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Catherine Burns is going home


Duffy’s Cut team leaders Rev. Frank Watson, Earl Schandlemeir, and Dr. William Watson at the Duffy's Cut cross at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

By Ray O’Hanlon
rohanlon@irishecho.com

More than 180 years after she died beside a Pennsylvania railroad, Catherine Burns is going home.

Fragments of her remains unearthed at the Duffy’s Cut excavation site in Malvern, Chester County, PA will be interred in her native County Tyrone in July.

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“We got a confirmation that we will be able to bury bones of one of the Duffy’s Cut victims, 29-year-old Tyrone native Catherine Burns,” Dr. William Watson of Immaculata University, a leader of the excavation work at the Duffy’s Cut site since 2003, said.

A funeral Mass is being planned at Clonoe Parish in Coalisland for Sunday, July 19.

“We have a small marker we will place at her grave,” said Watson.

Added Watson regarding Catherine Burns: Excavating her remains back in August, 2010, two things were apparent to me immediately. Her face was largely intact, so we finally had a face from Duffy's Cut, and her pelvis was also substantially intact.

“We had excavated skulls before, of course, but the violence done to the men had essentially blasted their faces away. I recall lifting the pelvis out of the ground and remarking how heavy it was, and asking whether that might be important.

“Our physical anthropologist, Janet Monge, examined the remains at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and said two things pointed to the remains being female - the small size of the mouth palate and the pelvis.

“Janet concluded that the remains were from a female approximately thirty years old, and we had one female aged 29 on the John Stamp ship passenger list, Catherine Burns (there was also a 21 year old female on the ship, but Janet said the remains were about 30 and not about 20). Janet said she was also a victim of blunt force trauma, but her face had survived.

“We found the two bone fragments in her coffin nail box in November 2014, and we formulated the idea then of returning some of her remains to her native county.”

Watson added that a marker would also be placed on the grave of the other identified Duffy’s Cut victim, John Ruddy, now resting in Ardara, County Donegal.

From being buried without ceremony at Duffy’s Cut the immigrants of that bygone time are gradually being reinterred with dignity and respect.

In March, 2012, the remains of five men and one woman were laid to rest in a church burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, not far from Malvern. That ceremony was attended by the then Irish ambassador to the U.S., Michael Collins.

Meanwhile, Dr. Watson and his team are preparing to extract core samples for an estimated fifty men buried in a mass grave at the site. This work is expected to begin in early June.

The mass grave site is on land immediately adjacent to the railroad which carries SEPTA and AMTRAK trains. AMTRAK owns the land and has granted permission for the work.

The site is marked by the remains of a onetime stone building.

In the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died while building the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad between Malvern and Frazer at a site that became known to the wider world as Duffy's Cut.

Dr. Watson and his colleagues believe that the deaths were caused not just by cholera, the reason reported at the time, but by murderous attacks carried out by local nativist gangs.

Remains unearthed during the years of the Duffy’s Cut excavation have confirmed this view.