Irishmen killed building America finally get proper burial


AMERICA:Just five weeks after sailing to find work in the US, in 1832, five Irish people perished, ignored by wealthy compatriots

FOUR IRISHMEN and an Irishwoman were buried at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania yesterday, 180 years after they are believed to have been murdered at Duffy’s Cut, 20 miles west of Philadelphia.

The remains of a fifth Irishman, John Ruddy, will be shipped to the family plot in Donegal this summer if, as expected, DNA and isotope tests confirm his identity.

The Irish labourers were among a group of 57 who sailed from Derry on the John Stampin June 1832. Within five weeks of arriving, all had perished.

Yesterday, they were accorded honours they were denied during their short, cruel lives. Irish tenors sang the Star-Spangled Bannerand the Soldier’s Song,accompanied by seven pipers in kilts.

Speakers included Sister Patricia Fadden, the president of Immaculata University, which was the driving force behind the Duffy’s Cut project; Prof William Watson of the history department at Immaculata; and his twin brother, Francis, a Lutheran minister. Bishop Michael Fitzgerald from Philadelphia read prayers. Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish embassy, travelled from Washington. Members of the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade fired Civil War muskets in a final salute.

The story starts in 1828, when Irishman Philip Duffy won a contract to build Mile 59 of the Philadelphia-Columbus railway.

Mr Duffy enlisted “a sturdy looking band of the sons of Erin”, according to an 1829 newspaper article. The men moved heavy clay, stones and shale from the top of a hill to an adjacent valley, hence the name Duffy’s Cut. They were poor, Irish-speaking Catholics who would have been paid “$10 to $15 a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance for whiskey” according to a British historian of the time.

Cholera broke out and the workers’ camp was quarantined. Some escaped but returned because the surrounding affluent Scotch-Irish population refused to help them.

“Of all the places in the world, this was the worst place for them to be,” says Prof Watson, a descendant of Irish Catholic Donnellys and Scottish Protestant Watsons. “They were expendable. Because they were recently arrived Irishmen, they were assumed to be the cause of the epidemic. It was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish prejudice; white-on-white racism.”

Prof Watson learned of the story in 2002, when he found a secret report that had been kept by his grandfather, an assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Janet Monge, an anthropologist who worked on the project, found signs of violence at or near the time of death on all the remains.

“One of the skulls had a bullet hole,” says Laura Kennedy, the curator of the Duffy’s Cut museum at Immaculata and one of 10 pall-bearers at yesterday’s ceremony. “Most of the wounds look like an axe blow or pick.”

The female bones are believed to have been a washer woman “because of the way the vertebrae in her neck were worn down, from leaning over”, says Ms Kennedy. “She had puncture wounds in the top of her skull.”

In 2005, excavations near the Amtrak line unearthed old glass buttons, crockery and a clay pipe stamped with an Irish harp – “the oldest example of Irish nationalism in North America”, says Prof Watson.

Four more years passed, and the project enlisted the help of a geologist armed with a ground-penetrating radar. The first remains, those of John Ruddy, were discovered.

Mr Ruddy never grew an upper right first molar, a rare genetic defect. When the find was reported in Ireland, two dozen members of the Ruddy family contacted Watson. One of them, William Ruddy, travelled to Pennsylvania to give a DNA sample.

“The body we excavated had a one in a million anomaly,” says Watson. “There are not a million Ruddys and there are not a million people in Donegal, and here’s a Ruddy and he has it and two of his aunts have it and they also have a story in the family of a guy coming over to the US in the 1830s, working on the railroad and vanishing. What are the odds of that? How could it not be him?”

Prof Watson says “hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands” of Irishmen died building US railroads and canals.

“The doors are opening slowly” to excavate the bones of the other 51 victims from Amtrak and private property at Duffy’s Cut.

Immaculata University is establishing an institute to explore at least six more mass graves in Pennsylvania and neighbouring states.

“The industrial revolution was made by Irishmen,” says Prof Watson. “Nobody talks about the toll it took on them. We’re looking at the seamy underside of the industrial revolution.”

The men and woman buried yesterday were laid at the foot of a 10ft high limestone Celtic cross sculpted by Johnny Rowe in Stradbally.

Surrounding graves contain 19th-century industrial tycoons, now equal in death to the labourers they exploited. Prof Watson says, “The immigrant workers have a bigger memorial than most of the rich men.”