Catherine Burns: Many Irish had 'no alternative to America emigration'
Published 19/07/2015 | 16:45
Catherine Burns was one of many who had "no alternative" but to set off for America in search of a new life in 1832, an historian said.
The 29-year-old widow was murdered after she left County Tyrone for Philadelphia and suffered a "horrible death" just weeks after she began working at Duffy's Cut almost 200 years ago.
Her remains have been buried in Clonoe, near Coalisland, in her native county.
Damian Woods, a historian at the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, said many asked why people would have 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. The vast majority of people depended on the countryside."
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. Landlords did not lower their rents and of course all the land was owned by the landlords," he said.
The pressure on farmers and agricultural labourers became "absolutely unbearable", he said.
In County Tyrone, a great help to people on farms was linen working and most women spun in their homes in the time they had available.
"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.
But even this supplementary income began to disappear in the 1820s because linen began to move to factories closer to Belfast.
The only outlet left to people was to get a small piece of land, reclaim it, grow potatoes or emigrate.
"Potatoes became the essential crop of the small farmer or labourer and in most cases the solitary food," Mr Woods said.
June and July became known as "the hungry months" when the potatoes ran out usually at the end of May and were not harvested again until September.
"People often had to resort to begging or borrowing potatoes to keep themselves and their families alive," said Mr Woods.
He 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.
"From Ireland, they had no alternative," Mr Woods said.
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."
Mr Woods said people would have smoked clay pipes which were brought on the John Stamp and were dug up many years later at Duffy's Cut.
Religion was deeply woven into people's lives as well as music and dance.
"Wakes were very important even though some of the practices at wakes were frowned upon by police," he said.
"Stories of some of the corpses being taken for a dance around the living room to the tune of the fiddle," he said.
Mr Woods said emigration became a growing trend after 1815, and said this is when Catholics first began to emigrate in significant numbers.
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," he said.