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Spooky Tales–And Storytellers–at The Irish Center

There was a full house on Mischief Night at The Irish Center in Philadelphia for an evening of original, ghostly tales from five writers who composed them just for the event.

The authors, who came in costume, included Marita Krivda, author of the historical book, “Irish Philadelphia,” who also organized the evening’s entertainment; Marian Makins, PhD, who teaches critical writer at the University of Pennsylvania and is a singer; Thom Nickels, the author of 11 books, the latest of which is the soon-to-be published “Literary Philadelphia;” Gerry Sweeney, and Lori Lander Murphy, a librarian, genealogist, and writer and photographer for

Lori agreed to share her story of young love and death with us so you can feel like you were part of the evening. Continue Reading

History, News

Catherine Burns is Laid To Rest In Tyrone

Catherine Burns' remains are carried by women named Catherine from Clonoe, County Tyrone. Photo by Jim McArdle

Catherine Burns’ remains are carried by women named Catherine from Clonoe, County Tyrone. The Watson brothers are at right, playing the pipes. Photo by Jim McArdle

On Sunday, July 19, Catherine Burns’s small casket, holding what little remained of the 29-year-old widow who died in the railroad work camp known as Duffy’s Cut in 1832, was carried from St. Patrick’s Church in Clonoe, County Tyrone, to her final resting place by three local women also named Catherine.

For 180 years, Burns lay under the ground in an unmarked grave along with 56 other Irish immigrants hired to build a rail line near Malvern in Chester County, now part of Amtrak’s northeast corridor. She had traveled with her father-in-law on the barque ship, the John Stamp, whose log noted that neither had any luggage. Six weeks after the immigrants arrived from Tyrone, Derry, and Donegal, they were dead, either of cholera or of violence.

Her burial in her home county was the fulfillment of the goal of the men who unearthed these long-forgotten immigrants, both literally and figuratively. “It was something that we had always hoped to do,” says Dr. William Watson, a history professor at Immaculata University who, with his brother Frank, a Lutheran minister, set in motion the search for the Duffy’s Cut victims after discovering a secret railroad file about the incident in their grandfather’s papers. “Once we found them, if we were able to identify them, we wanted to repatriate them,” he said.

In 2013, the Watson brothers and colleague Earl Schandlemeier were able to return the remains of the youngest of the workers, John Ruddy—identified through a forensic examination of his bones—to Donegal, where he was born. He is now buried in the family plot of Vincent Gallagher, president of the Philadelphia Irish Center.

Like Ruddy, forensic scientists determined that Catherine Burns had died of blunt force trauma, likely at the hands of a group of vigilantes determined to stop the spread of cholera that had ravaged the small encampment.

That story, as well known now in Ireland as in the US, is likely what filled St. Patrick’s Church the Sunday of Catherine Burns’ funeral mass, which was said by the church’s pastor, Father Benny Fee. “The story resonates with a lot of Irish people who have little black holes in their family history, family members who came here and just vanished,” said Watson. ‘They have sympathy for anyone that young who experienced such hardship so senselessly. Catherine Burns died just like John Ruddy died, of violence.”

It was Father Fee’s idea to have Catherine Burns’ casket carried by other women of the parish who shared her first name, said Watson. “His sermon was fantastic,” he said.

“It is our solemn privilege to welcome home to her native Tyrone Catherine’s mortal remains and to lay them to rest with the prayers and rites of the church and with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Father Fee told the congregation, according to published accounts. “Catherine is one of our own. She’s no stranger—she has Tyrone blood in her veins.”

From his pulpit, Father Fee thanked the Watsons and Schandlemeier for bringing “Catherine back from her exile to her native pastures. Now there’s no fear, no terror for Catherine any more.”

There are still 50 other victims of Duffy’s Cut whose bodies have not been recovered. Radar imaging has found what Watson calls “an anomaly,” a large apparently empty space that may have been left when bodies buried underground decomposed and collapsed. Core samples of that area are scheduled to be taken in mid-August, he said.

The cores will be taken about five feet from where the anomaly is seen on the scan so as not to disturb anything buried below. Forensic scientists will then sift through the circular samples, which will be encased in canisters about a foot long and four feet wide, to determine if there are any human remains before a dig gets underway.

“If what we find what we expect to find,” said Watson, “this maybe the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history.”

The photos below were taken by Jim McArdle, who was one of several representatives from the Philadelphia area who attended the funeral service. The others included Irish Center President Vincent Gallagher, Donegal Association President Frank McDonnell and his wife, Kathleen, and Donegal Association members Nora and Liam Campbell and John Durnin.


