Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In the Deep of December

19th cent print, Google image
The weather was bitter the winter of 1831-32.  Northern temperatures had measured 16 degrees below zero for several days in a row.  Areas were reporting shortages of word and coal.  Boston reporters wrote of their concern of finding the poor and indigent frozen to death in their homes.
In Lowell conditions must have been much the same.  The poor of Chapel Hill and the Paddy Camps must have been suffering the same fate.  The earliest account of life for the Irish living in Lowell dates to 1829 where the “wretchedness and poverty {of} every description” was apparent.  The “village” was made up of “huts of boards elevated on banks of mud, chimneys made of barrels with mere apertures for windows- and then the filth within.”  The description in the Portsmouth Journal of 1831 backs this up adding that 500 Irish are living within an acre of land. 
But how did they survive living in wooden shanties where the wind would blow in between the boards?   Children and women often made their way through town gathering scraps of wood from the workshops of the mills and tradesmen.  Children also scurried along the railroad tracks hoping to find bits of coal that had fallen off the coal bins.  The archaeological dig that took place in the front yard of the church uncovered large amounts of slag that was produced by the burning of cheap coal.  It also produced shank bones from cows, the cheapest cut, and large amounts of oyster shells, another inexpensive food that would be bought by the barrel and kept for the winter for protein.
The plight of the poor, including the Irish poor, was not forgotten by the rest of the Yankee population.  The Irish were regular recipients of donations of wood from the Lowell Fuel Society.  An 1835 account praised Fr. Peter Connolly for his efforts in encouraging the Irish population to contribute to the fund as other churches had done.  It also commended him for encouraging the Irish in ways of “industry, temperance, and economy.”
Trying to keep warm led to dangerous conditions as noted by the number of fires and deaths by fire during such cold snaps.  The great fire of 1841 leveled 5 blocks of wooden buildings and shops right around St. Patrick Church.  The few remaining cemetery records from this early period show the number of deaths rise exponentially during the cold months.
So in this season, as you pass by the red buckets with the bell ringer, remember our forebears who huddled in their shanties, and drop a coin in memory of them.

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