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Digging for Lowell’s Irish Roots

Researchers Excavate Sites in Lowell and Northern Ireland

Irish dig 2011
From left, Queen's University graduate student Stuart Alexander; principal surveyor Ronan McHugh of Queen's University Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork; Queen's University student Sarah Kerr; and UMass Lowell graduate student Eunice Delice excavate a trench at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell.

By Jill Gambon

Few people may appreciate the role Hugh Cummiskey played in shaping Lowell, but researchers from the UMass Lowell and Queen's University Belfast are working to change that.

Through archaeological excavations here and in Northern Ireland and through the mining of historical records, a team is piecing together a portrait of Cummiskey, an immigrant from Northern Ireland who, in 1822, led the first group of Irish laborers to Lowell to help dig the canals for the city’s booming textile mills. Cummiskey went on to become a business owner and a leader of the city’s rapidly growing Irish community, which had exploded to 13,000 by 1850.

Continuing a project that got under way last year, researchers involved in the Irish-American Heritage Archaeological Program returned to St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell in August to excavate the land where the city’s early Irish immigrants settled.  Two weeks later, the group traveled to Northern Ireland to dig at the site of Cummiskey’s homestead in Crossan, County Tyrone, where he lived before emigrating in 1817.

“It’s an unfolding story,” says Prof. Frank Talty, co-director of the Center for Irish Partnerships at UMass Lowell. The ongoing research is establishing connections between County Tyrone and the migration of Irish to Lowell. Details are emerging of what the immigrants did when they came here and how they contributed to the industrial revolution, says Talty. 

By piecing together information gleaned from the two digs as well as details found in census, property, marriage and other historical records, the project leaders hope to advance the study of ethnicity and enrich the understanding of cultural assimilation and the history of the Irish in America.  The project has drawn broad support -- from St. Patrick’s Church and its historian David McKean, local archaeology professionals and the surrounding community. 

“It’s a common thread in all migration stories,” says Eunice Delice, a graduate student in the Economic and Social Development of Regions program who participated in the archaeological digs in Lowell and Northern Ireland. “When you come to a new country there are efforts to remember where you came from and remember traditions that you hold dear.”

During the five-day dig at St. Patrick’s Church, the researchers recovered about 300 artifacts including nails, pieces of clay pipes and pottery shards. These items were in addition to the more than 1,300 relics found during last year’s dig.  A key discovery this year was structural evidence of the foundation of a house that is thought to have belonged to one-time parish priest, the Rev. James McDermott.

At the excavation site in Crossan, the team uncovered a drain cut into the floor, which indicated that the house was once a byre-dwelling, or used to house cattle under the same roof as the family. Such dwellings were not uncommon among tenant farmers in 18th-century Northern Ireland. Evidence unearthed also suggested an addition was later built on the house. “What we have here is chronological depth to the story of the Cummiskeys in Crossan,” says Prof. Colm Donnelly, director of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s University.

For Dimitrios Booras, a junior majoring in English and psychology who has been involved in the project since last year, the chance to dig up history has sparked a new appreciation for what can be learned from the past. “I never enjoyed history but this is a completely different way of looking at things,” he says. “The whole experience was phenomenal.”

The project continues, with further excavations planned in Lowell and Crossan next summer. In the meantime, the artifacts recovered at both sites are being analyzed and research into historical records is ongoing.