Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Comings and Goings

Before leaving Irvinestown we made a stop at the Famine cemetery.  Here lie buried an untold number of those who died during the potato blight of 1845-1850.  There are no markers and no names even if there were.  The workhouse associated with the cemetery merely had those same workers  dig pits without benefit of a coffin.  Further into the village the Catholic church has erected several small houses that have full sized, carved, wooden statues of Celtic saints.  Together they tell the story of the men and women who helped define Ireland as the Land of Saints and Scholars.  Colm brought us to his home where his wife Eileen made us welcomed with tea, soda bread, and croissants.  We also met their three children (Abigail, Jude, and Saul) and the family’s small menagerie of pets.

The afternoon brought us to one of Belfast’s newest attractions- the Titanic Museum.  The focus of the exhibit is the role the city of Belfast played in building the ship that was unsinkable.  The sheer size and shape of the building is reminiscent of the ship itself.  In the exhibit area, the technology puts you right into the streets of Belfast in 1911 and into the workshops of the metal workers and riveters.  The tragic sinking is made more personable through first-hand accounts of the SOS calls and diary entries of the survivors. 
Stuart from 2011
One of the best parts of the entire trip was what happened just before the end of the day.  Who should arrive at the museum but, Brian, Dermot, and Sarah, later joined by Stuart (and Rachel).  These folks were part of the previous Lowell and Crossan digs.  They took time out of their personal lives to greet us.  That is the spirit you meet over here.  I hope they know how much I appreciated their visit.  It was just a year ago Stuart stood outside Kelly’s reading his Dad’s poetry.  We all gave a round of applause.  For just a moment we were one, and for a short time we were again this year.  Coming to Ireland is always special and has deep meaning for me, but it is overshadowed by meeting Colm, Eileen, Harry, Ronan, Emily, Brian, Victoria, Sarah, Dermot, and Stuart.  I raise my glass to them (even if it is a pint of Haarrp).  I say, “Go raibh maith agaibh!”  Until we meet again.
This is the last posting for a bit.  Tomorrow we fly home and the realities of life return.  Send a comment if you wish.  Thanks to all those who followed.  Cheers!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Goodbye, Crossan

We knew today was coming.  It was inevitable.  One side of me says, “Just a few more days.”  The other side says, “Home.”  The fairies up at the fort must have been giving us their blessing.  Grey skies turned sunny as we began our final tasks.  I’m sure the cows will be glad as well as they will have their field back.  The task of measurements, which will be part of the final publication, was made.  Much of what is done is for future reference and analysis.  Colm worked diligently on his diary detailing context layers and finds.  Soil samples were taken for analysis.  And then the pit was filled in.
When I left this place last year, I envisioned Hugn walking solemnly down the Crossan Road, alone and with an unclear future.  As we closed the gate on the pasture today I had a different vision.  I saw Hugh walking briskly down the road, a man with a vision.  I have an idea he may not even have been alone, but with a brother.  And he knew where he was going, and knew his future would be bright.  For, as we find out, Hugh always had a plan of some sort.
The afternoon brought a trip to Enniskillen Castle.  Originally built in the 16th century it was later used by the Royal Inniskilling Fusilers.  It was built by the Maguire clan and later lost during English rule.  The collections detail the history of the Maguires and early Ireland, and the Fusiliers.  We also visited the town itself.  At the top of the town is St MacMartin’s Cathedral, Church of Ireland.  This is where Queen Elizabeth II made her recent visit.  It was a groundbreaking even in Northern Irish history.  We then crossed the street to St Michael’s Catholic Church, where the Queen also visited.  I lit a candle thinking of my family back home, the good folks whom I have made this journey with, those who have made it possible, and Hugh.
On to Belfast.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Digging Our Roots

I have to give Katie credit for the title.  It is so appropriate.  This entire project is about digging our historical roots.  Lowell’s Irish past began on the very ground in which we dig.  In a sense we’re time travelers.  Though it may be 2012 we stand here on the stones of a tenant farmer living in County Tyrone in the 1700s.  We know much about the family’s story.  We have a good idea of the type of house they lived in.  We’re learning about their daily lives through what they have left behind for us to find.  We see the same views they saw every day, for little has changed in the landscape in Crossan over the centuries.  We also know that they leave this place and make their way to America where their story become so integrated with Lowell’s roots.  Each shovelful of dirt uncovers another detail to our story.

