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Irish Excavation Results in Coverage, Historic Finds

Clues Uncovered on Day One

Students Alaina Puleo and Jonathan Brown search for clues about Lowell’s early Irish settlers.

By Sheila Eppolito

Perhaps the prayers of St. Patrick’s pastor, Rev. James Taggart, helped. On day one of the excavation of a former shanty town located on parish grounds and inhabited by Lowell’s early Irish settlers, University students unearthed a section of 150-year-old rosary beads, remnants of a clay pipe and several iron nails.

The dig — part of an international collaboration between UMass Lowell and Queen’s University in Belfast — has piqued the interest of many people, and resulted in extensive media coverage, including a front-page Boston Globe story, two Lowell Sun stories, interviews on Boston radio and television stations and a potential story in the Dublin-based Irish Times.

“People are definitely intrigued,” says Frank Talty, director of academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Center for Irish Partnerships.

“The Irish laborers who came to Lowell to help build the canals to power the mills left a lasting legacy in the city, and it’s fascinating to be able to piece together clues of their lives here,” he says.

Dave McKean, archivist at St. Patrick’s, described the first few days of the project.

“Archaeology is a lot like an onion. There are layers upon layers. Each time you reach one, there is another underneath it. The students made detailed sketches of the two pits. They sprinkled water on top of the layers of soil to make color variations which help archaeologists assess what the land was used for. Looking for answers actually brought more questions. Was a foundation located? Is this coal? Does this mean there was a hearth here?”

McKean reports that many interested parties dropped by the site, and that some old research is being revisited. Antique maps are being adapted to new GPS technology to pinpoint locations, 19th century photos are helping archaeologists identify structures and their foundations and primary source documents are giving leads to new findings.

“There are new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, but we’re still missing pieces,” says McKean.

The Lowell dig is one of many outcomes resulting from the University’s initiative to develop international partnerships to expand global learning experiences for students and enrich the research portfolios of the faculty.

The six students - Dimitrios Booras, an undergraduate English major from Lowell; Jonathan Brown, a work environment graduate student from Dracut; Eunice Delice, an undergraduate political science major from Methuen; Alaina Puleo, a biology graduate student from Tyngsboro; Kimberly Scarfo, an undergraduate history major from Chelmsford; and Amanda Veiga, a Regional Economic and Social Development graduate student from Lowell ߝ applied to the program by writing essays as to why this project is important to them.

The findings will help form a picture of the lives of the Irish who immigrated to Lowell looking for work during the Great Famine, a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. As part of the exchange program, plans call for the students to excavate an abandoned rural settlement in County Fermanagh, Ireland next summer.

UMass Lowell has established nine international centers ߝ African, Asian, European, Franco-American, Hellenic, Irish, Latin and South American, Middle East and Turkish ߝ that are working with other universities to provide student exchange opportunities, joint degree programs and cooperative research projects.