Between the years of 1848 and 1850, over 4,000 young women, ages 14 to 20, left Ireland’s workhouses for the shores of Australia as part of Earl Grey’s Orphan Scheme. They had been carefully selected as part of a plan to ease the burden of poverty and starvation during An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) in Ireland, while at the same time providing Australia with the female presence lacking in that country. For the girls who made the journey, it was a way of escaping a life of predetermined hardship for the promise of the unknown, the possibility of something better.
But not all the futures were to be created equal. Some would thrive, establish families and find happiness; others would struggle to survive, and some would end up dying in destitution. Catherine and Anne Hegarty from County Roscommon were two sisters who arrived on the same ship, but whose lives turned out very differently.
Catherine Hegarty is the second great grandmother of my “Aussie cousin” Carol’s husband, Terry. Terry didn’t know anything about this branch of his family, but in 2015 he decided to take a DNA test and start digging. Over the past five years, he and Carol have made some incredible discoveries about what brought his ancestors from Ireland to Australia, and along the way uncovered a story that deserves to be told.
For Henry, the 3rd Earl Grey (son of Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey for whom the tea is named), it seemed like the perfect solution to two problems he was facing in 1848 as British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. He was hearing from Australia, where the ratio of men to women at the time was 8:1, that they needed more females to join the population. And at the same time he was being inundated with reports on the terrible overcrowding in the Irish workhouses, where conditions were deplorable even amidst a nation of starving people.
Ireland, no stranger to hard times, was facing an unprecedented period of starvation and poverty. What was once designated as “The Famine” has since been more fittingly reclassified as “An Gorta Mor,” or “The Great Hunger.” But no matter what you call it, people were looking for ways out of the unrelenting destitution and death that had become a way of life.
Genealogy, for the deeply rooted, is far more than the mere act of collecting names and dates. At its best, and in its most gratifying moments, it is about the connection to people long gone but without whom we wouldn’t be here to discover them. We don’t just find them in a census, we make their acquaintance. And when we’re especially fortunate, we reincarnate a character who has been languishing for generations in an ancestral attic.
Sometimes, of course, we do feel lucky just to find a name and a date. Elusive ancestors can be a real pain. But when the names and dates lead to photos, and newspaper articles, and old love letters, we’ve hit the jackpot. And I get as excited over other people’s ancestors as I do my own. Take, for example, the fellow in the photo at the top of this article.
His name is Owen Kaney and he was the great grandfather of my stepfather-in-law. Born in Philadelphia on April 22, 1843, to Irish immigrant parents, he is without a doubt a great ancestral character. And I don’t know nearly enough about him; for instance, I haven’t figured out yet where in Ireland his parents were from, and I don’t know much about his life before the Civil War. But I do know that before his death on February 26, 1888, he crammed a lot of living into his 44 years.
I just want to begin by clarifying that there is a vast and vital difference between the definition of “hoarding,” and the act of saving really good old family stuff. But, on the other hand, there can definitely be a fine line between that which is considered trash and that which is celebrated as treasure to the hardcore genealogist.
Because anyone who has spent time searching for that elusive paper trail on a mystifying ancestor knows the frustration of not being able to break through the brick wall. Sometimes the records are missing or lost, or records weren’t kept at the time and in the place we’re looking. Sometimes we don’t even know where or when we should be looking. We put aside that ancestor or that line and decide to come back to it later. And then, occasionally, through the miracle of modern technology, we find our family’s answers online in a distant cousin’s tree.
This is one of the reasons I tell researchers to never give up. You never know what’s out there, what’s been hidden away in an attic or a basement that is now ready to see the light. Genealogy has entered an era when people are willing and able to share old photos, stories and even scraps of paper that have been passed down through generations.
Two Portraits of Richard St. George
During a multi-day visit to Philadelphia, where most of the focus fell on the modern era politics of Brexit and the interest of the Irish diaspora, Ambassador Daniel Mulhall’s presence at the Museum of the American Revolution’s launch of their new exhibit “Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier” was an opportunity to talk history.