The title is not only figurative, but literal.  We’re digging roots for about 6 hours a day.  Colm stands over us looking pensive and directs us to dig here, then there.  There is a method to his madness.  Slowly things begin to be revealed- a ledge, a yard, a wall.  A large piece of 19th century porcelain appears- good stuff that would have been kept on the top shelf of your hutch and only taken out when the priest came for supper.  Just before the end of the day a piece of clay pipe was found with part of a marking that says “Bally….” on it.  Ahh, this family had just enough money to have a good plate and a bit of tobacco.  Today is Thursday.  By 4 pm our knees hurt, our backs ache, and the hands begin to cramp, but Colm can be seen scraping away using his trusty trowel that no one else can touch. 

He’s an interesting man.  Without his commitment this project would cease to exist.  He has added a new chapter into Lowell’s Irish past.  Beyond the archaeological initiation we are all obtaining, everyday there is a short history lesson.  It’s never given in a lecture but in true Irish fashion in a story.  When the bard speaks we are all drawn in.  Studying history is worthless unless we connect it to ourselves, and therefore a talk on Irish wakes turns into a discussion on views of life.  This is teaching and learning in its widest and best sense.  But then again we remind ourselves it is Thursday, and we have just one more day to take all of this in. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Don't Mess with the Fairy Ring

This evening I sat in the pub with my bangers and champ (potatoes with chopped scallions) capped off with a pint of Guinness.  I sat there with a good book while the horse races were on TV.  Looking out, the sky was blue with big billowing clouds, and, wait for it, no rain.  Could life be any better?  When I was in second grade, Sr. Francis St Michael told us that heaven was a place of never ending ice cream.  Obviously she never experienced where I am now.  Besides I’m lactose intolerant, so the prospect of eternity with ice cream was not very inviting.

The day’s dig began with rain and ended with sunshine, a needed respite for us all.  The pit is partially located under an ash tree so there is a lot of digging and cutting followed by digging and cutting.  The work can be quite tedious, but necessary as each millimeter of soil that is cut away reveals more of the story of this plot eighteenth century home.  Colm is searching for the differences that can be seen between wall and floor and yard.  He taps the surface with the handle of his trowel.  He examines the texture of the soil.  He looks at the alignment of the rocks.  All these things speak to him in a language only an archaeologist, and a bloody good one, can understand.  Me?  I’m under the ash tree watching young Hugh doing his chores, leading the cattle from one pasture to the next, weeding the potato garden, and when his folks say he is done, he runs up the hill to investigate the fairy ring.
The fairy ring- we were warned before we entered the circle of mounded earth.  It’s a well known fact that the fairies don’t like their home to be disturbed.  Just up the road from the Cummiskey homestead is just such a structure.  They were built as a rath, or ringfort.  They are dotted all over Ireland.  Often built on mounds they were used during very early Christian times , about 700 AD, as a type of fort to protect cattle and be able to watch over the land around the fields.  As time passed the myth of the fairy ring grew.  Many people still respect the hills, whether as a superstition or reverence for the past is up to them.  The moment we got to the top the most torrential rain of the week began.  We made our way off the ring and the rain subsided.
Ronan McHugh came to do a topographical survey of the homestead.  The students helped him plot out the coordinates that can overlayed to earlier maps to show more precisely where buildings existed.  He is the principle surveyor for the Centre for Archeological Fieldwork.  His major work deals with the medieval period, but has worked 2 seasons in the Lowell project as well.  When Ronan was done with his work, he went onto his next job, and he took with him Victoria Denoon.  Her job at UMass is waiting for her.  We will miss them both. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Neither, wind nor rain....

