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Clonoe prepares for funeral of Duffy's Cut victim Catherine

Published 18/07/2015

A sign at Duffy's Cut mass grave
A sign at Duffy's Cut mass grave

The homecoming of the remains of a woman murdered in America 183 years ago has been hailed as "overwhelming" and of "huge" significance.

Catherine Burns, 29, left County Tyrone for the United States in 1832, and lay buried in an unmarked grave for almost two centuries - but her remains are now back in her homeland.

Local people have marked the occasion with an Irish wake complete with traditional music, song and dance, as well as a "wee dram" of whiskey, ahead of a funeral mass tomorrow.

Ms Burns, a widow, 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 were buried anonymously in a ditch.

All that is known about Ms Burns prior to her death is based on an entry on the ship's log which states her age, the county she is from, and her marital status.

The tragedy has been researched at Immaculata University by the Duffy's Cut Project which is an ongoing archival and archaeological search into their lives and deaths, seeking to provide insight into early 19th-century attitudes about industry, immigration, and disease in Pennsylvania.

Speaking at the wake in Washingbay, near Coalisland in County Tyrone, Dr William Watson, professor of history at Immaculata University, said he found the event "very emotional".

Accompanied by colleagues from the Duffy's Cut Project, 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're researchers but we're also human beings. And it's just a very emotional thing."

Dr Watson said many historical projects can be "boring", but this was the "human face" of their research, and about a "real human being" who had "something terrible" happen to her.

"And she had no one to advocate for her over in our country in 1832, so we see it as our mission to advocate for her and for the others who died there," he said.

Dr Watson said forensic teams were able to confirm that the remains belonged to a woman of about 30.

Previously, Dr Watson said the skull of Ms Burns shows "massive peri-mortem violence by means of a sharp implement which would have caused her death".

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.

"The workers were a convenient scapegoat for the community, which did not understand the etiology of the disease."

Dr Watson said they believe the first seven they excavated were healthy and fled the valley.

They were all murdered with no defensive wounds - one man dying of a bullet in the head after an axe blow - and buried in coffins with an extremely large number of nails to seal the lids - averaging over 100 nails per coffin lid, he said.

It is believed the lids had so many nails in order to prevent them from being opened.

It is not known exactly where in County Tyrone Ms Burns was from, but it is Clonoe parish that has welcomed her home, and it is in Clonoe Chapel where a funeral mass will take place tomorrow.

In the parish bulletin last weekend, parish priest Father Benny Fee wrote: "Les Miserables is a great musical and my favourite song in it is Bring Him Home. And these days I find myself humming that tune because the parish is busy preparing to bring not Him, to bring Her home.

"After being buried in an un-marked grave for over a century Catherine Burns is on her way home to her native Tyrone to rest in Clonoe."

Fr Fee said Ms Burns was not the only one, adding: "Her story of hopes dashed and dreams shattered is not unique. So in honouring the homecoming of Catherine we are honouring countless other exiles who sailed out of Ireland in the hope of a new life far from home but did not find the streets paved with gold."

A memorial sign at Duffy's Cut says: "Nearby is the mass grave of fifty-seven Irish immigrant workers who died in August, 1832, of cholera.

"They had recently arrived in the United States and were employed by a construction contractor, named Duffy, for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

"Prejudice against Irish Catholics contributed to the denial of care to the workers. Their illness and death typified the hazards faced by many 19th century immigrant industrial workers."

Dr Watson said the sign was erected in 2004 when the traditional story of the death of the work crew by cholera was what was available to them.

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