Summertime and the Diggin’ is Easy

Irish Excavation Broadens

Items found at the site of a former Lowell Irish shanty town include remnants of a clay pipe and rusty nails.

Items found at the site of a former Lowell Irish shanty town include remnants of a clay pipe and rusty nails.

06/24/2011
By Sheila Eppolito

Last year’s archeological dig at St. Patrick’s Church unearthed interesting findings – including rosary beads, clay pipes, oyster shells and cattle bones – clues to the dietary staples of Lowell’s early Irish settlers.  The dig also reinvigorated interest in the Irish laborers who helped widen the Pawtucket Canal, powering the Industrial Revolution.

The dig was part of a partnership between UMass Lowell and Queens University, Belfast, that will expand this summer to include additional excavation at St. Patrick’s and new work at the childhood home of Hugh Cummiskey, who led 30 Irishmen from Boston to Lowell for work. Cummiskey was born in 1789 in Crossan in County Tyrone and emigrated to America in 1817.

Back to the Past

For a week in August last year, six UMass Lowell students worked alongside archeologists from Queens in a dig of two plots on what was an Irish shanty town on the site of St. Patrick’s. This August, three of the students – Dimitrios Booras, Eunice Delice and a third student to be selected soon – will return to work on an expanded search at the site. The team will also travel to Ireland in late August to excavate the area around Cummiskey’s homestead.

The history of the Irish in Massachusetts during what is often called the “Famine Generation” is the stuff of lore. Historian Peter Quinn describes, “Here you have an immigrant group, already under punishing cultural and economic pressures, reeling in the wake of the worst catastrophe in Western Europe in the 19th Century, devoid of any previous urban experience, suddenly finding itself plunged into the fastest industrializing society in the world. And yet they regroup, build their own network of charitable, cultural and educational institutions in the U.S.A., preserve their identity, and go on to have a profound influence on the future of both the country they left and the one that became their new home.”

For Frank Talty, co-director of the University’s Center for Irish Partnerships, the work is exhilarating.

“The collaboration with Queens has been tremendous – working together, we’re helping people understand the daily lives of the Irish, both here and in their native villages, he says.”