Cows.  That’s what greeted us as we made our way down Crossan Road to the Cummiskey homestead.  For a city dweller, a herd of curious cows can make you pause and consider tomorrow’s newspaper headlines- American Tourist Killed by Stampeding Bovine.  But Colm’s boyhood experiences came in handy as he moved the herd away.  Oliver Donnelly, the current owner of the property, stopped by.  Mr. Donnelly carries on the family tradition of raising cattle and sheep.  His roots run deep in this area, and he shares this pride by allowing us to carry on our excavations.  The Cummiskeys date back to the 18th century on this very ground.  Without his cooperation we would be missing the origin of Hugh’s story.  We know much of what he did once Hugh came to Lowell.  Ongoing research is telling us more of his Charlestown years.  The dig in Crossan is bringing to the light the first chapter.

The team covered themselves in rain gear in anticipation of the dire forecast, even hail was predicted.  Throughout the day, the team hid under trees to escape the downpours, but worked through the mist and drizzle.  We are a hardy bunch.  Dr.  Donnelly had much paperwork to do in the van at these times, but we diggers managed to pull through.  One person who should be mentioned and given much credit is Victoria Denoon.  A native of N. Ireland, graduate of Queen’s University, senior assistant to Chancellor Meehan, and Associate Director of the Center for Irish Partnerships, Victoria has done so much to see this project come to fruition.  There are many people essential to this project, just to mention Dr. Donnelly, Dr Talty, and Dr McCarthy, but I think all would vouch if it wasn’t for Victoria the work that has been done could not have been achieved.  Victoria finally had the chance to experience the dig first hand.  Through the rain, and the sun, and the cows she never stopped working.  She may be adding archaeologist to her resume.

The day’s work focused on opening a pit.  The steps seem simple; lay out the line, spade the turf off, cut through the top layer, have Dr Donnelly check, and move on to the next layer.  Our pit measures 4 meters x 1 meter, and was completed in 7 seven hours.  Most of this work was done on hands and knees with rain, sun, and cows staring at us.  The first question folks ask is, “What did you find?”  There were some pieces of brick, black ware pottery, glass, and pieces of farm tools.  More importantly was that from the first spade cutting into the ground, the sound of metal hitting rock could be heard.  Success! Of the entire land that we could have dug in, Dr Donnelly’s research showed us exactly where to dig.   Finding the house and yard is as important as finding artifacts.  Ronan McHugh, from years one and two, joined us this evening.  Tomorrow he will be doing a survey of the site.  Cross your fingers our luck continues. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Back to Crossan

It’s been a year since I traveled it, but I could find my way there.  The road from Belfast to Irvinestown, County Fermanagh is about a 2 ½ hours ride.  Belfast is a wondrous mix of old and new .  Driving through the streets you get a feeling of blend of yesterday and today with its eyes on tomorrow.  Spending the brief time we did last year did not give the city credit for where it is going.  We were half way  through our trip when we stopped for a fry – the traditional Irish breakfast.  The students sampled soda bread and potato bread, which met with their approval.  Not sure the beans, mushrooms, bangers, Irish bacon, and tomato at breakfast passed the test.  Learning and exchanging culture is an important goal of this program. 
As the scenery became even more green, if that’s even possible, and the foliage more dense, we knew we were heading north.  Once again Mahon’s Hotel is our base for the week.  There is a different atmosphere here than other places I have visited in US and abroad.  The welcome was warm and sincere and the management remembered us from last year.  If only I could drop the Boston accent.  If you’re ever in the area drop by for a stay, or at least a pint in the pub.  You will be kindly welcomed.

