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183 years after her murder on a lonely American rail track, Catherine Burns' remains are taken home for burial in her native Tyrone

By Catherine Wylie

Published 20/07/2015

The burial at Clonoe Chapel yesterday
The burial at Clonoe Chapel yesterday
Catherine’s remains are carried at the funeral Mass yesterday
Maighread Cunningham (8) pays her respects

The remains of a woman murdered in America 183 years ago have been buried in her native county in a "miraculous" homecoming.

Catherine Burns (29) left Co Tyrone in 1832 in hope of catching "the tail of the American dream", but within six weeks she was dead and lay in an unmarked grave in the US for almost two centuries.

Around 400 people turned out for the funeral mass and burial of the tragic widow at Clonoe Chapel near Coalisland.

Ms Burns was among a group of 57 Irish immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry who sailed across the Atlantic on the John Stamp ship from Derry to Philadelphia, and were hired to build a railway between Philadelphia and Columbia, on a site that became known as Duffy's Cut.

Within six weeks, all were dead of cholera and possibly violence, and buried anonymously in a ditch.

All that is known about Ms Burns prior to her violent death is based on an entry on the ship's log which states her age, the county she is from, her marital status and the fact she had no luggage.

The case has been researched at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania by the Duffy's Cut Project, an archival and archaeological search into their lives and deaths.

Among those at the funeral was Dr William Watson, professor of history at Immaculata University and senior member of the Duffy's Cut Project.

He excavated Ms Burns's remains in July 2010, and brought them back home to Tyrone.

Speaking after he and his colleagues played the pipes at the graveside, he said: "It's miraculous. This whole thing's miraculous. I was sitting in the church and it was kind of like an outer body experience.

"I couldn't believe it was happening. The choir, the sermon, the trappings of the mass, the whole community out. It's just overwhelming."

He added: "I think an important chapter in all our lives has come to a conclusion."

Dr Watson hailed the effort by Clonoe Parish and the crowd who turned out for the funeral.

"This is incredible. It's a lot of people, and good people," he said.

It is not known exactly where in Co Tyrone Ms Burns was from, but Clonoe parish priest Father Benny Fee said "all of Tyrone belongs to Catherine Burns".

Her remains were carried into the chapel by three women from the parish who are also called Catherine, along with a researcher from the Duffy's Cut Project.

During his sermon, Fr Fee said it was an "awesome privilege" for the people of Tyrone to welcome Ms Burns home.

He said Ms Burns set off for America because she had "no other choice", adding: "She could stay at home and starve or she could gamble on taking the ship across the broad Atlantic and with a bit of luck, catch the tail of the American dream."

At an Irish wake prior to the funeral, Dr Watson said: "I think it's amazing that Catherine Burns got something that she has not had for the past 180 years.

"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."

He added: "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.

"Some people believe anti-Irish or anti-immigrant feeling may have played a role in her murder."

Ms Burns's square box-shaped coffin was buried beneath the Tall Cross of Clonoe a few metres from the Parochial House where a Tyrone flag was flying next to an American flag.

Catherine Hanna (26), from Derrylaughan in the Clonoe area, helped to carry the coffin.

"It was an honour to be asked. It is good to be a part of history in Clonoe," she said.

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