Ambassador Mulhall, along with Dr. Martin Mansergh, historian and former Irish political advisor who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, gave context and insight into the influence of the American Revolution on Ireland’s own path to independence. In addition, Dr. Mansergh is a descendant of Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George (from here on referred to as Richard St. George, as he is in the Museum’s exhibit) who is the subject of the “Cost of Revolution” exhibition, providing a personal connection to the historical narrative.
The evening’s events were planned by an Honorary Event Committee including Honorary Chair, Governor Edward G. Rendell; State Representative Mike Driscoll; Charles E. Hopkins; Marita Krivda Poxon; Kevin Kent, Esquire; Honorable James Murray Lynn; Joseph S. Martz; Edward D. McBride and Kathleen M. Sullivan. The crowd was welcomed in by bagpipers William Watson, Frank Watson, Tom Conner and Lee Nolan, and then treated to traditional Irish music throughout the evening performed by musicians including Paddy O’Neill, John McGillian and Darin Kelly.
History can seem, well, just like that: history. We might know about it intellectually but haven’t internalized emotionally. Whatever happened, it happened to someone else, a long time ago.
So it might well be with An Gorta Mór—the Great Hunger, often referred to simply as the potato famine. “Potato famine,” of course, doesn’t half cover it. It’s far more complicated than that. From the standpoint of many historians, the vast starvation of the Irish people in the middle of the 19th century amounts to nothing less than genocide perpetrated by the British.
How to tell that old story to make it real to high school students today?
Neither rain, nor rapidly dropping temperatures that changed the rain to snow, could keep away the crowd that gathered Sunday at West Laurel Hill Cemetery to honor the 57 Irish laborers who died at Duffy’s Cut in the summer of 1832. The story of the workers who came from Counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry to build Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but who were all dead within six weeks of their arrival, is one that has been brought out of the shadows of history by brothers William and Frank Watson. Along with a strong team of volunteers and supporters, they continue to work to recover the bodies of all 57 men and women.
Of the seven that have been reclaimed, two have returned home to Ireland. John Ruddy, from Donegal, is buried in Ardara in a grave donated by Vince Gallagher, and Catherine Burns rests in Clonoe Parish in her home county of Tyrone. Here in West Laurel Hill, all were remembered on the 7th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial.
The tribute included a procession led by the Duffy’s Cut Pipers, the national anthem of the United States and Ireland sung by Vince Gallagher, and remarks by Nancy Goldenberg as president & CEO of West Laurel Hill, William Watson and Frank Watson, Bob McAllister of the Emerald Society of Chester County, Kathy McGee Burns and Frank McDonnell on behalf of the Donegal Society and a poetry reading by author and historian Marita Krivda.
“Duffy’s Cut is both a place, and it’s a story. It’s a place about 20 miles west of Philadelphia along the railroad tracks so it’s a physical location, but Duffy’s Cut is also a story. And it’s the story of the death of 57 Irishmen in 1832.” ~ Frank Watson
“It could potentially be the worst mass murder in the history of Pennsylvania if all 57 of these workers died. But it is a mass murder scene whether seven died – whom we have excavated – or all 57 did. In which case if it’s 57, it’s the worst mass murder in Pennsylvania history.” ~ William Watson
In their new book, “Massacre at Duffy’s Cut,” William and Frank Watson detail their 15-year odyssey to reclaim the Irish laborers whose lives were cut short and their bodies buried under Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1832. They sat down with Irish Philadelphia in the Duffy’s Cut Museum at Gabriele Library, Immaculata University, where they shared their behind-the-scenes account of not only what happened to the workers, but how their mission began when they became the keepers of a secret file inherited from their grandfather.
Watch the interview, and then come to the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center (The Irish Center) in Mount Airy on Sunday, December 9, at 3 p.m. for a book signing that will follow a talk and update on what’s next for the dig site. For more information, go to the Facebook Events page here.
For more information on Duffy’s Cut, and to check out “Massacre at Duffy’s Cut,” visit their website.