Local Irish Honored for their Support of Barry Memorial

The Irish Center's Frank Hollingsworth and Sean McMenamin accept the Barry portrait.

The Irish Center’s Frank Hollingsworth and Sean McMenamin accept the Barry portrait.

Persuading the U.S. Naval Academy that Commodore John Barry, a gallant son of Ireland and the “Father of the American Navy,” deserved a visible presence worthy of his stature should have been a no-brainer.

It wasn’t. In fact, for proponents of the it turned into a bit of a slog, with one rejection after another. John McInerney and Jack O’Brien, members of the Washington, D.C. Ancient Order of Hibernians, led the charge. With help from many supporters, including the Philadelphia Irish Center/Commodore Barry Club, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Philadelphia AOH, and the Commodore Barry Club of Brooklyn, the memorial eventually became a reality.

To thank Philly-area project supporters, Jack O’Brien presented a copy of the official U.S. Navy portrait of Commodore Barry to the Irish Center in a ceremony Wednesday.

Here’s our video from the ceremony.

History, News, People

Second Duffy’s Cut Victim Returning Home

The skull of Catherine Burns as it was found in the archeological dig. Photo courtesy of Duffy's Cut.

The skull of Catherine Burns as it was found in the archeological dig. Photo courtesy of Duffy’s Cut.

Catherine Burns is going home in July. She will be buried under a Celtic cross in the cemetery of St. Patrick’s Parish of Clonoe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. She is the second of the victims of the Duffy’s Cut tragedy whose remains will be interred in the country they left behind in 1832 to find a better life, but who met death instead.

Hers was the seventh body they found—a handful of bone fragments really—in the pit of clay and shale at the Malvern archeological site called Duffy’s Cut, after the 19th century railroad contractor who recruited dozens of Irishmen to work on laying tracks for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, now part of Amtrak’s northeast corridor. Fifty-seven of them died there, only six weeks after arriving on American soil on the ship John Stamp, which had sailed out of Derry on its two-month Atlantic voyage.

The body was known as SK007—a designation indicating only the order in which it was discovered. But one day, several years ago, as a team of students, led by Immaculata College history professor William Watson, his twin brother Frank, a Lutheran minister, and several colleagues, worked at the site, they received a phone call that helped them give those bones a name.

“We were finishing digging out the body we were calling ‘the tall man’ when we got a call from Janet Monge, our forensic anthropologist at Penn, who told us that it was a woman,” recalled the Rev. Frank Watson. “First and foremost, we almost fainted. We had found a pelvis and a skull and Janet told us that the palate was small and it was a woman’s pelvis. We knew from the ship’s records that there had been a young woman, Elizabeth Devine, who came with her brother who was a laborer. But Janet told us she was too young. This was another woman aged around 30, so that left a woman who had traveled from Tyrone on the John Stamp with her father-in-law, John Burns, at 70 the eldest of the immigrants. She was a widow and her name was Catherine. She was 29. And we found historically that she had disappeared with John, like the others.”

And, like the others, Catherine Burns’ remains showed signs of violence. “She had been treated just like the men. She died of blunt force trauma, just like the rest of the men except for the tall man under the tree who had a bullet in his skull. She was beaten to death,” said Watson. “There were no defensive wounds, so they were probably tied up before they were killed. It’s just horrible.”

Over the years, the Watson brothers and their colleagues pieced together what is now a well known story of Irish immigrants seeking a better life who were murdered by local vigilantes who feared the spread of a cholera epidemic that had overtaken the small encampment where the laborers lived, near a likely contaminated creek running by. Only a small group of nuns, the Daughters of Charity, were courageous enough to minister to the Irish workers, coming out from Philadelphia to do so.

It’s a story told even in Clonoe, a rural parish on the southwest corner of Lough Neagh, says Father Benny Fee, pastor of St. Patrick’s. “It is surprising to me how many [of my parishioners] are aware of Duffy’s Cut and the terrible things that happened there,” he wrote in an email this week.

A friend and former parishioner, Brian McCaul, now of Upper Darby, suggested that Catherine’s remains might find a home in the Clonoe Parish Cemetery. “We got involved because as far as I know Brian gave my name to some of the people involved in the Duffy’s cut Repatriation Project,” wrote Father Fee. “We feel very honored to do something for this child of God, Catherine Burns, a lady who I suspect was given very little dignity or value in life. The seventh corporal work of mercy is to bury the dead, so it is a privilege and an honor to be asked to be involved.”

On Sunday, July 19, after a Mass performed by Father Fee, Catherine Burns’ remains will be interred at the foot of “what we call the Tall Cross of Clonoe,” wrote Father Fee.

