Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Irish ambassador, film producer discuss “Black ’47”

“Black ’47,” a fictional big-screen treatment of the Great Famine, debuted in March at the Berlin Film Festival; opened in September in Ireland; and has shown since October on limited U.S. screens. The New York Times described the film as an “occasionally exhilarating action-revenge plot” set against the bleak historical period. John Dorney at The Irish Story wrote:

Essentially it is a kind of revenge western epic – imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood’s the “Outlaw Josey Wales” and Quentin Tarnatino’s “Django Unchained” – but set in Famine era Ireland.

Think of “Rambo” in mid-19th century Ireland, with single-shot pistols and rifles (which more than once fail to fire), rather than automatic weapons.

My wife and I attended a 2 December screening at the American Film Institute’s “European Union Film Showcase.” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall spoke about the Famine before the lights dimmed, and Jonathan Loughran, one of the film’s producers, participated in a Q & A session after the credits rolled.

The Famine is “fundamental to any understanding of Ireland’s story,” Mulhall said, and also is the “origin story” of more than 33 million Irish Americans.

With more than 1 million dead and 1 million emigrated, it was “a food crisis of unparalleled scale,” he said, the last mass hunger event in the Western world. Ireland’s population was 8.5 million at the time, a level not expected to recover until 2045, nearly 200 years later.

Loughran, originally from Dublin, said working on the film “re-woke feelings I forgot” in leaning about the Famine as a child. He said reactions to the film have been better than expected, especially among the Irish.

“It stoked some republican feelings in people,” Loughran said.

He praised Australian actor James Frecheville, who plays former Connaught Ranger Martin Feeney, for learning Irish, which is spoken by various characters the film, their words either interpreted by others in the scene, or shown in subtitles.

“Black ’47” is said to be the first feature film about the Famine, and Loughran thinks there is room for more treatments. “It could become its own genre, there are so many stories to be told.”

Here’s the official trailer:

A few of my previous posts about the Famine:

Catching up with modern Ireland: November

I made my second trip of the year to Ireland in November. As in February, the weather was delightfully mild and mostly dry. As in America, more and more people seemed transfixed by their smart phones. In the West of Ireland, I noticed more wind turbines sprouting from fields and hilltops to supply electrical power to keep those phones charged. At several churches, Mass attendance remained thin, especially at the massive Galway Cathedral. (Below and bottom of the post.)

Here’s the monthly roundup for November:

      • “Successive Irish Governments have abandoned rural Ireland. Their vision is of a prosperous elite, big cities and a trickle down of wealth. A trickle that runs dry before it reaches rural Ireland,” Sinn Féin  President Mary Lou McDonald said. … “Rural Ireland isn’t dying. … The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs,” Donal O’Donovan wrote in the Irish Independent.
      • Medical devices now make up almost 10 percent of all Irish exports. The Republic is second only to Germany as the largest European exporter of such equipment, The Irish Times reported. Most of the firms are clustered around Galway.
      • “Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy,op-ed in The Hill.
      • Ireland is moving to reinstate birthright citizenship, bucking the trend in other Western countries to tighten restrictions on immigration, The New York Times reported.
      • Tourism Ireland announced it will increase 2019 spending by €10 million, to €45 million, and will launch its first new global advertising campaign in seven years to help attract more overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. The “Fill your Heart with Ireland” campaign will launch during December in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, then roll out more than 20 other markets in the new year. The promotional boost is driven in part by concerns about Brexit.
      • “Is Ireland Really A Startup Nation?”, column in Forbes.
      • The Irish Aviation Authority is investigating the 9 November spotting by several commercial airline pilots of an unidentified flying object over the Republic. Some have speculated the fast-moving lights were probably meteorites entering Earth at a low angle. 

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone photos

ENNIS ~ My “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” series explores aspects of the book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert.

