Monday, July 25, 2011

The Big Dig - Part 2

The inventory has been checked.  Flights are booked.  The security fences will be up soon.  The Big Dig is coming back.  Two of the archaeologists from Queens Uni in Belfast will be returning along with 3 Graduate students.  They will be met by 3 UMass students and will form this year's team.  The dates are set for Monday, August 8 through Friday, August 12.  While the team tries to stay focused on the work at hand, visitors are invited to come by and take a look.

If you recall last year 2 pits were dug.  The one on the right contained a midden, a garbage heap, filled with cow bones, pottery shards, a clay pipe, etc.  The pit on the left was the mystery that awaits us.  The foundation stone was found just as the dig came to a close.  What finds await us this year?

A lot of research has gone on over the past year.  Studies have been done on who owned the land (what a great little story that is!).  There has also been a study on what lies under the ground!  Stay tuned for updates as they occur.

On another note- today was my last day of walking the cemetery.  For 18 days I've walked around with our Civil War burial list, verifying burials against markers and monuments.  Eighteen days ago I had high hopes of matching 80 or 90 % of the list.  The final result was far, far less.  Of course I had to choose the 18 hottest days of the summer.  But the deed is done.  The team is still formatting all the data.  We hope you can join us for this year's tour of the cemetery in September.  We will have some great new stories of our Irish forebears to share.

As this blog approaches its first anniversary I notice we've had almost 2000 hits.  Hopefully folks are enjoying the posts.  Feedback is needed.  Let me know what you enjoy, or want to know.  Or maybe those 2000 hits are all from some spam machine and no one is out there!

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I'm uncomfortable with the term "historian" when it is applied to me.  Those are very dedicated individuals who spend much time researching and seeking how and why things happened.  Me, I'm a collector of other people's stories- the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the true, and the....... what we wished really happened.  For a number of years I did oral histories with members of the community.  It all started because of my Dad.  As a kid we'd drive around and he'd tell me the story of the Acre Shamrocks and swimming in the canals, stuff that would make a great oral history.  Unfortunately I never gave him the time to do a history with me.  I've lost that chance.  As I spent day 14 doing the Civil War census in the cemetery, I recalled one story he shared with me.

When he was a kid living on Waugh Street in the Acre a neighbor passed away.  This must have been about 1925 when he was 7 or 8.  His mother took him by the hand to attend the deceased woman's wake.  He remembered seeing a wreath hanging on the door with a black crepe ribbon to announce to passers-by that the family was in mourning.  He had never been to a wake before and had no idea what to expect.  They walked into what would be called today the family room.  The deceased was laid out in a casket, of course provided by O'Donnell's.  The house was mobbed with family and friends.  He remembered the gnarled hands of the deceased neighbor with the rosary beads intertwined.  Candles burned at both ends of the coffin.  His mother and he took a seat.  There was no hope of escaping.  The table before him had glasses stuffed with cigarettes and a bowl with clay pipes and tobacco.  These were meant as tokens of remembrance from the family.  The room where the deceased was laid out was quiet and reverent with mostly women whispering and nodding and holding lace handkerchiefs in their hands. 

The kitchen was another story.  People who came to the house brought plates of sandwiches or cakes.  It overflowed with offerings.  Of course there was the whiskey.  Jugs of the "water of life" bought at local watering holes covered what empty space there was in the kitchen. This was the male's domain.  Smoke filled the room. and the glasses were being passed around again and again.  My Dad loaded his plate with food, and his mom quickly escorted him out of this part of the house.  He sat in the back of the viewing room while his mother made the rounds with the other ladies.  As he was eating off his plate he almost jumped out of his chair.  In back of him was a row of old ladies, really old ladies.  They were like a chorus from some Greek tragedy.  In unison they started high pitch wailing that went on and on.  A few other old ladies joined in.  "She's gone.  She's gone"  Then there were a series of lamentations not in any words he could recognize.  Followed by, "We'll never see her again."  There were intercessions to Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.  Then the wailing would begin again.  Much later he asked his mother who they were and she said they were the keeners. Some were family members, but other were paid professionals whose job was to set the mood and recount the actions of the soul who had passed.  It was a practice that had pretty much died away by that time, and maybe he wasn't aware that he was witnessing one of the last grand Irish wakes in Lowell.  He told the story a number of times over his life, and always said the sound of the keeners was something he always would remember. 

