have been on a mission to record and share the history of the thousands of emigrants who have left Ireland.

Along the way, the team has uncovered little-known facts, surprising connections and the stories of long-forgotten men and women.

Here are some of the quirky, curious and surprising emigrant stories that we’ve come across:

1. Margaretta Alexandra Eagar

Photo of Margaretta Alexander Edgar

In 1898, Margaret ‘Margaretta’ Eagar from Limerick emigrated to Russia to be a nanny for Tsar Nicholas II. Her story is a favourite of EPIC’s Head of Communications Darragh Doyle.

A close friend of Tsarina Alexandra recommended Eagar for the role, describing her as straightforward, unsophisticated and with no interest in the court – all of which were seen as positive traits. Her experience was top quality too.

She had trained as a nurse in Belfast before taking the role of matron at a girl’s orphanage. She also had experience caring for nine siblings – seven of which were girls. On top of that, she was skilled at cooking, cleaning and sewing.

At first, Eagar was unsure about the job offer. But, at the age of 36, she arrived at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, where would look after Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia over the next six years.

She even taught them English. But, when they began to develop a Limerick accent, the Tsar hired a professional English tutor.

In 1904, not long after the birth of Anastasia, Eagar was suddenly let go. But she received a pension from the Russian government and stayed in touch with the girls until the family’s execution in 1918.

2. Captain Paul Boyton

Illustration of Captain Paul Boyton for a cigarette add in 1876

Captain Paul Boyton, Swam the Straits of Gibraltar, from World’s Champions, Series 2 (N29) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes

In the 1880s, Paul Boyton – aka the ‘Fearless Frogman’ – became known across the world for his daredevil stunts. But he didn’t do it for the thrill or the money. He did it to promote the use of life-saving vulcanised rubber suits.

His story is a favourite of EPIC’s Senior Curator, Nathan Mannion, who managed to confirm Boyton’s Irish ancestry with the help of the Irish Family History Centre.

Boyton, who was a famine-era emigrant from Rathangan, County Kildare, crossed the Atlantic as a boy. As a teenager, he served the Union Navy and later became a lifeguard in Atlantic City.

He pulled off all sorts of daredevil performances in his buoyant rubber suit. Armed with provisions and an axe to ward off sharks, he swam across the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar. But his longest trip was a 3,580 mile journey down the Mississippi.

Boyton’s adventures attracted worldwide press coverage and helped to popularise the survival suits that are still worn by fishermen and submarine crews today.

In 1894, the now famous Boyton settled in New York. According to the Coney Island History Project, he built a water park which featured sea lions and rides like the Shoot-the-Chutes and the Flip-Flap looping coaster.

3. Deirdre Gogarty

Deirdre Gogarty photographed winning a boxing match

Deirdre Gogarty from Drogheda was Ireland’s first female world champion boxer. She even managed to earn the title before female boxing was officially sanctioned here.

Her story is a favourite of Aileesh Carew – EPIC’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “She paved the way for Katie Taylor and countless other Irish female boxers,” she says.

While many people have heard Gogarty’s name, the fact that she had to leave Ireland to pursue her career might come as a surprise.

After seeing Barry McGuigan win the world title in 1985, Gogarty knew she wanted to be a boxer. But, at the time, Irish boxing authorities wouldn’t even allow bouts between women. She was also discouraged by her parents.

Gogarty was eventually allowed into her local boxing club. But she had to leave the country every time she had a fight so she decided to emigrate. Landing in Louisiana, she joined the Ragin’ Cajun Gym – where she is still a coach today.

In 1996, she helped put female boxing on the map during a title fight with Christy Martin in Las Vegas. The following year, she won the lightweight title.

4. Alexander Rou

Envelope with the commemorative stamp № 153 on 100th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Rou.

Envelope with the commemorative stamp № 153 on 100th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Rou.

EPIC’s Historian in Residence, Dr Maurice J. Casey, is an expert on the Irish in the USSR. So he was surprised to discover the Irish heritage of a well-known name in Soviet film.

“I thought I knew just about everything about Russo-Irish links. But I was astonished to learn during my first few months at EPIC that Alexander Rou, a major Soviet film director, was half-Irish,” he says.

Alexander Rou was a much-loved director of Soviet children’s cinema. He adapted traditional Russian fairy tales for his fantasy films, which include the likes of Vasilisa the Beautiful, The Humpbacked Horse and Jack Frost. Many of his films are still watched today.

Rou’s father, Arthur Rowe, was a businessman from County Wexford. He visited Russia for work related to his family’s flour milling business. While on assignment there, he met and married his wife Yulia Karageorgii. A few years later, in 1906, Alexander was born.

Alexander met his family in Ireland just once before his father returned to Ireland, leaving the rest of the family in Russia.

5. Leo the Lion

Leo the Lion - the face of MGM films being filmed by two camera man

“Leo the Lion” being recorded for his roar to be heard at the beginning of MGM films.

Among the hundreds of photos that feature in EPIC’s exhibition, museum director and co-founder Mervyn Greene has one that he always likes to ask visitors about.

“Just below eye level, there is a small photo of a lion with a magnificent mane roaring away. I always ask my guests who it is… Very few get it right,” he says.

The photo features Leo the lion who was born at Dublin Zoo back in the 1950s. He is known throughout the world as the roaring lion that appears at the start of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.

Although MGM has always referred to its mascot as ‘Leo the Lion’, he was the first to actually be named Leo. He was the eighth and final lion to feature on the logo. (The first lion, Slats, was also born in Dublin Zoo.)

Since 1957, Leo has appeared at the beginning of all sorts of famous films from Get Carter and Fame, through to Hannibal and The Pink Panther. But earlier this year, MGM released a new logo featuring a CG lion.

While Leo’s roar remains, the change caused some controversy online. But whatever happens, Leo’s role will be remembered at EPIC.

Want to find out more about interesting and influential Irish emigrants who’ve made a mark on the world? Visit EPIC and explore our research from the past five years.