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Irish Grave Monuments in Lowell

A recent journal article authored by some familiar names contributes important new evidence to our understanding of the earliest Irish immigrants in Lowell. “Migration and Memorials: Irish Cultural Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century Lowell, Massachusetts” (published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology on December 18, 2019) examines the iconography of several hundred grave monuments in Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

Dr. Colm Donnelly (right), Dave McKean (center), Dr. Frank Talty, former co-director of UMass Lowell Center for Irish Partnerships

The article has four authors: Colm Donnelly, Eileen Murphy and Lynne McKerr, all of Queen’s University Belfast, and our own David McKean (who is familiar to everyone reading this article). The others, Donnelly, Murphy and McKerr, have all visited Lowell previously to do research, attend conferences and to participate in archeological digs, all associated with the UMass Lowell Center for Irish Partnerships.

My own background in history helped me appreciate the value of the work announced by this article. Back in the 1990s when I was pursuing a master’s degree in history, the term (still) creating a buzz was “the new social history” which by the 1990s, was already several decades old and not at all “new” anymore.

The new social history acknowledges that historians had previously relied on letters, diaries and journals to construct the historical record. This practice ignored or disregarded the fact that few but the upper class either had the ability to write or, if they were literate, were too busy surviving to have left a written record of their lives. The new social history used other sources such as vital records, genealogies, tax and assessment lists, wills, deeds and other such records to construct the stories of those who left no written record.

Similarly, this new “Migration and Memorials” paper draws upon the symbols and words inscribed on the earliest grave monuments in St. Patrick’s Cemetery to better-construct the story of the Irish who came to Lowell at the time of the city’s founding.

Events of 1816 created much trauma in Ireland. There was a recession brought on by the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 (against America). That same year, a volcano eruption in Indonesia blotted out the sun and caused the “year without a summer.” This led to famine and a typhoid epidemic in Ireland. Layered on top of that were rising religious tensions. Those who had the means and opportunity left, most heading to America and many of them to Boston.

And so it was in 1822 when the Boston Associates began work on their massive industrial enterprise on the bank of the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford, many Irish from Boston came to Lowell for work, to dig the canals and construct the mills. They stayed. Once established in East Chelmsford with jobs and housing, the Irish engaged in “chain migration” with hundreds of relatives and neighbors following them to their new home.

Lowell received its town charter in 1826. By 1831, there were 500 Irish settlers in the community. With land donated by the mill owners, they constructed the first Roman Catholic Church north of Boston, a wooden structure called St. Patrick’s. That same year, a parcel of land on “the road to Bilricky” was purchased for use as a “Catholic burial ground.” (This became St. Patrick’s Cemetery on Gorham Street which remains the road to Billerica).

Dave McKean (right) with Karen and Walter Hickey (who contributed research to the article) at the grave of Hugh Cummiskey

According to Dave McKean, the study of the earliest headstones in the cemetery began in the 1990s when he would bring his students there to clean some of the monuments in advance of Dave’s newly created cemetery tours. Surprisingly, what appeared to be “flat” stones (meaning cemetery markers intended to lie flat, flush with the grass) were slate monuments that once stood upright but which had been purposely pushed over in the 1930s as part of a “renovation” of the cemetery. A number of these monuments had been completely covered by the encroaching turf which, while not a plus when it came to remembering the decedent, helped preserve the stones and the symbols and words carved upon them.

When Dr. Colm Donnelly arrived in 2010 to do an archaeological dig at St. Patrick’s Church, he was also interested in the recent work done at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Coincidentally, Dr. Donnelly’s spouse, Dr. Eileen Murphy, is a forensic archaeologist who specializes in grave markers. They along with Dr. McKerr and local volunteers spent time at the cemetery, cleaning more of the stones and collecting the data used in this paper.

Without expressly identifying this article as part of “the new social history,” this quote unequivocally places the article in that field:

“The current study clearly demonstrates the contribution that headstones can make in the context of the Irish diaspora. Although the first generation of Irish settlers left almost no primary source material, the examination of the iconography and epitaphs included on the memorials in Yard One can contribute to our understanding of the identity of these Irish pioneers and how they expressed their religion and ethnicity in their new homeland.”