The Charleston, S.C.-born, Harvard-educated, New York City newspaper editor traveled around Ireland during the first six months of 1888, a period of resurgent agrarian violence and nationalist political agitation. His book, published later that year, focused on these topics. Like most visitors to Ireland, however, Hurlbert also explored the country’s landscapes and landmarks, including the ruins of Killone Abbey in County Clare.

The American journalist leveraged his visit to the abbey ruins to criticize the violence in the land reform movement, as discussed in my original post about this section of Hurlbert’s diary. A year later, an Irish priest mocked the characterization in his Hurlbert unmasked rebuttal pamphlet.

See black and white images of the abbey, circa 1865, or more than 20 years before Hurlbert’s visit, at this link to the Robert French photography collection at the National Library of Ireland. Below, photos from my 11 November 2018 visit to the site, 130 years after Hurlbert.

Approach to Killone Abbey, November 2018.

The abbey opened in 1190 and abandoned in the 17th century.

Looking back toward the photo vantage above.

During his 1888 visit, American journalist William Henry Hurlbert commented about the “picturesque lake” and the “confusion, squalor and neglect” of the abbey graveyard.

I’m always drawn to the view from the surviving window frames of ancient ruins.

On returning to Ireland, a look back at previous trips

I’m traveling to Ireland for the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2018 Conference, “The Press & the Vote,” at NUI Galway. Watch for my tweets (@markaholan) and posts over the coming week.

First, here are links to photo features from my last two trips.

February 2018

Douglas Hyde Center in Co. Roscommon.

July 2016

Belfast mural of nationalist hero Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981. (July 2016)

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

As of 30 October, traffic on this site surpassed our highest annual total, in 2016. Thanks very much for your readership and support, including several of you who emailed suggestions for this month’s roundup, which starts in arts and ends in crime:

  • Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize, for Milkman, a novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man during the Troubles. Authors John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle of the Irish Republic won the prize earlier.
  • On Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s “thrilling new play” The Ferryman “mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance,” according to this New York Times review.
  • “The extent to which many English people are ignorant about Ireland has become painfully clear. … I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess.” I Didn’t Hate the English — Until Now
  • An Bord Pleanála approved a 25-story residential tower in Cork city. If built, it would become the county’s tallest tower.
  • Ireland ranked 5th on the 2018 CAF World Giving Index, behind the U.S. and ahead of the U.K.
  • The Republic will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
  • “When confronted with a film that identified prime suspects in a massacre of unarmed British citizens [Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994], the authorities made no apparent effort to further question those suspects—and arrested the filmmakers instead.” Why Were a Filmmaker and a Journalist Arrested in Northern Ireland?
  • In a case that reminds me of the “agrarian outrages” of the late 19th century, north Kerry bachelor dairy farmer Michael Ferris, 63, of Rattoo, was found guilty of manslaughter for the 2017 death of John Anthony O’Mahony, an unmarried tillage farmer, 73, of Ardoughter, Ballyduff.  Ferris drove the pallet forks of his teleporter into the car occupied by O’Mahony, apparently enraged by the older man’s use of a crow banger, according to the Irish Examiner.
  • In America, the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, once head of Boston’s Irish mob, was killed in federal prison. Read my “Southie memories” piece from his 2013 trial.

James “Whitey” Bulger in 1959, early in his criminal career.

Photo feature: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

This week I returned to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for the first time since before the church’s massive exterior and interior restoration from 2012 to 2016. This year is the 160th anniversary of the laying of the church’s cornerstone on 15 August 1858.

Great Catholic Ceremony,” The New York Times headlined its front page coverage the next day. “Intense Assemblage of 100,000 Persons”  … “Magnificent Ceremony — Unlimited Enthusiasm“. The story suggested that the proposed “ecclesiastical structure … if completed … will have no parallel on this continent.”

The church opened 20 years later, and the twin spires were added in 1888, then the tallest structures in New York. Here are a few images of this stunningly beautiful and popular worship space.:

Himself, thinner, more humble-looking than most statues of the saint.

The main sanctuary.

Shamrock detail on front doors. 

