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The stone enclosure overlooking the tracks outside Malvern, PA are a memorial to the Irish rail workers who died Photo by: John Ahtes

Bones of our fathers

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The stone enclosure overlooking the tracks outside Malvern, PA are a memorial to the Irish rail workers who died Photo by: John Ahtes

So the bones of 57 Irish immigrants, bodies thrown in a ditch, ravaged by disease and some probably murdered have been found in a mass grave.

Welcome to the Irish in America circa 1832.

This week’s discovery near Philadelphia of the Irish mass grave remain is a poignant example of how awful the conditions were for our ancestors.

They braved the coffin ships and storm-tossed seas and landed in a country rife with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment.

Though the  journeys of these young men came pre-famine, no doubt they were drawn from the same poor class of Irish peasant, slaves to the landlords, unable to own their own lands

Some who were undoubtedly spalpeens, men for hire, they went to hiring fairs and were taken away by unscrupulous bosses who worked them half to death. A famous poem of the period ‘an Spailpin Fanach’ commemorates their hardships.

They faced hard times in America too. The  Know Nothings were one of the major parties of the times, dedicated to ending Irish and Catholic  influence forever.

Revered cartoonist Thomas Nast made his living in ‘Puck’ by portraying our ancestors, men like these, as inhuman and ape-like. The moneyed classes guffawed.

The 57 men who arrived to build the railroad in Philadelphia never had a chance. They were probably in poor shape and emaciated from the journey across the sea of tears. They would have spoken very little English, Gaelic being their native tongue. They would have been worked half to  death.

Little wonder they caught cholera, like thousands of their country men who caught the yellow fever digging the canals in New Orleans, where slaves were more valuable than Irish because at least you got a price for a slave.

So they died, or were murdered because they had cholera. Then their bodies were thrown in ditches where they laid forgotten and undisturbed for almost two centuries.

But their story would  not die and now it has been uncovered again, thanks to the wonderful work of local historians. As the poet Eavan Boland has written “What they endured, we can only imagine.” Now at least we can bury them in peace.

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