The article explains that almost all of the St. Patrick’s grave markers that survive from 1832 to 1854 were black slate stone, the material most commonly used for grave markers in this vicinity. The slate was quarried locally and was relatively affordable. (Note the “relatively” modifier: Dave McKean points out that such a stone would cost at least one week’s wages and that many were buried with more affordable wooden crosses which have been lost to time).

Grave marker with willow tree, urn, Latin cross with IHS monogram, and shamrocks, at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Lowell.

The symbols carved on the slate grave markers almost always included an urn and a willow tree, both symbols common on local non-Catholic (i.e., Yankee Protestant) grave markers. Because the two or three local stone carvers who did this work were Yankee Protestants, the presence of these symbols would be unsurprising.

Grave marker of Susan Parker at Lowell Cemetery from 1841 showing willow tree and urn but lacking the cross/IHS monogram and shamrocks seen on Irish Catholic monuments

What is surprising is the prevalence of additional symbols – most often a Latin cross and the monogram “IHS” which had clear Roman Catholic affiliations (there are several contested meanings of IHS but all are clearly Catholic). To the authors or this new paper, the inference to be drawn from the openly Catholic symbology inscribed on these stones was that these earliest Irish residents of Lowell were open in proclaiming and celebrating their Irishness which is especially notable given the societal hostility towards those from that country at that time.

Of further surprise was the inclusion of shamrocks on many of these grave markers, something not found on grave markers in other Irish cemeteries in New England. By 1832, the shamrock was clearly associated with Ireland and the Irish, so besides announcing their Catholicism, the early Irish of Lowell also announced very publicly and permanently their close connection to Ireland.

The connection to Ireland was reinforced by geographic references carved into the stones. These epitaphs included not only the country of origin – Ireland – but the county within Ireland which was and continues to be an important means of self-identification.

This evident pride in proclaiming their roots in Ireland by Lowell’s first generation of inhabitants from that country stands in contrast with how later generations addressed their heritage. The article notes that epitaphs of subsequent generations prominently mentioned “of Lowell” or “born in Lowell,” suggesting an attempt to identify more as an American than as someone from Ireland.

This observation is particularly important in Lowell. Dr. Patrick Mogan, one of those most responsible for the creation of Lowell National Historical Park, often explained that his interest in using a city of immigrants like Lowell as a place to learn about the world through the celebration by local residents of the culture and heritage of their countries of origin, was born from his earliest experience with his Irish neighbors in Norwell, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. According to Mogan, his fellow residents of Irish descent exerted great effort to camouflage all aspects of their Irishness. This striving to escape one’s heritage cemented in Mogan’s mind the importance of doing the exact opposite – not only for the benefit of the individuals involved but for the entire community which would benefit from its residents learning from each other.

I assume Drs. Donnelly, Murphy and McKerr will return to Lowell someday. Perhaps it will be in 2022 which, as Dave McKean regularly points out, is the bicentennial of the first Irish coming to Lowell. Dave says that in 1922, a plea for a community celebration to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of the Irish was published in the local newspaper, but that no such celebration materialized. He hopes that one hundred years later, we might have a different result. The new research disclosed by this article and the additional information uncovered from the affiliated archeological explorations previously undertaken in Lowell will help motivate us to organize such a celebration and will lend additional meaning to it.

2020 Census Update

Poet and activist Emily Ferrara of Lowell has become a field worker for the 2020 Census. On her blog, The Body Politic, she recently wrote about the grass roots work of the census is about to resume. Thanks to Emily for allowing us to cross-post her article here.

The 2020 Census resumes field operations:
Art, Activism and Social Justice

By Emily Ferrara

I was trained and began working for the decennial census back in February, but work was abruptly halted in mid-March due to the start of COVID-19 quarantine and social distancing requirements. I just got word today that the 2020 Census is resuming field work in select locations across the nation – and they have a plan to safely restart operations. According to the notice, “2020 Census operational activities have been deemed essential, mission-critical federal work.”

Due to the need for social distancing and masking to guard against new surges of the virus, we census workers will be provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizer, as well as training on how to stay safe in the field.