It’s “a modern cross erected in 2008 in honour of the 150th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady at Lourdes.,” he wrote. “It is modeled on the Papal Cross that was raised above the Altar in Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the visit of Pope John Paul to Ireland in 1979. And remember at Shannon Airport he spoke of those countless men and women who left Ireland for the New World just as he was leaving Ireland to travel on to New York to address the United Nations. The Cross is lit up at night, based on the lighting of the Bridge of Peace at Drogheda, County Louth. The Cross for us, of course, as believers in Christ is the great bridge from this world to the world of the Presence of God.”

Catherine’s remains will be accompanied by the Watson brothers and their close colleague Earl Schandlemeier who will also revisit and place a marker on the grave of 19-year-old John Ruddy, a victim from Donegal, whose body was buried a year ago in a plot in Ardara, Donegal, donated by Irish Center President Vincent Gallagher. Gallagher may also attend the ceremony. Five other victims whose remains were discovered but who have never been identified are buried in a donated plot—under a Celtic cross—at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd where, until recently, Catherine Burns’ remains were interred.

Several local organizations, including the Philadelphia Tyrone Society and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, as well as individuals have contributed to the cost of repatriating the bodies. “Kathy McGee Burns gave us a significant gift he night of her installation as grand marshal of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade,” said Watson. McGee Burns, president of the Irish Memorial, also contributed to John Ruddy’s burial in Donegal.

Work will resume at the Duffy’s Cut site on June 8—core samples will be taken to determine if there are any bone fragments in a space under the tracks where screenings found another possible mass grave, possibly the other 50 missing workers, said Watson. “Ideally, if we find what we anticipate we’ll find, the dig will reconvene this year. We have no idea what the Amtrak derailment [on Tuesday night, May 12, in Philadelphia] will mean to this.”

What makes the Watsons and their colleagues press on is something both personal and spiritual. The story started for them one day in 2002 while going through files that belonged to their grandfather, who was executive assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Martin Clement. Clement had kept an extensive file on Duffy’s Cut and it had wound up in their grandfather’s papers.

“We inherited the story from our grandfather and we think it’s for a reason,” said Watson. “This didn’t come to us by accident. This is a story that needs to be told and we need to work for justice and right for these people who never got the chance in their lifetime.”

Photos of other remains below from the Duffy’s Cut team.


Early Irish History in Stories, Song and Poetry

Gerry and Lois Timlin

Gerry and Lois Timlin

Gerry Timlin is one of the busiest men in the Irish music business.

So why is he fitting time into his crowded schedule to run a seminar series on Irish history?

“My wife Lois was the catalyst,” Timlin explains over a midday breakfast at the Red Lion Diner in Horsham. “She said, ‘You have such a keen interest. You have to find a place to do it.’”

In at least one respect, Timlin’s “keen interest” is completely understandable. Although he’s been living in the United States for more than 40 years, he’s from the small town of Coalisland, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. But more than that, Gerry Timlin has been singing songs of his homeland since forever, and so many of those songs are tied to Irish history.

Timlin also has an extensive collection of books on Irish history, and many volumes of poetry, “like you wouldn’t believe.”

Ultimately, the history of Ireland is inextricably bound up into who Gerry Timlin is. The map of Ireland may be written all over his face, but it’s also written, in indelible ink, all over his heart and soul.

“I have always wanted to do something like this, but I never felt like I had the time to put in the hours, all the work, and the research.”

Enter the Celtic Cultural Alliance, which runs the Celtic Classic in Bethlehem every September. Timlin, together with his long-time music partner Tom Kane, is no stranger to the Classic. He and Kane are frequent performers.

The Alliance liked Timlin’s idea, and saw it as just an extension of their year-round mission to “promote and preserve Celtic culture.” The first series, about modern Irish history, ran last year.

This year the Alliance looked around for a space to host the six-week series, and settled on McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub, 534 Main Street in Bethlehem. This year’s series focuses on Irish history from ancient Celtic times to Oliver Cromwell’s bloody conquest of Ireland in the 17th century. The series begins January 14 and wraps up on February 18. The cost for the entire series is $50.

You get a lot for your money. Each night’s seminar is two hours long, and Timlin shares what he knows about Ireland’s history in stories—Gerry Timlin is nothing if not a master storyteller—song, and poetry.

Timlin intends his series to be more of a primer than a complete course.

“I break it down into segments each night,” Timlin says. “I just want to whet their appetite. I know I can’t spend any more than 15 to 20 minutes on each segment. You could do two nights alone on Cromwell—you could have an entire course right there.”