Back at the wake, the mourners carried on until the priest arrived and then all the women got on their knees for the rosary.  The sound from the kitchen of the glasses being filled and refilled mixed in with the Hail Marys.  This same routine would be carried on for 2 more nights.  His mother walked him back home only to turn around and return to the wake.  It was her job to "keep watch" the whole night with a few of the other women.  They would spend the entire night with the deceased telling stories of her life and struggles and then begin the rosary again.  "...... now and at the hour of our death.  Amen"

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lowell's First Irish Mayor

I've spent 11 days walking the yards of the cemetery.  As soon as I think I see an end in sight, even more questions arise.  We started out with a list of 600 names hoping that we would find each location.  I get to the cemetery about 8 am hoping to avoid the heat (ya right).  Then I walk each range of each yard.  There are literally dozens and dozens of missing markers.  Why?  After all the research I've done over the years, you'd think I would have realized the answer.  Lawn mowers.  Every time the lawn mowers pass over a monument they leave behind the clippings.  If the grass is cut weekly each year, you can imagine the amount of thatch that has accumulated.  That means many of the "missing" markers are there, just buried under multiple inches of thatch.  The other surprise is the number of markers that have been found that are NOT on the list.  Where did they come from?  Why weren't they recorded?

If you're like me when I boot up the computer to search for something, an hour later I'm on a site I have no idea how I got there.  As I walk the cemetery the same thing happens.  I've uncovered slate markers I never knew existed in yards where they should not be.  BUT that must be another project.  Then I uncover names that ring a bell and have nothing to do with the Irish in the Civil War.  That's where I get myself into trouble getting myself off topic.  Like today's topic- John J Donovan.  I came across his stone right at the main entrance and knew I had heard of him before.  A great Lowell researcher and co-tour guide for our Nat'l Park workshops, Gray Fitzsimons, had written a great article on Donovan.  With his permission I include the following-

John J. Donovan

In 1846, at age thirteen, John J. Donovan came to Lowell, Massachusetts from Yonkers, New York. His widowed mother, who was born in Ireland, worked hard in Lowell to support him while he attended public schools. As a young boy he saw many poor and hungry Irish people coming to Lowell, escaping the horrific famine in their homeland. He went to Lowell High School, which was somewhat unusual but not impossible for an Irish lad, and after graduation, worked in a grocery store on Central Street. The store's owner, David Gove, was an old Yankee from New Hampshire. In the late 1860s, Gove took Donovan in as a partner. A few years later he owned the entire business. In 1873, he built a new grocery store on Central Street. This 3 1/2 story brick building was one of the fanciest stores in the neighborhood. Eventually, he invested in other businesses, including a paper mill in nearby Dracut.

Donovan became active in city politics in the early 1880s, serving as a board member for Lowell's overseers of the poor. In 1882 he ran for mayor on the Democratic ticket. He won a close election, becoming Lowell's first Irish-American mayor. He was re-elected by an even larger vote the following year. With his wife, Mary E. Seede, he settled in a home on Branch Street. They had a son and three daughters. Two of their girls graduated from Smith College.

In the 1890s he devoted time to new business ventures, as president of the Washington Bank and manager of the Coburn Bobbin & Shuttle Company. Some said of him, "Look what has become of this once-poor Irish boy from Lowell."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Gettysburg and Lowell's Irish

I've spent 6 days this week with some hardy volunteers walking the ranges.  The task is daunting.  I have to train myself to stop reading the inscriptions of each stone I walk by.  If you drive down St Peter's Ave. on your right is an obelisk belonging to Captain David Roche who died 148 years ago today.  I leave it to the words of Lowell/s Charles Sampas as he wrote in 1945 at the end of WWII-

Just as the battles of England were won on the playing fields of Eton, so, too, spine of the battles of our Civil War were won on the playing fields of the Bartlett and Mann and other schools, as well as the drilling grounds ol the North and South Commons.
For in the late 1830's, the military tradition was strong here. Young men—as always—loved uniforms, loved marching, had their own companies. This is in sharp contrast to the era following the First World War when militarism took a nose-dive and the young men of Lowell abhorred its trappings and mannerisms. The pacificism of young Lowellites in the 1920's was indeed a far cry from the pro-Civil War tradition hereabouts.
For example, in Lowell history there must be a chapter reserved for The Hill Cadets The boy from the Acre. The Fighting Irishmen who wrote such a magnificent chapter in the Civil War. Their exploits could fill a book! , Who shall forget gallant "Davey?" David W. Roche, captain. He had enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Hill Cadets, which was attached to the 16th Massachusetts infantry. How proud he uas of his men! What great care he took of them' And why not? They -were men of superlative courage, they never retreated, they went forward or they died they knew no other choice.
Captain Roche lived that code And he died by that code He was killed in the midst of that panorama of madness that
was Gettysburg—in that battle which shall ever range with the greatest of battles' The Somme, The Ardennes, Stalingrad, Two Jima He died amidst the cannon roar, the horses, the agony of that deep summer day.
Of whom it was written: "He was one of Ireland's most noble sons, possessed of the real Irish impetuosity and courage."

Roche would not be the only casualty that day.  On the day of his funeral other bodies were being sent home from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  And some never were to return to the home town.  The Courier on the day of his funeral states that another group with new uniforms would be leaving to join the Union forces.
It makes the work we are doing in the cemetery that much more valuable.