Coincidentally, today I came across this quite anachronistic painting titled “Taking the Census” while leafing through an old edition of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. I think it’s quite a “quaint” painting of a gentleman with his feather pen and young assistant visiting a family as the man of the house counts off on his fingers the number of adults and children living there.

Taking the Census by Francis William Edmonds, 1854.

Who Counts in America?

Having stumbled on this 19th century painting, I went in search of newer census representations in 21st century art. Check out this amazing exhibit…/come-to-your-census-who-counts-in-ameri…/ that features works that explore and reflect critical considerations about the history of undercounting – particularly in communities of color and immigrant and refugee communities – which has resulted in the inequitable allocation of funds for local services, as well as lack of representation in government.

There are multiple reasons for the undercount, from lack of access due to limited English language or literacy issues, to lack of trust of government.

During my training, I learned that there are significant penalties if any information gathered by the census (which by the way does not include a citizenship question) is shared for any reason other than statistical data collection and analysis. These protections stay in place for 72 years, after which the information is made available in the public record for family history and other research.

Who Will Count in Lowell?

We will be making every effort to count everyone! Shout out to the tenacious Complete Count Committee in Lowell, which has been working for months on outreach strategies to insure every person is counted, and that their worth, dignity and representation are preserved. They’ve created videos explaining the census in multiple languages, and featuring Lowell residents and community leaders. You can check out the videos at this address:

I hope to see you in “the field” though my territory will be stretching beyond Lowell. Be well, be counted, and stay safe!

Could this be Donald Trump’s “no sense of decency” moment? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

photo CNN

Has Donald Trump finally reached his Joe McCarthy tipping point moment? Trump’s malevolently vicious attack on the memory of Lori Klausitis, which he wielded as a weapon to sully persistent critic Joe Scarborough, took me back to 1954.  It was in that year’s Army-McCarthy hearings that attorney Joseph N. Welch’s famously retorted to bullying behavior by the slimy, red-baiting Wisconsin senator: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?”

We know the answer were Welch’s question applied to today’s incumbent. Trump  has no sense of decency. There is no bottom to his barrel.  There is no end to his ignoring democratic norms, no limit to his mendacious behavior. Neither pussy-grabbing boasts to insults of POWs and Gold Star parents have troubled Trump supporters. His 18,000 documented lies and misstatements, his vindictiveness, his disregard for the nation’s role as a global model, even his despicable lack of leadership in the  face of the Covid-19 pandemic – none of that has significantly changed the loyalty of his steadfast base.  The only thing that could be different this time is the reaction of his erstwhile supporters.

Decades ago, Lori Klausitis, 28, an aide to then Florida Congressman Joe Scarborough, fainted in his district office due to a previously undiagnosed heart condition. She hit her head going down and died from the injury. Some fringe news stories circulated alleging that Scarborough was having an affair with Klausitis and that he killed her to cover up the indiscretion. It was a patent lie (Scarborough was in Washington at the time, verified by his recorded House votes and the medical examiner confirmed her underlying condition). The President, rediscovering the old conspiracy theorists’ garbage, has recently gone on Twitter to libel Scarborough as a murderer (something he had also done in 2017) and demanded the reopening of the investigation of the MSNBC host, an outspoken critic of the President.

Scarborough’s wife and co-host, Mika Brzezinski, has called on the president of Twitter to remove the President from Twitter because of his mendacity. Klausitis’ widower, Timothy, has written to Twitter president Jack Dorsey to take down the scurrilous tweets that continue to inflict pain on his late wife’s family. Twitter responded by saying it would start labeling lies as untrue; it then proceeded to do it not in the Scarborough situation but only, so far, on a tweet falsely asserting huge voter fraud with mail-in ballots. Trump, of course, doubled down by repeating his cruel lies, attacking Twitter for allegedly stifling his free speech and threatening to sign an executive order restricting social media activities that don’t favor him.

In the fifties, it wasn’t until Welch’s penetrating question reached the collective conscience of the American public that McCarthy sycophants, in and out of Congress, slithered away, public opinion turned against him and his power ebbed. Will this time be different for Trump? Will his deplorable behavior matter for his hard-core base?