After a brief respite we made our way down the pilgrim’s road to Crossan- the home of Hugh Cummiskey, the goal of our trip.  The American students, and yes, even myself, were in awe of our surroundings.  The rolling hills, the low of the cows, the sheep studded against the landscape, and blue sky contrasted with the dark rain clouds and cow pies that we encountered.  Seeing the path bordered by tall hedgerows and end of summer flowers made one ask why anyone would leave this place.  But Hugh didn’t want to leave- life was no longer possible in this piece of paradise.  Forces surrounding him never let it be possible.

Last year’s dig focused on the Cummiskey homestead.  Colm and the Queen’s team’s research identified another home on the property through the Griffith’s Valuations completed about the 1850s.  This resource is valuable to genealogists and archaeologists.  It lists in great detail land ownership and property values.  With little other period material, finding the Cummiskey entry especially with 2 homes listed on one property, is an important find.  With maps in hand, Dr. Donnelly walked the property and came back smiling.  There are random stones in fields, and then there are trained folks who see order in disorder.  Those random stones could very well be Hugh’s father’s house.  A little research and a little digging will tell more to the unfolding story.

In between the raindrops (and there were more than a few) Colm pulled up some rushes and made a St Bridget’s cross.

Colm won the bet

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- Hugh's World

So what was the Ireland that Hugh left behind like?  After traveling 3000 miles on an overnight flight and then another 2 hours by bus before 9 a.m., we found ourselves in Belfast, N. Ireland.  Today’s focus was on what Hugh left behind.  Our visit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum put things into perspective.  The Museum can be compared to Old Sturbridge  Village, but on steroids.  Last year’s visit to NI included a trip to the Ulster Irish American Folk Park, which was phenomenal.  This place supersedes it.  In the rural areas where thatched cottages of potato farmers had wisps of smoke curling out of the chimney, the smell of the peat fires welcomed you into the small kitchen.  The soda bread was right out of the skillet with freshly turned butter.  I wondered if my jet lag was catching up to me.
Ami, Katie, Victoria, Marcelle, Colm
As one progressed into the more rural area the strong black soot of burning coal permeated the landscape and the inevitable change from cottage life to trade shops and market days was made evident.  Time marched on, even in 19th century Ireland.  This was very much Hugh Cummiskey’s world.  And our initiation into that period of time and evolution in Ireland, only made us wanting to know more.  What is unique about our study of Hugh is that he is the average man.  He surely would have known the farms and fields we crossed today.  He would have been at home on any given market day in his small township of Crossan.  Hugh never grew to be wealthy or any great statesman, or played a major role in a historical event.  He is everyman.  The life he led on his farm, and then the road he took to town to leave and never come back, is the same story so many of us could tell of our ancestors.
Tomorrow the pilgrims return to the site – Crossan, Co. Tyrone, the Cummiskey Homestead.

Ami makes a lot of friends
Ami and the shoemaker

Ami and the postman
Enough said

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tyrone Diary 2012- All my bags are packed.......

