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Tragic widow Catherine Burns 'had no choice' but to sail off in search of new life

By Catherine Wylie

Published 20/07/2015

Catherine’s coffin box
Catherine’s coffin box

Catherine Burns was one of many who had "no alternative" but to set off for America in search of a new life in 1832, a historian has said.

The 29-year-old widow was murdered after she left Tyrone for Philadelphia and suffered a "horrible death" just weeks after she began working at Duffy's Cut almost 200 years ago.

As her remains were buried in Clonoe, near Coalisland, Damian Woods, a historian at the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, said many had asked why people faced two long months of sailing across the Atlantic to an unknown world. But the answer was "very clear and really very simple".

He said: "The population of Tyrone in 1831 was over 300,000. Today it's 160,000. It's almost halved since 1831. So you had this enormous pressure of people living on very limited resources."

Mr Woods referred to the "tremendous economic slump" in Tyrone and the rest of Ireland in the 1820s.

"After 1815 the price of grain crops began to tumble dramatically. By 1830 they were working for two pence a day on average," Mr Woods said, describing it as "essential money to sustain life".

Farmers had also traditionally done some weaving on a basic weaving machine and by the 1830s there was a crisis here also as their income had fallen to about one shilling a week.

Mr Woods said the John Stamp ship's log - a list of about 160 passengers - had about 140 people under 35.

It lists 55 women, making Ireland "very unusual" because traditionally women did not emigrate easily from other countries.

Many of the ship's passengers described themselves as labourers and were most likely agricultural labourers who would have been "strong" and "adaptable", he said.

They were called "the sturdy sons of Ireland" at the port in Philadelphia.

"These were strong men with strong backs and strong arms, and even the women were a very visible presence in the fields of Ireland at that time," said Mr Woods.

"And they worked for half the wage. If the labourer got a shilling, the women were paid sixpence on average, for a 12-hour day in season working."

Speaking about life in the shanty towns along the track at Duffy's Cut, Mr Woods said: "Life was brutal and brutalising."

He said Ms Burns may well have got a job as a cook in a shanty town.

"She died a horrible death as has been made clear from the investigation."

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