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The stories of Irish-American immigrants – from their work helping to settle New England and create its culture to their involvement in American politics – will be the focus of a three-day conference for the public and campus at UMass Lowell from Wednesday, Sept. 24 through Friday, Sept. 26.
“Irish in Massachusetts: Historical Significance, Lasting Legacy” will explore the underpinnings of Irish immigration since the 1600s and the people’s contributions to American life. Historians, artists, archaeologists and lawmakers, including former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, will lead more than a dozen sessions about Irish-Americans’ influence in music, literature, sports, politics and history. All sessions will be open to the public.
Artifacts retrieved during archaeological digs in Lowell and Northern Ireland by UMass Lowell and Queen’s University Belfast researchers and students from 2010 to 2013 will be on public display for the first time during the event. The finds help tell the story behind the Irish laborers who constructed Lowell’s famed canal system, trace the evolution of Lowell’s “Irish Acre” neighborhood and shed light on immigration to the region from Northern Ireland and Ireland. “The Acre,” as it is commonly known today, evolved in the early 1800s as an encampment on what is now the grounds of St. Patrick’s Parish, one of the excavation sites. The area was home to workers who literally laid the groundwork essential to powering the textile mills that became the cradle of the country’s Industrial Revolution.
The artifacts will be featured during a session focused on Irish immigrants’ experience in Lowell, which will be held on Friday, Sept. 26 from 9 to 11 a.m. Among other speakers, discussing the items’ significance will be Colm Donnelly, director of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork and a senior research fellow in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University Belfast. A tour of St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Lowell’s first consecrated Catholic burial ground and where many of the immigrants are interred, will be conducted on Saturday, Sept. 27.
Flynn – who will lend his voice to a session on Friday, Sept. 26 about Irish-Americans in politics – served as Boston’s mayor for nine years and went on to become a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President Clinton. Flynn will join UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan and others for the roundtable discussion. Meehan, who represented the Merrimack Valley in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2007, now teaches a course on Congress at the university.
Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH-FM’s “Celtic Sojourn” will discuss the role of music and song in Irish culture during a night out on Thursday, Sept. 25 that will feature the five-piece band Traditional Brew. Irish-Americans’ involvement in settling the region, including Maine, and their participation in the U.S. Civil War are among the other conference topics.
“Anyone with an interest in the rich heritage of Irish-Americans in Massachusetts should come away from this conference with a new understanding and a renewed appreciation of their contributions to Lowell and the entire Commonwealth,” Meehan said.
The information and artifacts featured during the conference will become the basis for a permanent Irish-American history exhibit in Lowell.
“Irish-Americans have had a dynamic influence on Massachusetts for centuries and today, census figures show 24 percent of the Commonwealth’s residents identify as being of Irish ancestry. Despite this, we don’t have a detailed historical resource dedicated to Irish immigrants who helped build not only the region’s infrastructure but its culture,” said Frank Talty, co-director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Irish Partnerships and assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts, History and Social Sciences. “This conference will fill that gap, knitting together Irish-Americans’ invaluable contributions and offering a definitive account of their experience here.”
The conference is presented by UMass Lowell’s Center for Irish Partnerships and Queen’s University Belfast. The two institutions have collaborated since 2009, when they launched their Irish-American Heritage Archaeological Program, which inspired the conference. Conference packages, including registration and lodging, are available. The cost starts at $40 per person and the registration deadline is Tuesday, Sept. 23. For more information, visit www.uml.edu/international-programs/Irish/Irish-in-Massachusetts/.