The road to Hugh Cummiskey's homestead,
 Crossan, Co. Tyrone.
I had to be in my early 20s.  I was at St Pat’s Rectory and the priest asked if I’d help out the St Vincent de Paul guys.   Sitting around the table were John Donahue, Arthur Cryan, and Mr. Heafey.  At this time each had to be in his late 70s or so, still handing out food vouchers and practicing the corporal works of mercy.  If you were a parishioner a generation ago you would know these gentlemen, a term that accurately described the trio.  Arthur had this shocking white hair and eyes that focused in on you.  John Donahue was a single man who lived with his sister all his life.  He was always in a suit and hat and sat with back straight.  Mr. Heafey was always Mr. Heafey.  He was small in stature and voice as well.  His presence though just command respect.  They were amongst the last of the old guard.
I was anxious to get out of there, but as was their custom, they weren’t.  Time meant something different to them.  Taking a seat in the circle I listened in on their conversation.  “Oh yes, I remember Brother Finbar,” one would say.  “My mother often brought the Brothers food when they lived on Varney,” the other would reply.  “I had the early Mass and the maid would slip me some breakfast,” added the third.   The others would nod in agreement.   Watching them I didn’t see three old men recalling days gone by, they were there speaking as if it was a generation or more ago.  The experience happened many years past, but has stayed with me.
The fates destined me to grow up when and where I did.  It was folks like the Arthur, John, and Mr. Heafey that got me into all this.  My Dad was not an educated man in the academic sense, but knew more about early Lowell than I do now.  His stories started my passion.  Jack Flood can recall facts from 80+ years ago that I need days to research.  Little did I know that decades later I would be gathering these stories for the next generation.  Now I’ve become the one waiting to tell about life in the Acre way back when.
Hugh's Homestead
So, my bags are packed, and I’m off once again to Tyrone, where our story all began.  How great it would be if I could have shared it with those who lead me to this path.  There have been moments in this project when I wonder about how this has all come about.  Even this year looking down the well in the front yard of St. Pat’s there was a moment when I wondered.  Who stood here?  Was it the gossiping women gathering their buckets to do the laundry?  Was it the Acre kids dropping stones to hear them hit the water?  Was it Hugh resting as he patrolled the Paddy Camps in his role as constable? 
In a couple of days I’ll be at Hugh’s house at Crossan, Co. Tyrone.  We know far, far more about Hugh today than we did a year ago.  In a week’s time we’ll probably know more.  It’s been an unbelievable year when you think of the work that has progressed from Colm, the teams from Queen’s University and UMass Lowell, and folks like Walter and so many others who are committed to uncovering the story of Lowell’s Irish from Tyrone to the Acre.  Follow along as things progress.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fire in the Acre - 1841

Headline for Lowell Courier, 1841
Sometimes when you search for a story, it just falls in your lap.  Other times you have to spend hours looking for a lead.  And then there are times you find that tip, and you follow it, and you develop it, and when you’re just about to go to post it you find there’s more to the story.   That’s what happened to this week’s entry. 
I keep a little list of items I’d like to blog about, suggestions folks have made, and sundry key words to remind me of things to write.  I even have a couple of spare articles just in case of writer’s block.  So I began a search for this week’s topic.  My eyes were just about to give out searching for an entry.  Then it appeared; the story I was looking for.  It had drama; it had pathos. 
The Boston Courier of 1841 reported that before midnight on Thursday of August 26th a great fire took place in the Acre section of the city.  “Five entire blocks of wooden buildings and parts of others were consumed.”  Workshops, furnishings, and tools were also destroyed.  “About 50 poor families were burnt out, losing the greater portion of their furniture and effects.”  The most tragic detail of the story was the loss of life of a Mrs. McLaughlin and her infant child who were buried under the ashes.  The conflagration took place near the Catholic Church on Suffolk and Fenwick Streets.  Beyond the loss of human lives another entry details the loss of several animals.
The story could have ended here, but of course I asked Walter to check some facts.  He used his paranormal powers to find the following.  There was a fire as reported by the Boston papers a few days after it happened, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?  A closer investigation (and this is the precise reason I do not call myself a historian) reveals the true facts.  The Lowell papers corrected the errors made by the Boston Courier report.  No human lives were lost.  The dog that died actually ran back into the house after being rescued.  The paper states, “We have not learned his name, but believe it was Bose.  His master says he was a good dog.”  The other animals were pigs that “had been converted into roast pork.”  Actually one pig leaped out of the attic window of one of the houses.
Google Image
Five blocks were not burned, but 2 houses and 4 “ten-footers” were destroyed.  Much of the furniture was saved, but it was also noted the families that were affected were those “of little property.”  Interestingly, the Courier lists the names of those who suffered loss.  They list them by American families, and then by Irish families.  The following days also state that the fire department had a difficult time fighting the fire since the canal had been drawn down and it was very difficult to get water to the flames.  Large stones lined the canal and an engine had to be lifted over the rocks to the canal’s edge to get the needed water.  A committee was formed by some concerned citizens, among who were Reverend James McDermott and Hugh Cummiskey to help the unfortunate victims. It was hoped that the sum of $800 could be raised in the churches that Sunday.
So a good story became an even better one, with Walt’s help.  This account helps us understand the bigger picture.  It’s important to remember that the Acre was home to many Yankee poor as well as Irish.  Pigs were still running around the neighborhood in the 1840s, telling us their necessary use as a food supply.  Housing was so much in need that multiple families were living in substandard dwellings.  The line between American and Irish was still something to make a note of.  The year was 1841.  What would happen when the Famine Irish arrive?

