Water Man Spouts

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Immigrant Soul

{1} "I am glad to hear that any words of mine, though spoken so long ago that I can hardly claim identity with their author, have reached you. It gives me pleasure, because I have therefore reason to suppose that I have uttered what concerns men, and that it is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature. Yet those days are so distant, in every sense, that I have to look at that page again, to learn what was the tenor of my thoughts then. I should value that article, however, only because it was the occasion of your letter.
"I do believe that the outward and the inward life correspond; that if any should succeed to live a higher life, others would not know of it; that difference and distance are one. To set about living a true life is to go (on) a journey to a distant country, gradually to find ourselves surrounded by new scenes and men …."
--Henry David Thoreau; March 27, 1848

Among the pile of books that my daughter Chloe brought home from the public library this week were two collections of Thoreau’s works. "Letters to a Spiritual Seeker" is a collection of 50 notes from the years 1848 to 1861; the second, "Thoreau," is a collection of four of his books, including "Walden" and "Cape Cod."

The first chapter of "Cape Cod" is titled "The Shipwreck." Thoreau describes walking on a beach at Cohasset, Massachusetts, in October of 1849, and finding parts of a ship wreck. It was the St. John, which was destroyed about a mile from shore by a storm. He saw a handbill that read "Death! One hundred and forty-five lives lost at Cohasset," as he watched the immigrant Irish from near-by communities, searching the beach for any signs of survivors.

He came upon the body of a young woman, who he believed "probably had intended to go out into service to some American family." And then he was overwhelmed by what followed: "All their plans and hopes burst like a bubble. Infants by the score dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean! No! No!"

Some 160 years later, I think that Thoreau would be pleased that an 8th grade student like Chloe is reading his works. I know that I am.

{2} "I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real."

When society begins to spin and spin at an increasingly rapid pace, I enjoy being able to retreat to my one-room cabin near my pond, at the edge of the woods. I can move at my own slow pace, and spend hours reading and watching the snow melt. Because March 17th approaches, I find myself thinking of crossing the near-by creek, and walking along the abandoned railroad tracks to an isolated pioneer cemetery, the final resting place of people who died from approximately 1800 to 1875.

Years ago, a railroad historian who had previously used my late father as a resource, had called me to ask about the site. He had made several attempts to find the grave yard, but couldn’t locate it. I took him and my daughters on the short walk, and showed him where, shortly after the Civil War, a group of immigrant Irish were buried outside of the cemetery’s stone wall. They had died from one of the diseases that took the lives of men living in cramped quarters, and the local Protestant community refused to consider granting them proper burial within the cemetery. Thus, they were buried in a mass grave along the bank.

The tiny crossroads community that saw the turnpike replaced by the railroad is long gone, and more than a hundred years had passed since the flag station near the cemetery had ceased to function. In all of the years that I have lived in this area, I have never seen anyone at the cemetery except those few people I have brought there. I sat quietly as the railroad historian took some pictures; the only noise was that of my daughters, who were happy to find evidence of the trains that used to pass by here every hour of every day.

The historian walked over to me and said, "This is really a sad place. You can feel the loneliness." I asked him what he meant? He said that these men had come to the United States in hopes of finding a new life, and were working in order to send money to bring the next group of their families to America. They had died in a place where no one cared, and buried in a mass grave. No one had contacted their families, and no one even remembered their names.

"But we are here," I said. "We are here now, today." And there are the happy voices of itty-bitty Irish-American girls, laughing and singing. This spot is powerful, in that it has a strange mixture of tragedy, history, beauty, and the laughter of little children, full of life.

He said it was too bad that there were so few records of the immigrant workers, or photographs where individuals could be identified by relatives today. "Come to my house," I said. "I’ll show you some photos, including some tin-types from the Old Sod. And I will tell you some stories that have been handed down."

As we headed towards my house, I told him how my father used to say that every railroad tie served as a headstone for an Irish immigrant who had died building the track.

{3} "Lamh foisneach abu!’ ("The gentle hand to victory!")
--Clanna O’Sullivan-Mor motto, from ancient times

My ancestors’ ancestors came from the southwestern section of Ireland, known as the province of Munster, from the clanna (or tribe) of O’Sullivan-Mor. In the 100 years between 1650 and 1750, the English had stolen much of the land that had belonged to the branch of the family to which I belong. They were forced from their property in places such as Trughanacmy, Ballymcelligott, Carriggnafeal, Ardballa, and Ballnagrillagh.

The English imposed the Penal Laws of 1698, in an attempt to destroy the native culture. It became a crime for an Irish Catholic to buy land; to live in a "corporate" town; to practice a trade or a profession; to vote or to hold public office; to educate their children; to practice their religion; to own a firearm; or to own a horse worth more than 5 pounds.

One of my "great" grandfathers became a famous "hedge master" outside of Limerick in the late 1700s. He taught classical literature; geography; algebra; bookkeeping; and languages including Greek, Latin, and the Irish, Scottish, and Manx dialects of Gaelic. Several of his manuscripts are housed today in the Royal Irish Academy.

He also taught political science. The people he associated with read the writings of men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Along with a cousin, he joined with leaders including Edward Fitzgerald, Oliver Bond, and Wolfe Tone, in forming the United Irishmen. They paid tribute to the American Revolution by beginning their war of liberation with the Battle of Ballygullen on July 4, 1798.

My "great" grandfather and his cousin were among those captured by the English, and sentenced to death. He served time in a dungeon, and wrote a poem while awaiting execution; the poem was smuggled out of the prison, and I have a copy of it given to me by one of my father’s cousins. My "great" grandfather had his life spared.

