Tag Archives: Great Famine

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).

‘Born at Sea’ talk is Sept. 15 in Baltimore

Thanks to Luke McCusker of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum for inviting me to make this presentation, and for those who attended. Contact me via the “Leave a reply” function if interested in a talk on this subject, or my other Irish work. MH  

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I am giving a talk about “Ireland’s Famine Children Born at Sea” this Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore.

The presentation is based on my story in the Winter 2017/18 issue of the National Archives & Records Administration’s Prologue magazine. It includes additional research since the piece was published earlier this year.

Register for the free event, which begins at 11 a.m. The museum is located near downtown Baltimore at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants lived from the mid-19th century.

Here’s my earlier post about the museum, which is worth visiting anytime.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

‘Born at Sea’ talk coming Sept. 15 in Baltimore

I’m giving a Sept. 15 presentation at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore about “Ireland’s Famine Children Born at Sea.” It is based on my story of the same headline in the Winter 2017/18 issue of the National Archives & Records Administration’s Prologue magazine.

The talk will including additional research that I’ve done since the story’s publication earlier this year. Register for the free event, which begins at 11 a.m. The museum is located near downtown Baltimore at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants who worked for the nearby B&O Railroad lived from the mid-19th century.

Here’s my earlier post about the museum, which is worth visiting anytime.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

Blogiversary: Six years, and a summer break

July marks the blog’s sixth anniversary.

Before publishing my next post, which will be my 600th, I want to thank my readers for their support. I appreciate those who subscribe to the blog via email, share the posts on social media, or just drop by from time-to-time. Special thanks to Angie Drobnic Holan, my lovely wife, who contributes to the effort as volunteer editor and webmaster.

The Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited project, which dominated my work the first half of this year with over 40 posts, was well received. January through June traffic on the site was 70 percent of the 2017 full-year total.

Over the next two months, I’ll be posting less frequently in order to enjoy the summer and work on several long-term projects. The latter includes:

  • Preparing for a 15 September presentation at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, in Baltimore, based on my Prologue magazine story, Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’.
  • Additional research and editing of the Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited, project for an e-book version.
  • Planning for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, and the following Irish War of Independence centenaries. I will attend the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland‘s 10th Anniversary Conference, 9-10 November, in Galway. It will explore the 1918 British elections under the theme “The Press and the Vote”.

I will post a few history stories on the blog over the summer, including a new serialized version of my “Nora’s Sorrow” project, and keep up with contemporary events, such as Brexit and Pope Francis’ August visit to Ireland.

For now, however, thanks again for all of your support since 2012. Keep coming back!

Vintage presses displayed at the National Print Museum in Dublin, February 2018.

Ireland’s Famine Children “Born at Sea”

An 1868 illustration by Henry Doyle.

Anne Kerny wailed and moaned as the Garrick sailed to America during the worst winter of Ireland’s Great Famine. Somewhere in the Atlantic, before the ship reached New York City on January 20, 1848, the cries of the baby she delivered also filled the steerage compartment.

Bridget Kerny was not the only newborn of the 40-day journey from Liverpool. The Garrick was nearly a nursery, with 33 children born at sea among the 478 aboard, according to the Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Two of the babies died before the ship nudged the dock.

The online database shows 8,075 births at sea among more than 410,000 Irish passengers to arrive in New York from January 1846 through December 1851, the teeth of the Famine years. Of these newborns, 452 died, among 2,883 total reported fatalities. That’s a nearly three-to-one ratio of births-to-deaths, and an extra 7,623 passengers who did not embark from Irish or English ports.

Read the rest of this story, which I just published in Prologue Magazine, the official publication of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

An Irish shrine in the heart of Baltimore

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

I visited The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at the edge of downtown Baltimore.

The museum is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Irish who began immigrating to the city during the Great Famine and continued to the middle of the 20th century. Many worked at the nearby Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The museum is contained within two row houses typical of the West Baltimore neighborhood of the period. There is a nice introductory video narrated by Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore mayor (1999-2007) and Maryland governor (2007-2015) in the museum welcome center, which also contains artifacts from the nearby St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (now a Baptist worship space) and B&O rail yards. The adjoining house is restored as a typical workers’s home of the period.

The Memorial Garden in the rear features the shrine mural by artist Wayne Nield. The image depicts three phases of the Irish experience: the famine of the 1840s (right), the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic (center) and the new life in America (left), where the predominantly rural immigrants remade themselves as city dwellers.

Museum Board Member Barry Larkin and Managing Director Luke McCusker were very friendly and informative during my visit. I hope to return soon.

The shrine mural by Wayne Nield.

Northern Ireland hosts first Famine Commemoration

Today (26 September) the National Famine Commemoration is being held for the first time in Northern Ireland, in Newry, County Down.

In recognition of the fact that the Great Famine affected all parts of the island of Ireland, the location of the annual commemoration has rotated in sequence between the four provinces since 2008. The 2011 event was in Clones, County Monaghan, an Ulster county in the Republic of Ireland.

“The annual Famine Commemoration is a solemn tribute to those who suffered in the most appalling circumstances that prevailed during the Great Famine,” Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys said in a release earlier this year. “While the scale of suffering was greater in some parts of Ireland than in others, all parts of the island suffered great loss of life and the destruction of families and communities through emigration.”

The BBC has a nice package of stories and info-graphs about the commemoration and the impact of the famine in Ulster/Northern Ireland.

Coinciding with this year’s commemoration is the release of the first paperback edition of “Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and Monument,” by Emily Mark-Fitzgerald. The 2013 book explores more than 100 monuments around the world that recognize the events of 1845-1852.

Here’s a look at three memorials in Northern Ireland. Here’s one in Philadelphia, which I hope to visit next week during a business trip.