Thursday, August 2, 2012


The weather that Lowell experienced in January of 1835 was “unprecedented.”  The low temperature recorded that month was 24 degrees below zero.  The freeze was up and down the east coast, closing ports as far as New York because of the ice.  People were found frozen to death in their homes.  One poor soul went out to the stable to check on his horse and froze to death there.  Fires were breaking out with people trying to keep warm and becoming careless with their stoves.  Some hardy souls were foolish enough to throw ice parties out on the frozen rivers.  It was well known that many used it as an excuse to imbibe strong spirits. 

Maybe the cold was what drove 6 year old Michael Mangin over to Goodhues and Brooks on Hurd Street.  Artemas Brooks operated a small shop where he employed a few workers shaping wood to be used as molding and other uses.  The sharp planes were dangerous, but living in an industrial city like Lowell, one was constantly surrounded by such potential hazards.  Michael possibly lived about one block away on Green Street where many other Irish found housing.    He was actually a familiar figure in the shop.  He often came here to pick up wood chips to bring home to be burnt.  There are a number of accounts of Irish gathering wood pieces to be used for fuel or for building their shanties. 
Source: Old Sturbridge Village
It was just before sunset on this particular day when Michael appeared with his little collecting basket.  He and two friends went about the shop gathering scraps.  Surely his mother sent him out to the shop before it closed and before father came home, possibly from the nearby Hamilton mill.  With the extreme cold she wanted to be sure she had enough to keep the fire going on this cold winter night.  It took one second for the accident to happen.  Michael lifted his head into the turning blade.  The sad details were listed in the paper as 19th century writers loved to narrate.  He took but a single breath and expired.
One can only imagine Artemas Brooks carrying Michael home.  The cries of the mother.  The family gathered at the Catholic Burial Ground.
The 1835 Directory lists no Mangin family in Lowell at this time.  There is a Mongan family on Green Street and coincidentally Mr. Brookes owned that house.  There was a Michael Mongan, the potential father, who worked at the Hamilton.  Names were often misspelled or mispronounced.  Few Irish could sign their name, never mind spell it out.  In the 1500 names we recorded for the oldest stones at St Patrick Cemetery, there is no Mangin or Mongan, or anything close to it.  No surprise.  In this period a stone would cost a week’s wages.  Simple wooden crosses were the norm.  A slate stone probably would have been far more than our family could afford.  It is a fact that there are many more burials in Yard One than anyone knows.  I have taken the liberty to use the Mongan family for Michael Mangin’s family.  The details of the story are as they were reported in the paper.  Finding such stories however are not rare.  A quick look at the Lowell Patriot lists “accident” over 130 times.  The number of deaths by drowning, machines breaking, rail cars crushing limbs, goes on and on.  It’s the stuff that sold papers.  Readers of this period would take in every detail, thanking God it wasn’t their name appearing on the page.  The term “Irish laborer” or “Irish youth” appears too frequently associated with the headline- accident.  Michael’s story came to us through blog reader, Rosemary, who was moved by the idea of a young life ended too soon.
We remember them.