The twin spires at night.

See the St. Patrick’s Churches section of the blog for more photos and links to other worship spaces dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Froude-Burke

This is an extra installment of my “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” blog series, which explores aspects of American journalist William Henry Hurlbert’s 1888 travels in Ireland. The full series, including background material and a related article published outside this blog, are available on the project landing page. #IUCRevisited

***

“…of one episode of that mission, no man living perhaps knows so much as I, and I make no excuse for this allusion to it here …”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In his 1888 book, Hurlbert claimed a behind-the-scenes role in the notorious 1872 American lecture series that pitted English literary historian James Anthony Froude against Irish Dominican priest Father Thomas Nicholas Burke. Sources suggest that Hurlbert wasn’t overstating his closeness to both men, or to the event, which 16 years later influenced his views about Irish nationalist activities on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1872, Hurlbert was the highly-regarded editor of the New York World. America was still recovering from the civil war. Ireland was a generation past the Great Famine and slowly building toward the agrarian uprising and nationalist agitation that erupted in the 1880s.

Father Burke

Hurlbert’s “esteem” for Froude’s “rare abilities” dated to the Englishman’s novel, The Nemesis of Faith, published in 1849, the year Hurbert obtained a divinity degree from Harvard. His friendship with the Galway-born Father Burke began when both were in Rome during the 1867 Feast of St. Peter, the eighteenth centenary commemoration of the saint’s martyrdom. Hurlbert fondly noted his time with Burke during an 1878 visit to Ireland. Their friendship “ended only with his life,” in 1883, at Tallaght, near Dublin.

Froude’ autumn 1872 lecture tour was arranged to promote his book, The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. His book and lectures emphasized why the Irish required English supervision and were transparently anti-Catholic. Writing 16 years later, Hurlbert said he worried the lecture tour “would do a world of mischief, by stirring up ancient issues of strife between the Protestant and the Catholic populations of the United States [that would] be answered angrily, indiscreetly, and in a fashion to aggravate prejudice.”

Only Father Burke, who happened to be in America on other matters in 1872, could respond “temperately, loftily, and wisely,” Hurlbert reasoned.

“…his appearance in the arena as the champion of Ireland, would lift the inevitable controversy high above the atmosphere of unworthy passion, and put it beyond the reach of political mischief-makers. How nobly he did his work … is now [a] matter of history.”

Hurlbert “begged” Burke “to find or make time” to produce a series of lectures replying to Froude’s speeches. Burke agreed, Hurlbert reported, only after “consulting with the highest authorities of his Church, and with two or three of the coolest and most judicious Irish citizens of New York.” And while the Irish priest’s brogue was “a memory as of music in the ears of all who heard it,” his criticism of intemperate Irish nationalism sounded even sweeter to Hurlbert, especially on American soil.

To illustrate his point, Hurlbert reported that while Froude was giving lectures in Boston, “all the Irish servants of the friend with whom he was to stay had suddenly left the house, refusing to their employer the right to invite under his roof a guest not agreeable to them.” Hurlbert revealed that he learned of this in “a letter from Boston,” which he shared with Burke, who “read it with a kind of humorous wrath.”

At his next lecture, Burke prefaced his remarks “with a few strong and stirring words, in which he castigated with equal sense and severity the misconduct of his country-people,” Hurlbert wrote in 1888, a claim confirmed by the newspaper coverage of 16 years earlier. On 26 November 1872, at the Academy of Music in New York, Father Burke told his audience that earlier that day he had been “handed a paragraph,” or clipping, from the New York Tribune about the Boston incident. He said:

“The reading of it causes me very great pain and anguish of mind, for it recorded an act of discourtesy offered to my learned antagonist, Mr. Foude, and supposed to be offered by Irishmen in Boston. In the name of the Irishmen in America, I tender the learned gentleman my best apologies. I beg to assure him for my Irish fellow-countrymen in this land that we are only too happy to offer him the courtesy and the hospitality that Irishmen never refused even to their enemies.”

