Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Family's Story

Eileen Loucraft gives us this week's entry.  Many of you know Eileen from her excellent blog; Lowell Doughboys and more  She lends her expertise to many projects, including the work at St. Patrick's Cemetery.  Her research as a genealogist uncovered this family gem. One wonders how many others encountered similar experiences.  (If you have a story, please share it with us.  We're always looking for guest bloggers.)
My husband’s first known Irish ancestor on his mother’s side that made it to Lowell was a 2nd great uncle named John Neilon (1828-1907). We know this because a family letter written by his son, Edward J. Neilon (1871-1957) of the Fitchburg Historical Society to his first cousin once removed, Nancy Rouine (1901-1975) in 1953. This letter is a genealogical treasure trove of information. I’ll retell some of the highlights.
The Brig St. John
The Naylon (Neilon) family was living in Killaton in county Clare in Ireland during the Great Famine. The first Neilon to leave for America was Mary Neilon, the oldest child of Edmund “Neddy” Naylon and Mary Sheedy. In 1849 she boarded the Brig St. John in Galway. It was a true coffin ship. On October 7, 1849 it crashed near Minot Light near Cohasset, Massachusetts. Mary was not one of the survivors.

 There are many stories of the tragedy but Edward Rowe Snow in his book “Great Storms and Shipwrecks of New England” tells it best:

“The brig had been at sea for 33 days and was struggling to make Boston in a great storm. Minot Light was not lit that night. If it had been this wreck may not have occurred. In darkness the ship drifted south until it hit Grumpus rock and eventually went to pieces battered by the storm. At daylight crowds had gathered at the Glades house on Cohasset shore watching the doomed immigrants slide off the upturned hull to their deaths. Their screams plainly heard at the Glades house. With 30 foot waves no relief boat could be launched.

The cowardly Capt. Oliver managed to get the long boat launched. Although the long boat could carry 24 he only allowed 11 to get into the boat. The boat managed to get to shore. He refused the long boat to return for more. About noon the next day the wind going down, some citizens got a boat launched and as they heard no sound from the brig concluded that all were drowned and passed it to help the brig Kathleen in trouble further out. No other effort was made to assist the St. John’s passengers.

At that period, Ireland was experiencing one of its widespread famines and the British government was dumping the half starved victims on to the United States. Any old hulk was considered fit to carry Irish immigrants. Henry Thoreau, the Concord philosopher, wrote that he visited the wreck the day afterward and examines one of the brig’s largest timbers that had floated ashore and pushed his umbrella clear through it, it was so rotten.

Several harrowing events occurred for days after the wreck. The day after the wreck, an Irish woman appeared at the little cemetery near the shore and gazed at a long trench just dug. Beside the trench were 26 boxes containing the bodies of that many which had floated ashore. This woman stated that she had left her baby in Ireland with her sister who was expected to have come over on the St. John. To please her the tops were pried off of several of the boxes, and in one was the body of the sister with the baby resting on her breast. This mother died three days later from grief.”

Although the number and names of the dead are not certain the number of dead was around 99. Forty five Irish immigrants were buried in a mass grave in Central Cemetery in Cohasset. In 1914 the Massachusetts Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Auxiliary erected a Celtic cross to serve as a memorial to all the victims of the tragedy. Over 15,000 people attended the dedication. The picture below is my mother in law, Theresa Loucraft visiting the cross in 2003. She is Mary Naylon’s second grand niece and she lived in Lowell her entire life.
A few months after Mary was given up for lost, her brother John walked from Clare to Galway and boarded another coffin ship that was headed to New York. His mother pleaded with him not to go. It was a long rough voyage. Exhausted when he arrived in New York, he crawled into the hold of a sailing ship and settled down on some bags of flour, fell asleep and awoke in Boston. How he ended up in Lowell is a mystery. He married twice and his first wife is buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. He lived in Lowell for a time but moved to Fitchburg, MA for work and spent the rest of his life there.

 Soon his other siblings make the journey across the pond to Lowell. His brother Martin and sisters Nora, Katherine, Margaret, Susan and Nance and at some point his mother. Most of the sisters marry Irish men and stay in Lowell - Martin Maguire, William Hallissey, Mike Lynch, Scollins and Patrick Rabbit. His sister Nance married an Englishman named Slater and moved to Australia when gold was discovered there. His only brother, Martin Neilon marries Margaret O’Brien and became the sexton at Sacred Heart parish.

 Lowell families that descend from this line include Rouine (Rouine’s Drug Store on Gorham Street), Higgins (Higgins Brother’s Funeral Parlors), Sullivan (Sullivan Brother’s Printers), Tucker and McLaughlin and many more!

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