Niagara Gazette

Columns

March 17, 2013

GLYNN: Irish had a vital role in Erie Canal

(Continued)

Niagara Gazette — “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.)

•••

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.

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