There have been some eloquent critiques of what Trump has done, but they are largely from the usual suspects.  Unlike other times, however, there have been some voices from the respectable right, such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board decrying his behavior for debasing the presidency.

For the most part, conservative leaders in Washington have scurried for the underbrush, unwilling to face questions about Trump’s calumny. Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and Senator Mitt Romney were the sole GOP officials to tell Trump to knock it off. Even the Florida congressional delegation, some of whom served with Scarborough, have refused  to stand up for their former colleague.

Obviously, this is just another distraction gambit, to turn the public away from the heartbreaking 100,000 death toll and other examples of Trump’s wanton presidential mismanagement. Sadly, to date, he has largely been successful in ginning up divisive culture wars to inflame his base.

I would like to be proven wrong, but I fear this latest example of Trump’s malevolent cruelty  will not cool the ardor of his loyal followers, but,  like the coronavirus  will lurk in the body politic until we activate the needed treatment.  With luck and hard work, Nov 3 will bring a vaccine, effective January 20, 2021.

UISNEACH FIRES by Mawie Barrett

The Hill of Uisneach may not appear in many travel guides, but local historian Mawie Barrett explains why this ancient and sacred site in the geographic center of Ireland is not to be missed.
Photo: Fergus Hogan

As May filters into June, it is an appropriate time to offer an insight into the ancient hill of ritual at Uisneach in Co Westmeath and what it means to the psyche of the Irish. Uisneach is where Bealtaine is celebrated annually in a ritual fire ceremony that seems older than time itself. Bealtaine Fires have been lit here since the dawn of time, symbolising the very spark of our creation, charting our birth and rebirth. I’ve had the honour of being present at this ceremony several times; but, unfortunately, members of the public have been prevented from taking part in 2020 due to Covid restrictions. Nevertheless, the fire was lit by the Keeper of the Hill, ensuring that not even a global pandemic can halt its potent magic.

Bealtaine, the Gaelic word for May (translated as “Bright Fire, Brigid’s Fire or Baal’s Fire”) marks one of the festivals of the Celtic Druid year. Uisneach Hill rises out of our emerald and verdant island to about 600 feet above sea level. It is so much more than an undulating rise in the landscape though; it’s the very umbilicus of the land, the site to which the navel cord of our very beings is attached to the mother Goddess Ériu herself.

Consider what Mecca is to Islam, what Rome is to Christianity, and you will be close to understanding what Uisneach is to the Irish– but not quite there. This essay will offer several accounts of the significance of Uisneach to the legendary history of Eire and its heralded rulers. Stretching back to the birth of our race, the sacred Hill bears witness to the invasions of Ireland; the mythical battles; the divisions of Ireland; the sovereignty of its Kings and Queens; the congress of the Druids; the place where the great sun god Lugh met his fate, and where Mother Ireland, the goddess Ériu herself, is laid to rest. It’s a very primal place, wild, scenic, and acquiescent to nature.

Photo: Fergus Hogan

In Gaelic, Uisneach is the “place of cinders,” whose fires are the most sanctified and are imbued with magical properties. Its location is important. Twenty counties have a line of sight to this ancient place, which marks the meeting place of Ireland’s five provinces: Míde, Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught.  Míde denotes the entrance to the otherworld, and can only be accessed at the “cat stone” known officially as “Aill na Mireann” (the Stone of Divisions) at Uisneach. The royal sites of Ireland, the seats of kinship, Caisel, Emain Macha, Dun Ailinne, Cruiachain, and Teamhair, all had a route that led directly to Uisneach and the site of a sacred tree (the Bile Uisnig), and (the mórdáil Uisnig) where Druids held congress. Even today, connected directly to the Hill of Tara, by the Slighe, the modern route, R392, follows the course of this famed ancient road.

