A portion of the history of Irish immigration from Derry to the USA was brought home again last Friday with the visit of a group of men from Pennsylvania who have spent in excess of a decade literally digging into it.
The story of Duffy’s Cut and the 57 Irish immigrants who died there in the summer of 1832 has garnered widespread interest in both America and Ireland. The 57 migrant workers who perished whilst working on the railroad, left Derry quay bound for Philadelphia. However, the true tale of their deaths was kept secret by the company they worked for for almost two centuries. Whilst it was established that all of them had contracted cholera, others were murdered either to prevent the spread of infection, anti-Irish sentiment or a combination of both.
In 2013, the partial remains of teenager John Ruddy were repatriated in Ardara, County Donegal. Last weekend, some of the remains of the only female to be found, those of Catherine Burns were interred at Clonoe, close to Coalisland in County Tyrone.
Last Friday, a group of men who eventually unearthed the uncomfortable truth of what took place over 180 years ago in the woods at Malvern, close to Philadelphia visited the spot on Derry’s quay from where the unfortunate migrants set sail. Amongst the group were brothers, Dr Frank and Dr William Watson, both historians, who set about unravelling the mystery after they were bequeathed a set of papers by their grandfather. Their grandfather had been assistant to Martin Clement, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvannia and Columbia Railway. When the company went out of business in 1970, the Watson’s grandfather kept the file concerning Duffy’s Cut. It was marked as ‘confidential’.
Speaking about why they began to delve into the story of Duffy’s Cut, William Watson told the Journal: “It was a tale of injustice. We are here to put the final stamp on it after many years. “
“Our grandfather told us part of the story when we were only young brothers. I have a recollection that the story went in ear and out the other. I inherited the file after he died. In 2002, I looked through the papers and some of my grandfathers work on the railway and remembered this was one of the stories he told us and one that he’d preserved. I teach history at Immculata University and the site is just beside Duffy’s Cut.
“On the cover of the file it said ‘Do not let this get out of the office’. We then knew there was a mystery here. His boss had compiled the file going back to the early days of the 20th century. He had other stuff because he was director of personnel, he was allowed to take from the vault what he wanted. But, we know for a fact that this story was important for him because he kept it in a special place in his study. He annotated the file because there were a couple of dates that his boss had got wrong. So what we inheirited was a file with accurate dates and information.
“As late as 1955 they were still keeping this a secret. Right after we found the first set of remains I did a talk at Wayne, a place not too far from the site. A guy who was the nephew of Martin Clement came forward and said he was brought into the boardroom and my grandfather was there. It was here that he’d heard the story and was told not to say anything about it. Now, why would they want to keep it a secret unless there was another part to the story?”
In fact as Martin Clement began the compilation of the file on what had happened at Duffy’s Cut he advertised in local newspapers from people to come forward who had any information about what actually took place there in 1832. And, people who knew at least parts of the tale began to come forward. So, the file not only contained the kernels of the story but the perspectives of those who had passed the story on. “
Frank Watson said: “At one point we came across a man whose father had been a contemporary of a man who left Derry in 1832 and came from Donegal. His name was George Doherty and his fathers name was John Doherty who was born around 1803 and who was able to tell where the remains were buried. The first man who tried to preserve the story was called Patrick Doyle who arrived in the States before the Civil War. He settled in Pennsylvania and after the war was a track labourer on the railroad. His sister also provided rooms in her home for Martin Clement about 1909, so that’s how Clement came to knew about the story.
“It’s a crazy lineage. Doherty, Doyle and then my grandfather and then us. Otherwise this was folklore, whitewash, hidden history that no one would have given a damn about. “
The Watson brothers firmly believe that it was fate that combined a set of circumstances that brought them to where they are now in terms of the tale of Duffy’s Cut.
“We both have PhD’s in historical areas and we know that when we looked at this it is something very unique. If it had fallen into the hands of someone else it may not have gone anywhere,” said Frank.
William Watson also believes that there is another facet to the story.
He said: “Another man here with us in Derry, Tom Conners, saw something that made us think there was some sort of supernatural connection. This was two years before we began this project, but coincides exactly with when houses began to be built very near the site. Everyone in that cul-de-sac came to us after the story hit the our local media and reported ghostly sightings there. What I would say is that we saw fiery figures. Then when I saw the file, it opened it up. Before I saw the file I would have said we’d seen neon lights, but if we had been back in the 1880s and read the very first newspaper reports of ghostly sightings, I would have called them fiery figures. It’s insane and none of us would say that this is coincidence.”
The Journal spoke to the Watson’s on Derry’s river front, the spot where the Duffy’s Cut immigrants departed from. They viewed it as very poignant moment in their journey.
“Now that we are looking at the river, the Foyle-that they came to the place where we live for a better life but never found it is very sad,” said Frank Watson.
His brother William told the Journal: “It still hasn’t really sunk into me that we are actually here at the point of departure. We drive across the river today and I thought to myself, Oh my God, this is where they would have seen the last of their native land.”
Another member of the group, Earl Schandelneir who studied under William Watson at Immaculata University told the Journal: “In 2002 Bill asked for volunteers for the Duffy’s Cut project and I volunteered the first day. I graduated and went through graduate school and moved to another state, but I have just kept coming back again and again,” he said.
Earl also acted as a pall bearer for Catherine Burns on Sunday past at Colonoe in Co Tyrone. Asked how this made him feel he said: “It is very much an honour. This is just not a historic project, it’s much more than that. Just to be able to go from a file of papers to where we are now, to bringing remains back is a tremendous honour.”