I couldn’t find any reporting of the servants’ walkout in that day’s Tribune, but it was described in The New York Times, which added that Froude also had been “bustled by some rude persons” in New Haven, Connecticut. “We do not know what truth there may be in these stories; but we much fear that Mr. Froude is not in an earthly Paradise,” the Times reported.

In his 1906 biography The Life of Froude, Herbert W. Paul wrote that Froude was the Boston guest of George Peabody, “equally well known in England and the United States as a philanthropist.” During the visit:

“…politicians had to think of the Irish vote, and the proprietors of newspapers could not ignore their Catholic subscribers.The priests worked against him [Froude] with such effect that Mr. Peabody’s servants in Boston, who were Irish Catholics, threatened to leave their places if Froude remained as a guest in their master’s house. Father Burke, who had begun politely enough, became obstreperous and abusive. Froude’s life was in danger, and he was put under the special protection of the police.” (My emphasis.)

Froude

There is one problem here. Boston financier George Peabody died in 1869, three years before Froude’s trip to Boston. W.H. Dunn, in his 1960s biography of Froude, corrected Paul in a footnote that speculated Froude had stayed with George H. Peabody, shown in the city directory at 76-78 Milk Street. I found an 1872 Boston newspaper account that mentions “Dr. Peabody of Harvard” among “several prominent gentlemen” who occupied the stage of the “half filled” Tremont Temple for one of Froude’s lectures.

Paul and Dunn each noted that Froude witnessed the historic 9 November 1872 fire, which killed 13 to 20 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings over 65 acres in Boston’s city center. The fire was stopped near Milk Street. Both biographers quote from one of Froude’s letters that described the tragedy. Paul wrote that Froude donated $700 to the relief effort, which included help for many Irish immigrant families displaced by the fire.

There is other evidence that Irish domestic servants protested Froude’s visit to America. In William J. Fitzpatrick’s 1886 biography, The Life of the Very Rev. Thomas N. Burke, the author states:

“It was at this time that a memorable incident occurred–the strike of the Noras and Biddys. The female servants of different hotels agreed among themselves that Mr. Froude’s bell must not be answered; and in one case they threatened to leave in body unless the ‘Masthur’ got rid of the enemy of their country.”

Fitzpatrick’s biography also cites letters from two people who confirmed Hurlbert’s role in the lecture drama. One is Major Patrick M. Haverty, a Dublin-born friend of Father Burke who came to America in the late 1840s. Haverty assisted General Thomas F. Meagher in organizing the Irish Brigade during the U.S. Civil War, and was an established publisher and bookseller in New York at the time of the priest’s 1872 visit.

Father Burke and Hurlbert: “…were great friends; visited the art galleries together; and enjoyed their mutual criticisms,” Haverty wrote. “When Father Burke came to New York one of the first to call on him was Mr. Hurlburt (sic).”

Patrick James Smyth, an Irish Home Rule M.P for Westmeath at the time of Froude/Burke lectures, was the second source. He wrote that Hurlbert had tried to arrange a dinner to introduce the visiting Englishman and Irishman before the lectures got underway. Father Burke was about to accept, Smyth wrote, but: “I advised him to wait until his lectures were over, because I knew that he was so impressible that if he were once brought into friendly contact with his opponent he would not have the heart to deliver such stunning and keen thrusts when he appeared against him in the forum.”

Father Burke’s lectures easily carried popular opinion in America, which still harbored deep anti-Anglo feelings a century after its own revolution against England, and were more recently inflamed during the Civil War. Americans bristled at Froude’s anti-democratic and anti-Catholic rhetoric. Besides, they liked an underdog, in this case, Ireland. 