Uisneach, said to be the burial site of both Ériu and the Sun God Lugh, is the place where sovereignty was awarded to the High Kings and Queens in a complex ritual performed by the Druids. The Fir Bolg, former rulers of Ireland, divided Ireland into geographic areas with specific designations: “knowledge in the West; battle in the North; prosperity in the East; music in the South; and Royalty at the Centre.” Uisneach stands as the symbol of Ireland that unifies it in its divisions. (Some texts claim that “Aill na Mireann” was ringed by a stone circle, and that these stones were transported by the Druids to Wiltshire in the UK and make up the circle at Stonehenge.) Many of the myths and legends associated with Uisneach have borne true in archaeological evidence, so maybe there is something to the claims.

There is a bit of a Druid in every Irish person. It is there in our DNA, in our collective unconscious. The challenge is in conveying this to the uninitiated. There is a weight of tradition in the Uisneach Fire celebration. Traditionally, rituals were performed to protect the livestock, the harvest, and the people. All other fires would be quenched and relit from the flames of this bonfire. People walked around or in between fires with their livestock and would leap over the flames. Offerings would be left for the Aos Si, who are synonymous with the Tuatha Dé Danann who remained in Ireland in the “other world,” which I will explain later.

Since Bealtaine falls halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, it’s considered to be a liminal time when the veils between this world and the other world are lifted. Notably, The Book of Invasions, Lebor Gebála Érenn, tells us that that the first Bealtaine Fires lit at Uisneach were kindled by the Druid Mide and burned for seven years.

According to legend, Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings and the place where the King had to “marry” Ireland’s mother goddess Ériu. This ritual coupling with the Goddess of the land was the ceremony that gave them sovereignty as Irish Kings and Queens were not crowned. The Dagda, who is the Sun God of the Tuatha Dé Danann, kept a residence at Uisneach, and he stabled his horses there. The Dagda secures the services of the goddess of sovereignty and fathers other sovereign figures like Brigid and Aine. His nickname “Eochu Ollathair” (Horse Father) is connected to his sovereignty because it is the Horse Goddess who confers sovereignty to the king. Ériu was closely associated with horses, and the king-making ritual of the Druids involved a prophetic sleep sewn inside the skin of a sacrificial Mare.

In the present era, archaeologists have discovered these stables on the north flank of the hill, under a wheel-shaped enclosure concealing twin souterrains beneath a paved floor in the shape of the divine Mare, pursued by a galloping Stallion. After the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated by the Milesians, many left but some chose to stay in Ireland. Those who remained agreed to live beneath the earth, as the Aos Si. They were led by a great King in the west, Finnbhear son of Dagda, who, it was said, reared him from a horse.

In another tale, Ériu, who according to the Lebor Gebála was “older than Noe,” gives Conn the cup of sovereignty in “Baile in Scáil.” When Amergin, the King of the Milesians, mortally wounds her in battle at Uisneach, her dying wish was to be buried beneath Ail na Mireann and that the island be named after her. The Vikings knew Ireland as “Ériu’s Land,”and this is the modern etymology of Eire, Eire’s land and Ireland.

Like Eriu, another divinity is buried on this sacred Hill.  There is a lake called Lough Lugh at Uisneach, where it is said the great harvest God Lugh met his fate and is buried in a cairn known as “Carn Ludach.” As a warrior of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he came to Uisneach to rescue his mother from the tyranny of the evil Formorians. After defeating them and killing their leader, called Balor of the Evil Eye, Lugh became king. Many European cities were named for Lugh such as London, Lïsbon, Loudan, Lyons, and others.

The roots of Uisneach lie lost in the mists of time, but surviving monuments and relics range in date from the Neolithic, early Bronze Age to the medieval period; so it has been a significant site for some five millennia. The lighting of the Uisneach fires is a ritual practice of rebirth, which signals the igniting of fires on many hills across the whole island creating a unique, fire eye, with the Uisneach fire being the pupil. This ritual continues to be re-enacted in a modern invocation. We Irish honour this sacred practice and keep the fires lit.

Mawie Barrett is a writer and Librarian, a profession which enables her to totally immerse herself in books. Every morning she opens her door to Slievenamon  Mountain which she calls her mother mountain. She believes that there is a language in the landscape of Ireland that infuses its way into her work.  Torn between writing fiction and non-fiction she veers towards myth and history and often splices both together. She has a BA in Humanities and an MA in Local History


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