Timlin helps bring those brief segments to life with songs like “Ramblin’ Irishman” Or “Dobbin’s Flowery Vale”—whatever seems appropriate to the particular moment in time. Timlin has a deep love for the poetry of Ireland, so you might hear the lines rich with meaning, emotion—and history—from Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies”:

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

Timlin’s series can only go so far, he realizes, but he always brings in “books galore” from his collection to help his “students” learn where to look if they want to know more.

And though, as Timlin admits, “it’s hard work,” running this series is incredibly gratifying. He hopes it catches on. The time seems to be right.

“Over the past 20 to 25 years, there’s such an interest in people of Irish stock. So many people feel they need to know who I am. People are so many generations removed, but they have such a strong interest in their history, the invasions—the Danes, the Saxons, the Normans, the Brits. Last year, stories of the Great Hunger. They hear these horror stories about how people were affected by it. Then it becomes very personal to them.”

Arts, History, Music, News, People

Duffy’s Cut: A Voice in the Arts

Matt Patterson, Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Pat McDade, Anna McGillicuddy, Bill Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and Frank Watson

Matt Patterson, Walt Hunter, Bill Daly, Pat McDade, Anna McGillicuddy, Bill Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and Frank Watson


They’ve been called the “forgotten souls” of Duffy’s Cut, but the 57 Irish railroad workers whose deaths in 1832 remained a mystery for nearly 180 years are now well on their way to achieving immortality.

The story of the immigrant laborers hired by Philip Duffy to work Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania-Columbia Railroad in Malvern, PA, but who died within six weeks of their arrival and were buried in a mass grave alongside the tracks, has captured the interest of the news media since it first came to light through the efforts of the Duffy’s Cut Project, led by Bill and Frank Watson, Earl Schandelmeier and the late John Ahtes.

But the story is far from finished (there is still much excavation work to be done, DNA testing, historical and genealogical research), and the impact of the discovery of the Duffy’s Cut site has significance that demands an audience far beyond the one it’s already found.

Irish Network Philadelphia President Bethanne Killian, who is also deeply involved with Duffy’s Cut, realized that the project has established a voice in the Arts. To promote awareness of the presence it’s found in film, music, theater, painting and literature, as well as to raise funds for the continuation of the work, she organized “Duffy’s Cut & the Arts: A Symposium.” Held at Immaculata University, where Bill Watson is both a professor and the History Department Chair (and it’s also the home of The Duffy’s Cut Museum as well as the center of the project), the Symposium was a daylong event that focused on the artistic achievements that are bringing Duffy’s Cut into greater public awareness.

“I’m still amazed at the number of people from the Philadelphia area who are completely unaware of Duffy’s Cut,” Bethanne explained. “Anyone I’ve shared the story with who hears it for the first time is fascinated and appalled. We need to get the word out there—this isn’t just for history buffs. This is a human story—and given its reach into the art world—the humanities as well.”

With an appearance by Irish Vice-Consul Anna McGillicuddy, who braved the trip down from New York for the occasion, the Symposium officially was underway.

Throughout the day, there was music provided by Vince Gallagher and his Band, Marian Makins (who sang Wally Page’s haunting song “Duffy’s Cut”), Pat Kenneally (who sang her original song “Duffy’s Cut” that won first place in the 2013 Pennsylvania Heritage Song Writing Competition), Karen Boyce McCollum, Rosaleen McGill, the band Irish Mist and Bill and Frank Watson on the bagpipes.

There were readings by poet John Bohannon who recited three poems from his collection, “The Barmaids of Tir na Nog,” writer Kelly Clark who has a forthcoming book called “Duffy’s Cut—A Novel” and writer Kristin Walker whose forthcoming book is titled “Between Darkness and the Tide.”

Maria Krivda Poxon performed scenes from her play “Ghost Stories of Duffy’s Cut” with actor Mal Whyte, there were showings of the documentaries “Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut” and “Death on the Railroad” and the presentation of the music video “57” from Kilmaine Saints.

A lot of interest was generated by the panel discussions. The first was “Duffy’s Cut and The Pennsylvania Railroad” with Bill and Frank Watson and Earl Schandelmeier. The second was titled “Duffy’s Cut: Why It Matters” featuring CBS3 news reporter Walt Hunter, film producer and director Bill Daly and actor and Drexel University Film Studies Professor Pat McDade.  Daly and McDade have partnered to form their own production company, Duffy’s Cut Films. They have three feature films in development, and first up is a movie based on Duffy’s Cut. They have the script written, and filming is scheduled to begin in Ireland in April of 2015.