A few years after his return from America, Father Burke said that any Irishman living abroad would experience “a yearning and a craving and a love for Ireland … that he never felt before.” But he never became a strong voice for Irish independence that some hoped. “Advanced nationalists often made it a source of complaint and resentment against Burke that after his return to Ireland he confined himself to priestly functions,” Fitzpatrick wrote. Hurlbert observed that the 1882 murder of two English government officials by militant nationalists in Dublin’s Phoenix Park “went near to breaking the heart and hope of poor Father Burke” a year before his death.

Hurlbert insisted “the strike of the servant girls at Boston” was a “precursory symptom” of the “social plague of boycotting” that he found so prevalent in Ireland during his 1888 visit. His friend’s 1872 rebuke to the Irish workers, Hurlbert concluded, anticipated the papal decree against such activity issued during his travels.

Hurlbert added that he didn’t expect any immigrant “to divest himself of his native sympathies or antipathies,” but once in America he was required to divest “of the notion that he retains any right actively to interfere in the domestic affairs of the country of his birth. For public and political purposes, the Irishman who becomes an American ceases to be an Irishman.”

NOTES: 

Burke and Froude from pages 4-6 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Additional information on Burke from pages 41, 54, and 222.

“The reading of it …”  The New York Tribune, Nov. 27, 1872, page 1

“We do not know what truth…”  The New York Times, Nov. 27, 1872, page 4

Herbert Paul, The Life of Froude, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, London, 1905, pages 223-228.

Waldo Hilary Dunn, James Anthony Froude, A Biography, Vol. 2, 1857-1894. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961-63: footnote, page 611; fire, page 384.

“Dr. Peabody of Harvard…” The Boston Globe, Nov. 15, 1872, page 8

William J. Fitzpatrick, The Life of the Very Rev. Thomas N. Burke, Vol. 2, New York, 1886: “Nora and Biddys…”, pages 77-78; “he was so impressible…”, page 77; “visited the art galleries together…”, page 62; and “An Irishman abroad” and “advanced nationalists…”, page 78-79.

“carried popular opinion…” Wayne C. Minnick, 1951, “The Froude-Burke Controversy” in Speech Monographs, 18, pp. 31–36.

The Irish servants walkout in Boston resurfaced in Andrew Urban’s 2017 book, Brokering Servitude: Migration and the Politics of Domestic Labor During the Long Nineteenth Century. Urban cited Hurlbert as his source, in addition to earlier English newspaper reports about Irish worker protests in America.

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

Before getting to this month’s roundup, I want to thank the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore and those who attended my 15 September talk on Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’. Also this month, year-to-date traffic on the blog surpassed last year’s total. Thanks for reading. MH

  • September began with the 99th annual Dublin City Liffey Swim, a 2.2 K (1.3 mile) “towards the sea” race underneath a dozen key bridges.
  • A confluence of events has shunted unification on to the political agenda.” From Talk of a united Ireland is rife. But is it a fantasy?
  • The four-volume Cambridge History of Irelandpublished in April, received its American launch this month with events in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.
  • For a few days early in the month it appeared that U.S. President Donald Trump was going visit Ireland as part of trip to Paris to mark the end of World War I. Within two weeks, the Irish leg was cancelled.
  • By almost every measure Ireland today is a more inclusive, progressive and safer place to live than it once was, and the oppressive control exerted by church and State have been dramatically lessened. People live longer, cars are safer, roads are better, homes – if you are lucky enough to have one – are warmer and food is better and cheaper than it was.” From Is Ireland a better place to live now than 20 years ago.
  • The BBC reported on the dwindling number of iconic red telephone boxes in Northern Ireland, though some have been re-purposed as mini libraries, defibrillator kiosks, and information centres.
  • Travel to Ireland increased by nearly 8 percent in the eight-months through August, compared to the same period in 2017, the CSO said.
  • Listowel, in Kerry, the home of the late John B. Keane and the annual “Writer’s Week,” is this year’s All-Ireland Tidy Town, topping 883 entries in the 60th annual competition.

“Tidy Town” winner Listowel, from the Listowel Connection blog.