His cousin, Robert Emmet, delivered one of the most powerful of speeches upon being sentenced to death by the English lord Norbury. It can be found in "The World’s Famous Orations," by William Jennings Bryan (Vol. VI; pages 137-146; copyright 1906; Funk & Wagnall Co.; New York) Here is part of the speech:

"My lords, it may be part of the system of angry justice, to bow a man’s mind by humiliation to the purposed ignominy of the scaffold; but worse to me than the purposed shame, or the scaffold’s terrors, would be the unfounded imputations as have been laid against me in this court: you, my lord, are a judge, I am a supposed culprit; I am a man, you are a man also; by a revolution of power, we might change places, though we could never change characters …."

{4} Malone: "My father died of starvation in Ireland in Black ’47. Maybe you’ve heard of it?"
Violet: "The famine?"
Malone: "No, the starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine."
--George Bernard Shaw; Man and Superman

In 1845, the potato crop that the Irish depended on for their daily bread was infected with a fungus, Phytopthora infestans. Within the year, the crop had been reduced to less than one-fifth of its normal yield. For thousands of families, particularly in the southwest, this created a crisis.
These families had experienced the same reduction in status as had mine: they went from land-owners to tenants on tiny plots of a foreign landlord’s estate. Thus, although they produced bumper crops of barley, oats, and wheat, the British landlords demanded these for the rent.

British historian Robert Kee noted that on a single day in November of 1848, the following items, produced entirely by the Irish Catholic farmers, were sent from Cork to England: 147 bales of bacon; 120 casks and 135 barrels of pork; 5 casks of ham; 300 bags of flour; 300 head of cattle; 239 sheep; and 542 crates of eggs. As Shaw’s Malone noted, when a country is full of food, and exporting it, there is no such thing as "famine."

Under the leadership of British representative Robert Peel, attempts were made to feed the poor. Citizens from the United States were sending contributions, including loads of corn. Help came not only from Irish-Americans, but from other groups, most notably the Quakers. Even the Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma, themselves victims of poverty caused by the theft of their lands, sent $170 to buy food. It is said that although there was suffering, no one starved to death under Peel.

However, the British landlords were able to influence their government to make changes: Peel was removed, and a cruel bureaucrat named Charles Trevelyan assumed power. He believed that the British market was inspired by divine law, and that the donations to feed and cloth the Irish Catholics were an offense against God. He put an end to the donations of food and clothing.

"The great evil with which we have to contend," Trevelyan stated, was "not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people." He identified the need to change the nature of Irish culture, rather than to save lives, as the most important goal. The media of the day fell in line; "The Times" of London editors responded to calls to help the suffering poor with a single cold line: "It is possible to have heard the tale of sorrow too often."

Ireland had a population of 8 million people in 1845. By 1851, more than a million of these human beings had died of starvation and the diseases that feed upon malnutrition. Two million more had boarded the "Famine Ships," sailing towards North America. They would become the nation’s first "huddled masses."

Edward Laxton’s 1996 book "The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America" helps to tell of the horrors associated with those journeys. It puts the story into a context that is too often overlooked. The British involvement in slave trade, in which ships from Europe picked up slaves in Africa, dropped them off in America, and returned with cargo including sugar, cotton, and other goods produced by slave labor, had ended. Many of those same ships were put to use as the famine ships that transported the Irish the US and Canada, and returned with cargo. A number of circumstances, including the unhealthy people being cramped into the slave quarters, and the deterioration of the ships themselves, resulted in the high rates of death on the ships and the numerous ship-wrecks, suck as the one Thoreau witnessed washing ashore.

The majority of the Irish immigrants faced harsh conditions in the Irish ghettoes of the eastern seaboard cities they lived in. "Nativism" was among the problems: George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer-politician, wrote that, "Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese."

Over half of the adults who immigrated to the cities would die within the first five or six years after arrival. A large number of the men would end up fighting in the Civil War. About 15% of the men would move westward, finding employment on the railroads.

{5} "I’ve been working on the railroad,
All the live-long day;
I’ve been working on the railroad,
Just to pass the time away."
--Author unknown; based upon "The Levee Song," by slaves building levees on the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

Some of my family had come to the USA during the Great Starvation, and found work as stone-cutters first on the canals, and then on early railroads. Some worked to build the railroad that used to pass by here; they were immigrant laborers on the line at the same time the group of men died of either cholera or diphtheria in the camp near the creek. They worked to earn enough money to send back to Ireland, to help pay to bring the next group of family members over. They settled in the towns that were connected to the eastern cities by the railroads.

My grandfather was born in Ireland in 1874, and came to this country with his family at the age of five. Because the US provided his extended family opportunities they were denied in Ireland, he and his siblings had the advantage of formal education. The family went from stone-cutters, to telegraphers, to station agents, to police officers and civil engineers in a relatively short time.

In the NYC-New Jersey area, they did have the struggles that often pitted them against other groups of immigrants. Those relatives who were old enough to remember life in the early 1900s used to tell me, for example, of the competition between the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews in the sport of boxing.

That was a different time, in a different space. It also is as close as the unmarked mass grave of the Irish immigrants is to me as I type this.

"But the bell rings, and I must get off the track and let the cars go by; --
What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing,
but I cross it like a cart-path in the woods. I will not have my eyes put out and my cars spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.
Now that the cars are gone by, and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the long afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway."
--Thoreau; Sounds; from Waldon


At March 15, 2008 at 4:32 PM, Blogger hizzoner said...

A wonderful post Waterman....

The first faint promises of Spring are in the air in Wisconsin and your post causes me to think of the wonder that is to come



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