The remains of a 29-year old Irish woman murdered in America 183 years ago were laid to rest this weekend in her native Co. Tyrone after spending almost two centuries lying in an unmarked grave.
In 1832 Catherine Burns joined the floods of Irish people hoping to escape poverty in Ireland in exchange for a new chance at life in the US. Within six weeks, however, she was dead.
On Sunday, the parish of St Patrick's in Clonoe, near Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, welcomed Burns home after 183 years, holding a funeral mass and burial to honor the Duffy’s Cut victim.
On moving to the US, Burns became one of 57 Irish immigrants from counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry hired to work on Duffy’s Cut, a stretch of railway in Pennsylvania. Six weeks later Burns and the other Irish railway workers were all dead.
Duffy's Cut victim buried in Tyrone http://t.co/EE1hKgBh6t— Irish Network Philly (@Irishnetworkphl) July 20, 2015
It is thought that many of the workers died from cholera, while others were murdered by local people who believed that the immigrants were responsible for spreading the disease. The families of the workers were never informed of their deaths.
The majority of the workers were buried in a mass grave near the shanty town where they had lived and worked. Burns, however, was one of several of the workers buried separately.
Although it is not known exactly what area in Tyrone Catherine Burns was from, Clonoe parish welcomed her home. Very little is known of her life apart from the information garnered from her entry in the ship’s log on leaving Ireland: her age, her county of birth and that, at 29, she was already widowed.
Speaking at the funeral, parish priest (pastor) Father Benny Fee told those in attendance, "Catherine is one of our own. She's no stranger. She has Tyrone blood in her veins, but we know so little about her.
"What we do know is that she knew suffering. She was married and already widowed at the tender age of 29 – before she was 30 she had loved and lost. We also know she knew poverty, she knew what it was to have nothing in her purse.
"She took the boat to the USA for no other reason than she had no choice – she could stay at home and starve, or she could gamble on taking a boat across the Atlantic and with a bit of luck catch the tail of the American dream.
"But as Christy Moore's song "Duffy's Cut" says so well, she was sailing into Hell and less than two months into her arrival in the new world, she and her 56 Irish companions in Duffy's Cut were dead and buried in unmarked graves."
The final journey of Duffy's Cut victim Catherine Burns in Clonoe today. See Monday's Tyrone Herald for more. pic.twitter.com/dQ2urVyPtI— Strabane Chronicle (@Strab_Chronicle) July 19, 2015
He had previously remarked that "Her story of hopes dashed and dreams shattered is not unique. So in honoring the homecoming of Catherine we are honoring countless other exiles who sailed out of Ireland in the hope of a new life far from home but did not find the streets paved with gold."
Burns is the second of the Duffy’s Cut victims to be repatriated. In 2013, 18-year old John Ruddy also returned to Ireland to be reburied at Ardara, County Donegal.
In 2002, an investigation began in an attempt to discover the truth behind the deaths of the 57 workers through the Duffy's Cut archival and research project led by two professors from Malvern's Immaculata University, Bill Watson and Earl Schandelmeier, and Bill’s twin brother Frank.
The trio accompanied Burns on her journey home and were thanked by Fr Fee for the "courtesy and respect they have shown our Tyrone Catherine."
"You have brought Catherine back from her exile to her native pastures. Now there's no fear, no terror for Catherine anymore," he added.
Examination of Burns' remains has revealed the possibility that she was among those murdered in a desperate attempt to quell the spread of cholera. Dr William Watson, an expert on the Duffy’s Cut victims has said that her skull shows "massive perimortem violence by means of a sharp implement which would have caused her death.”
"We believe Catherine was murdered in an attempt to contain the cholera epidemic, which the locals believed was being spread by the immigrant railroad workers.
"The workers were a convenient scapegoat for the community, which did not understand the etiology of the disease," he continued.
"For the sake of justice and righting a historical wrong this goes a long way. This is huge. From our perspective this is overwhelming actually.
“She had no one to advocate for her over in our country in 1832, so we see it as our mission to advocate for her and for the others who died there.”