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Immigrants work of digging the canals along the Merrimack River to power Lowell's mills

Famine Irish shantytown will yield its secrets

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Immigrants work of digging the canals along the Merrimack River to power Lowell's mills

An archeological dig in Lowell Massachusetts will shed new light on the Irish experience in America.

Remarkable evidence has come to light that tells the story of one of the most important first waves of Irish immigration to America.

The story begins in August 1822, when 30 Irish laborers arrived in Charlestown, Massachusetts in search of steady work. The newcomers settled in an area further north in an area that would eventually become Lowell, Massachusetts. The influx of Irish were central to the city’s creation, digging the canals along the Merrimack River to power the new textile mills.

This first wave of Irish immigrants lived in a hardscrabble shanty town to being with, but as more of their countrymen joined them they built a wooden church beside their homes and named it Saint Patrick.

The original Irish shantytown settlement, according to an 1831 article in the Portsmouth Journal, was called 'New Dublin' and consisted of 100 cabins about 7 to 10 feet tall, built of stone and rough boards. It also included a schoolhouse with 150 children.

On that land to this day a rebuilt version of the original 1831 church remains, and its grounds have remained virtually untouched over the nearly two centuries since the settlement’s founding.

Now, archeologists plan to excavate the church lawn in search of clues about the original early Irish settlement and how its inhabitants lived their daily lives in their new country, from the food they prepared to the hearths they cooked over and even the pipes they smoked.

Digging the canals was grueling work, and sometimes deadly. According to a history of Saint Patrick Church, records from the time document the death of numerous workers, from drowning to heat exhaustion to being crushed by a machine or in a fall.

“We are hoping to find artifacts from their everyday life as clues to their lifestyle,' Frank Talty, codirector of UMass Lowell’s Center for Irish Partnerships told the press.

'That’s the story to be told - how did they live?''A lot of Irish from the northern counties ended up in Lowell during the Famine,' Talty told the press. 'People in Ireland had become aware there was a community here and that you could find work, and the Irish population dramatically increased as a result.'

Next week, students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell will team up with researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast for an extensive dig, which is part of a broader study of the Irish who immigrated to Lowell before and after the Great Famine and the role they played in 19th-century America.

Researchers say the church grounds, which have not been built on since the Irish settled there, may have preserved real historic potential.

Archeologists say they will be looking for domestic items such as dish ware, hearth remnants, and clay pipes, which were often personalized and bore markings that could be used to pinpoint the owners’ Irish origins, Talty said.

Researchers at Queen’s originally began excavating sites in Northern Ireland where many immigrants lived before coming to the United States, then in 2008 they came to Lowell to examine the church site.

'It would seem that the area to the front of the church has remained unchanged,' Colm Donnelly, a Queen’s researcher on the study, wrote in a presentation describing the project. 'As such, we want to open two trenches to see what, if anything, survives.'

Donnelly and two colleagues from the college’s archeology center will lead the excavation, with six UMass Lowell students. Next summer the team will travel over to Northern Ireland for a similar excavation of an abandoned rural settlement.

If the Lowell excavation proves fruitful, researchers plan to put together an exhibit and potentially a documentary on the findings.

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