Niagara Gazette

March 17, 2013

GLYNN: Irish had a vital role in Erie Canal

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — St. Patricks’ Day is the time to celebrate — perhaps even for those who limit their festivities to parades, green beer and recycled jokes — but it’s also appropriate to reflect for a moment on the story of the Irish in America.

As we know, the state Legislature approved the charter for Niagara Falls on March 16, 1892. T.V. Welch, the assemblyman representing the Cataract City in Albany, insisted though that Gov. Roswell P. Flower not sign the document until the next day, so that the City of Niagara Falls could be born on St. Patrick’s Day.

Obviously, industrious immigrants from several European nations, pursuing their dreams in America, settled in the Buffalo-Niagara area and contributed to its impressive growth (e.g. Irish, Polish, Italian and German, to name a few). But, as historians generally agree, the Erie Canal would never have been built without the Irish ditch-diggers. It was said at that time: “To dig a canal, at least four things are necessary, a shovel, a pick, a wheelbarrow, and an Irishman.” One of the most difficult tasks in building the 363-mile waterway between Albany and Buffalo, linking the Great Lakes with the Port of New York, was blasting through two miles of solid rock at Lockport, where a canal section is now a tourist attraction. For the record, those ditch-diggers earned some $9 per month in the 1820s. Most days they worked from dawn until dusk.

Like any other ethnic group, the Irish have customs not always understood or appreciated by others. Take “the wake” for example with its origin in western Ireland.  

Jay P. Dolan, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, notes that initially it was a somber affair with no dancing or singing. The reason: It was not for a dead person but a living one who the following day would be sailing for the promised land (America). In later years, of course, things changed.

“In Ireland, the evening wake would be spent telling stories, singing songs, most often sad ballads; dancing to the music of the fiddle and the lute; and exchanging gifts,” Dolan says, “Then in the early-morning hours after devouring large amounts of food and liberal amounts of whiskey or beer, provided by neighbors and friends, the emigrant’s relatives and others would accompany him or her to the train station or, if that was too far away, they would wave their goodbyes at a nearby intersection.”

Sadness was still the prevailing emotion, Dolan said, “For there was little chance the emigrant would ever again return home.” It was as if that person were going out to be buried.    

Dolan is author of “The Irish Americans: A History,” an engaging account of those immigrants who had a profound impact on this country.

A huge wave of immigration was launched by the famine in the mid-1840s (“The Great Hunger”), when an estimated 1.1 million people died from disease or starvation. It wasn’t cheap to flee that horrible environment. The cost of a trip across the ocean in 1847 was equivalent to the annual rent of a farm, according to  Dolan. The emigrant had to depend on money from relatives in Ireland or the U.S. The voyage in what was called “coffin ships” took about five to six weeks with passengers trying to survive overcrowded conditions rampant with fever and typhus. Of the 100,000 emigrants who sailed to Canada in one year, some 30,000 died. (It was cheaper to sail there than to New York City.)

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THE LANDSLIDE: A story often heard in political circles focuses on voting fraud that plagued Chicago, especially during Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration. It seems Daley, President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev were in a sinking lifeboat that had only one life preserver.

JFK quickly made it clear that as the leader of the free world he should have the life preserver. Khrushchev, rapping his shoe on the stern, said as leader of the most powerful nation in the world, he should get it. Daley, a staunch Irishman famous for producing 11th hour-upset victories at the polls, suggested the trio take a vote to see who would get the life preserver. Daley won, 8-2.

The latter was one of a kind. His press secretary once said that Daley’s idea of affirmative action was nine Irishmen and a Swede.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.