Unearthing Lowell’s Irish Past
UMass Lowell’s Archaeological Dig Uncovers the Lives of the City’s Early Laborers.
In 1822, a Boston-born businessman named Kirk Boott became agent and treasurer of the newly incorporated Merrimack Manufacturing Company. But before Boott and his new company could launch Lowell’s textile industry, he needed to power his mills in order to manufacture the cloth that would make the city America’s first planned textile center and the cradle of the industrial revolution.
The Lowell section of the Merrimack River includes a mile-long stretch of steep rapids — plenty of hydropower. But Boott had to find a way to reroute the river through the city to his proposed mill sites. He needed strong men — the kind of men who could dig a network of canals. Boott knew just who to call: a Boston-based Irish immigrant named Hugh Cummiskey.
In search of a better life, Cummiskey had come to America before Ireland’s famine era and found work in the Charlestown shipyards. When Boott was ready for the diggers, Cummiskey recruited 30 of his fellow Irish laborers and led them on a 30-plus mile walk northwest from Charlestown to Lowell, a place none of them had ever seen.
This crew of mainly single young men created a shantytown — quickly nicknamed the “paddy camps” — on an acre-plus tract on Suffolk Street. By 1831, less than 10 years after the diggers’ arrival, the Irish had built a wooden church and named it St. Patrick. The structure was the forerunner of the present-day
St. Patrick Catholic Church.
Cummiskey made many subsequent recruiting trips to Boston, where famine-era immigrants were beginning arrive in search of work. In all, he got more than 400 of his countrymen to come live in Lowell, lured by the promise of limitless work opportunities and the chance to join an established and expanding Irish community.
By 1832, a nearby cemetery contained a number of gravestones with Irish and Celtic-inspired designs, products of locally born Lowell craftsmen who had to adapt their trade to the style demands of their new Irish neighbors.
Digging for Clues from the Past
In 2010, the Center for Irish Partnerships at UMass Lowell launched a four-year project, with work to take place each summer, to research and chronicle the story of the city’s early Irish residents and the neighborhood that is still nicknamed “the Acre.” The Irish center at the university is one of nine international centers that aim to offer students a global perspective by collaborating with other universities to provide exchange opportunities, joint degree programs and cooperative research projects.
Of course, by 2010 the poverty-ridden “paddy camps” had long disappeared. But since the shantytown closed down nothing had replaced it. The Acre site had remained miraculously undeveloped. This made it the perfect site for an archaeological dig in search of clues about the lives and lifestyles of the city’s 19th century Irish. To launch this project, the Center for Irish Partnerships collaborated with Queen’s University Belfast, and the transatlantic team recruited UMass Lowell students for the dig.
“We made a concerted effort to have a team of multidisciplinary students,” says Frank Talty, assistant dean at UMass Lowell’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and a co-director of the Center for Irish Partnerships. “Our students are terrific learners, and this was a great opportunity for them.”
The initial excavation team included an English major from Lowell, a work environment graduate from Dracut, a political science major from Methuen, a biology graduate from Tyngsborough, a history major from Chelmsford and a regional economic and social development graduate from Lowell. In the summer of 2010, visiting archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast led the UMass Lowell crew in the painstaking task of unearthing information about the Irish laborers and their families.
The summertime excavation work was slow and meticulous. It was also very rewarding. In that first season of digging, the students found more than 1,300 artifacts, including handmade toys, clay pipes, children’s marbles and pieces of rosary beads.
The team also uncovered the remnants of a house that belonged to the Rev. James McDermott, who is believed to have purchased a house in the Acre in 1847, and may have served as pastor of a nearby and competing church named St. Mary’s.
In the project’s second summer, members of the UMass Lowell team traveled to County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, where they researched and excavated an abandoned rural settlement believed to have been the homestead from which Cummiskey immigrated to America. In the yard of the Cummiskey house, the architectural dig yielded pottery shards, clay pipes and what could have been the home’s exterior wall.
Back in Lowell, meanwhile, the American part of the dig uncovered a large stone slab that was the remnants of a well that served as the Irish community’s water supply.
“What’s great about this project is that each year the students come and find something new, and this made them want to come back,” says Victoria Denoon, a co-director of the Center for Irish Partnerships and a Queen’s University graduate. “Hugh Cummiskey was a real labor leader and a social leader in Lowell, and it was interesting to trace his origins from Lowell all the way back to pre-famine Ireland.”
Showing and Telling the Lowell-Irish Story
Following the archaeological digs on both sides of the Atlantic, the UMass Lowell team is now also tasked with cataloging the many artifacts that were found — a slow and exacting process that will culminate with a public exhibit. Meanwhile, the UMass team is researching the original 1832 cemetery. It’s also examining how the establishment of St. Patrick Catholic Church influenced the early settlement, the daily lives of its residents, and the inevitable demographic changes in which the diaspora eventually moved up and out of “the Acre” to become part of the fabric, future and story of multicultural Lowell.
To view photos from Lowell’s Irish dig, visit: Web.UML.edu/Gallery/Index.php/Events/Irish-Dig-in-Lowell-2012