GAA’s “American Invasion” began 130 years ago

On 25 September, 1888, a delegation of Irish athletes arrived in New York City for an “American Invasion Tour” intended to raise money and promote awareness for the sports of the four-year-old Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

The New York Times reported that “50 stalwart young lads with remarkably well developed limbs sprang down the gangplank of the steamer Wisconsin … (carrying) blackthorn sticks and ‘hurling’ clubs in their hands … Their sticks commanded universal respect, and a big policeman eyed them with special interest …”

The 1888 hurling team. Image from Haverford College.

The visiting athletes were greeted by “many friends … and representatives from several Irish societies,” the Times reported. “Almost all trades and professions are represented among the young men.”

Their arrival coincided with a period of increased Irish immigration to America due to ongoing domestic agrarian unrest and political turmoil. These issues were now receiving extra scrutiny from a special commission that opened in London a few weeks earlier. American journalist William Henry Hurlbert also published a book about the “Irish problem” based on his travels in the country earlier that year. (See my “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” blog serial.)

“One of the main ideas considered by the founders of the GAA was the revival of the ancient Tailteann Games, An Aonach Tailteann,” the organization says in its online history. “However, terrible weather and infighting between the two athletic organisations in America resulted in low attendances and gate receipts.”

The GAA tour was to have included exhibitions in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Trenton, Newark, and Patterson, New Jersey; Providence, Rhode Island; and Lowell, Massachusetts. But dates were cancelled and the tour ended in just five weeks. The GAA had to borrow money from agrarian activist Michael Davitt help the athletes return to Ireland. About half the young men decided to stay in America.

Two years ago, the diary kept team member Pat Davin, brother of GAA co-founder Maurice Davin, emerged in public and was put under auction, as reported by The Irish Times. In one passage the diarist complained about “very plain-looking” American women at a New York dance; in another, about the lack of strong drink at a Massachusetts banquet.

1888 Invasion medal.

Davin’s dairy went unsold at the 2016 auction and remains in the hands of the private owner, said County Kilkenny-based Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers. A commemorative medal from the 1888 tour sold in May for about $2,200, slightly less than was paid for a similar medal eight years ago.

 

“Although the tour was deemed a failure in some regards, its overall cultural impact was noticeable and lasting,” according to Haverford College“The tour was well received by Irish American communities in general and eventually resulted in the formation of several GAA branches.”

During his travels in Ireland, Hurlbert obtained a copy of the newly published Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland, which included “Marching Song of the Gaelic Athletes.” The poem by Irish nationalist Douglas Hyde later became the GAA anthem. It begins:

We, the numerous men of Eire,
Born beneath her pleasant skies,
To our gatherings on our mountains.
In our thousands we arise.
See the weapons on our shoulders,
Neither gun nor pike we bear,
But should Ireland call upon us
Ireland soon should find them there.

(Poem continues)

Swimming across Walden, remembering the shanty Irish

I was swimming west on Walden Pond
towards the ghosts of pre-Famine Irish workers
near Concord village in the sun on the first day of September.

–After Paul Durcan’s “On the First Day of June.”

In late June 1844, New England newspapers reported that service on the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American revolution. A new noise replaced “the shot heard round the world.”

The repose of that quite venerable town … was suddenly broken by the shrill note of the engine and a hundred passengers alighted from the train of freight cars laden with materials for the line. The route from Boston to Concord is most picturesque and pleasing, passing [among other locations] the clear waters of Walden Pond. The regular trains will now commence running to Concord, and the track is rapidly progressing towards Vermont, and Canada.

A year later, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he built near the pond’s shoreline. As noted in his book, Walden, he procured the boards for his abode from the “uncommonly fine” shanty of Irish railroad worker James Collins, who was moving up the line with the transportation project.

Irish railroad workers, former slaves, and other outcasts lived in the Walden woods for years before Thoreau. And it wasn’t all bucolic wilderness, either, as many nearby acres had been cut for timber and cleared for farming and the railroad. As Thoreau noted, the Fitchburg Railroad “touches the pond about a hundred rods [a third of a mile] south of where I dwell.” He continued:

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk over a farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous county traders from the other side.

Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond. Note the unfinished Fitchburg Railroad line at top right. His cabin was located about where the arrow’s fletching is at the middle right. I swam from A to B, and back.

In another passage, Thoreau mused on the term “sleepers,” the wooden ties that support the railroad tracks, as a metaphor of the workers’ oppression and their potential redemption:

Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and cars run smooth over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. … And I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

Waves of unskilled Irish arrived in America during a “forgotten era” of immigration before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They were cheap labor for the dirty and dangerous work of building the nation’s canals and railroads. A decade before the Fitchburg line was laid, 57 Irish railroad workers died of cholera–though some were probably murdered–at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, where they were buried in a notorious mass grave.

Irish people are referenced throughout Walden. Thoreau described the “clumsy Irish laborers” who cut blocks of ice on the pond in winter, and “Poor John Field … born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty.” He wrote, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” Scholars have debated whether Thoreau was prejudice against the Irish. One University of Notre Dame professor blames such interpretations on “hasty reading” of the book.

Swimming Walden

I visited Walden on the first day of September, as near to the autumn equinox as the date of Paul Durcan’s poem is to the summer solstice. With the air and water temperatures each about 80 F. (27 C.), I welcomed the challenge from my wife and some friends to swim the half-mile length of the pond. In the book, Thoreau made several mentions of bathing in the pond during summer, even “swimming across one of its coves for a stint.”

I am a confident, year-round pool swimmer, but I rarely get the chance to stroke through open water. Given Walden’s smooth surface and historical significance, this was an exhilarating opportunity. I entered from the sandy beach at the east end of the 65-acre oval.

Aerial view of Walden, with commuter rail right-of-way at bottom right, which is west. Photo: Walden Pond State Reservation.

For the next 20 minutes, I alternated between freestyle and breast strokes, the former to cover the distance more quickly, the latter to make head up navigational adjustments. There are no lap lanes across Walden Pond.

About three quarters across, during a stretch of breast stroke, I watched a train streak left to right on the horizon ahead of me. It was the commuter line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority on the former Fitchburg Railroad right-of-way. There was no shrill whistle; no belching smoke from a coal-fired locomotive; only the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, riding over the sleepers kept down and level in their beds by gangs of men. The rapid, unbroken notes drifted over the water:

“kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. … ”

Then silence. Then water rippling around my ears. My breathing. I dropped my head and stretched forward my right arm to begin the final segment of freestyle to the shore. There, I rested a few moments.

I thought about James Collins, John Field, and the other Irish who lived at Walden more than 170 years ago. Perhaps this spot is where Thoreau salvaged “a raft of pitch-pine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when the railroad was built.”

A raft for fishing? A raft for sledding blocks of pond ice? Or perhaps, looking eastward as I was, a raft for their imaginations to drift across Walden, across the Atlantic, all the way back to Ireland, even as their starving countrymen began sailing westward in the dark holds of equally dubious vessels.

Thoreau wrote “a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land [exclaimed], ‘What, is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

I waded into the shallow and plunged into the pond to begin the half-mile swim back to my wife and friends. Back to the 21st century. I am now another ghost of Walden; one who never built a railroad, a shanty, or even a simple raft. I am digging with my pen, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote; I am building my railroad on sleepers of words.

Along the shores of Walden
once home to shanty Irish workers
on the first day of September in the heart of New England
my ripples disappeared.


“Forgotten era” is the section title for the immigration period 1700 to 1840, in Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008. More than one million people left Ireland in the 30 years before the Famine (p. 35), and up to 60 percent were unskilled laborers (p. 37). Irish workers helped to build America’s canal system in the early 19th century, then shifted to railroad work as that mode of transportation became more practical and profitable to commercial interests. In both cases, migrant Irish laborers lived in shanty communities near the project sites (pgs. 42-46).