West Laurel Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania yesterday became the meeting and resting place for two very different groups of Irish.
It was the culmination moment for all the different groups who have been involved with the Duffy’s Cut project for a number of years now.
Historians, clergy members, Irish dignitaries and more all gathered to pay homage to the 57 Irish immigrant workers who died while working on a mile stretch of railroad in Pennsylvania in 1832. Five were buried in West Laurel.
Their tragic story has become familiar. After arriving in America five weeks prior from Ireland, the 57 Irish immigrants died at a shantytown in Malvern, PA. Decision is still split as to whether or not these immigrants all succumbed to a cholera outbreak, or whether they were murdered. While some of them most likely died of the cholera, the rest were executed in order to prevent a massive outbreak.
The project began ten years ago when the local historian Watson brothers discovered a top-secret file relating to the deaths of the 57 immigrants at the Duffy’s Cut site. The file, which was marked as saying “should never be taken out of office” - the notion of which was met with chuckles during the burial ceremony when Dr. Frank Watson mentioned it - helped shed light and return the identities of those anonymously buried at Duffy’s Cut.
The event to honor the deceased immigrants was marked by a luncheon at the cemetery, followed by a visitation and a burial service. The event was a bittersweet overture to what some described as a “spiritual” journey to help discover the stories of the 57 immigrants from Duffy’s Cut.
The Irish aspect of the entire event was evident as early as the luncheon. Bowls of shamrocks decorated tables, while bagpipers offered musical interludes throughout the hour and a half lunch. People mingled, sharing their different stories about their interactions with the Duffy’s Cut project.
Dr. Janet Monge, who is the keeper of physical anthropology and adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, shared her views about the immigrant’s story. As an Italian American, Dr. Monge was quick to realize that she may have been outnumbered by those who were Irish at the event. She did however, make a poignant note about the immigrant nature of the Irish who were found at Duffy’s Cut.
“We all share the immigrant story; this is a human story. America, of course, is a nation built upon immigrants. To place the importance on the heritage of the Duffy’s Cut 57 seems almost silly - they should be remembered as humans who played a role in history, not just as Irish who played a role in Pennsylvania’s history. Duffy’s Cut is a story for humanity, not just the Irish community.”
For Dr. Monge, the services today marked an “almost joyous time” as the remains she worked so closely with were finally being laid to rest with respect and dignity.
While there were representatives from several local groups, one of those most prominent was the Donegal Association. Donning their green blazers, they were present to pay respects to all of the Duffy’s Cut victims, many of whom hailed originally from Donegal. Most famous of the victims was 18 year old John Ruddy, who was the only victim positively identified after his skeletal remains were found in 2009. His family were located in Ireland, where he will be laid to rest.
Jimmy Meehan of the Donegal Association noted how with St. Patrick’s Day just over a week away, now was a perfect time to pay honor to the victims of Duffy’s Cut when so many Irish celebrations are being held.
Also in attendance at the luncheon were Waterford native Joe Devoy and Galway native Mairtin Lally from Tellus360. Together they are working on a touching remembrance project that utilizes a poplar tree that grew directly over the site of the grave at Duffy’s Cut. Their group cut down the tree, whose roots had become intertwined with some of the victims remains at the site, and will be transforming the bark of the tree into 57 musical instruments once the bark has dried out. Half of the instruments will be made in America, while the other half will be made in Ireland.
"My grandfather was born in 1895 and came over from Ireland when he was 17," Mary Murtagh, 54, of Newtown Square, told Philly.com "He worked for the railroad. This could have been him."
While new art will rise to commemorate Duffy’s Cut, many artifacts were also exhumed from the site. Laura Kennedy, who was a student at Immaculata College while she helped with the dig, spoke of one artifact that held particular significance.
A clay pipe bearing the inscription of “Erin go Bragh” was found at the site and is considered to be the oldest piece of Irish nationalism in North America, said Kennedy. She also noted that there was another artifact with “Derry” written on it, one of the several counties from where the immigrants hailed.
Kennedy, along with the other student workers from Immaculata University, served later as the pallbearers during the burial service. This group of students range in age but all had a special hands-on role with helping to exhume to victims at the site.
Immaculata University, nearby to the site at Duffy’s Cut, served as the home base for the entire project, and went to so far as to donate the beautiful memorial statue that now stands at the grave site at the West Laurel Cemetery. A Celtic cross, made in County Laois, bears the inscription:
“Here lie the remains of some of the 57 Irish railroad workers who died of violence and cholera while building the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in East Whiteland, Penn. August 1832.”
A slab beneath it bears the names of those that were able to be traced through records of the area. The Majority of the victims, however, remain unnamed.
Since many of the victims are believed to buried beneath a section of live railroad at the site, their bodies may never be fully recovered. Their memory, however, was held in equal importance during the ceremonies today.
Following the luncheon, a public visitation allowed people to say a prayer before the remains were finally laid to rest in the cemetery. The visitation room was abuzz with those who had been involved from the start, as well as local community members who had kept a curious eye on the story. Members of local AOH groups and the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade were all on hand at the visitation.
The burial itself saw the culmination of a decade worth’s of work and dedication to the victims of Duffy’s Cut. Led in by bagpipers, including the brothers Watson who led the project, the five coffins were carried by the student workers who aided in the dig.
Lending his talents to the ceremony, Irish tenor Tommy McCloskey sang both the Irish and American national anthems.
The service was opened by Sister R. Patricia Fadden, the president of Immaculata University. She noted how today was a “bittersweet day” having to bid a final farewell to the Duffy’s Cut workers, but allowing them to be finally laid at peace.
“Every life is deserving,” said Sister Fadden, reflecting on the crude burial the immigrants had received in 1832.
Drawing the connection between Ireland and America even closer, Irish Ambassador Michael Collins was intended to offer remarks at the ceremony as well today. Unfortunately, his mother had passed away in Ireland this week, leaving his deputy ambassador Kevin Conmy to offer words of respect for those lost at Duffy’s Cut.
Remarks were offered by both Dr. Frank Watson and Dr. William Watson during the ceremony. Both became visibly emotional during the burial. Asking Dr. Frank Watson after the ceremony whether or not he had expected to become so emotional, he said how this was a long journey for him and his brother and their team.
Calling their journey both a “pilgrimage” and a “spiritual journey,” the 10 year process was bittersweet for the brothers' team to finally put a respectful end to.
Over 130 years after having died while attempting to work on the 59th Mile at Duffy’s Cut in Malvern, Pennsylvania, the remains of several Irish immigrants have finally been laid to rest with the respect any human being deserved. A story that rises above and beyond that of one that belongs solely to the Irish community, the story of the Duffy’s Cut victims is a story of humanity and the respect we all share, deserve and owe to one another.