Walt Hunter, who was the first Philadelphia area reporter to cover the Duffy’s Cut discovery explained why the story resonated with him from the beginning. “This was a no-brainer for me. My grandfather was a railroad engineer. He came over from Ballina in County Mayo…it is a very captivating story…at it’s most basic level it is a deeply human story of people with a hope, a dream…and everybody dead within six weeks.”

It was Pat McDade who summed up the the motivation behind the upcoming film he and Bill Daly are developing. “These guys who died, these 57 men, they’re the real Irish story, and we never hear that…here is the beginning of it. Because there are 8,000 other stories out there, about these hardworking, honest people that come to try and find America and don’t find it. And then some of them do. And we’ve got to make sure to get the story told.”

A CD titled “Songs of Duffy’s Cut” was introduced at the Symposium, with all proceeds going to raise money for the Duffy’s Cut Project. It will be available at future Duffy’s Cut events and may also become available for purchase online.

Check out our photos from the day’s events:


History, News

A Day for Duffy’s Cut

The memorial at Wesst Laurel Hill Cemetery where some of the victims are buried.

The memorial at Wesst Laurel Hill Cemetery where some of the victims are buried.

You’ll learn everything there is to know about Duffy’s Cut—its history, the songs, poems, novels, and plays written about it, films made and in the works, and even view artifacts recovered from the archeological dig—at a special day-long symposium at Immaculata College on Saturday, October 11.

Sponsored by Irish Network-Philadelphia, the day starts at 1 PM with screenings of the Kilmaine Saints’ video of a song about the 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers who died or were killed during a cholera epidemic in Malvern in 1832. That’s followed by screenings of “The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut” and “Death on the Railroad,” two documentaries about the event and the work of Bill and Frank Watson and the late John Ahtes, who spearheaded the investigation into Duffy’s Cut which led to the discovery of mass graves not far from the Immaculata campus, where Bill Watson is a history professor.

The Duffy’s Cut Museum, which contains artifacts including clay pipes, coffin nails, and railroad spikes, will be open throughout the day. Take a virtual tour here.

Music will be provided by Marian Makins, Rosaleen McGill, Vince Gallagher, Pat Kenneally, and Mickey Coleman, as well as the Watson brothers on bagpipes. There will be two panel discussions, including one on Duffy’s Cut and the Pennsylvania Railroad and the other on “Duffy’s Cut: Why It atters,” which will feature CBS3 reporter Walt Hunter, and former Warner Brothers’ VP Bill Daly and actor and Drexel film studies professor Pat McDade, who, with Daily, has formed a company, duffyscutfilm, which is producing a feature film on this 19th century tragedy.

Novelist Kristen Walker will read excerpts from her forthcoming novel, “Between Darkness and The Tide,” which was inspired by Duffy’s Cut. Kelly Clark will be reading from her forthcoming book, “Duffy’s Cut—A Novel” and John Bohannon will read selected poems from “Barmaids of Tir na Nog.”

Ticket prices, which include a meal and a beverage provided by Tellus360 of Lancaster, range from $35 for students and seniors to $120 for the event and a IN-Philadelphia membership. Proceeds from the event will help pay for the next phase of the Duffy’s Cut dig—to recover the bodies of 50 of the victims.

So far, the remains of only seven have been recovered. Six were interred in a plot donated by West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

The seventh, identified as teenager John Ruddy from Inishowen, County Donegal, was buried in a family plot owned by Vincent Gallagher, president of the Philadelphia Irish Center, in Ardara, County Donegal.

To learn more about the second phase of the Duffy’s Cut dig, read our story.

Photos of some of the Duffy’s Cut artifacts, including bones, are below.


An Interactive Timeline of the Philadelphia Irish Center

Mayo Ball

Mayo Ball

A lot of people see the words “Irish Center,” and assume the Irish have always been there.

Nope. It started out not long after the beginning of the 20th century as a club for automobile hobbyists—with a full-time mechanic, no less. It was also the first home of the Germantown Jewish Centre. Dancers, singers, pipers, county organizations, and more have called it their home for more than 50 years. It has played host to ambassadors and rebel-rousers. It has seen big parties in the ballroom, and quiet little gatherings (sometimes not so quiet) at the bar.

As we continue to raise the money to keep the doors to this landmark open for another 50 years, we thought you might like to see what it is we’re trying to save—and what we hope you will try to save. Maybe it will inspire you.

The timeline is interactive. Mouse over the little dots top see the milestones, some great and small, pop up.

We probably don’t have all of the dates right—you can feel free to correct us–and we invite you to share your own historical photos. Post them to our Facebook page, and tell us what we’re looking at. Remember to include the dates.