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Catherine Burns is going home to Tyrone

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Duffy's jpg

Flashback to March 2013, and the interment of the partial remains of John Ruddy in Ardara, County Donegal.

By Ray O’Hanlon

A good deal more official attention will be paid to the return of Catherine Burns to Ireland than was the case when she left the island more than 180 years ago.

“We will have to declare Catherine to the customs in Dublin,” said Dr. William Watson of Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.

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That means entering Ireland through the “red channel” at Dublin airport and clearing Catherine’s partial remains through the customs process.

Watson and others in his Duffy’s Cut excavation team will be flying to Ireland from Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 14.

This will be the second time that remains from Duffy’s Cut will be returned to Ireland.

Catherine Burns, who was from County Tyrone, was preceded by John Ruddy from neighboring Donegal.

A few days after her arrival in Ireland, fragments of Catherine’s remains - unearthed at the Duffy’s Cut excavation site in Malvern, Chester County, PA - will be interred in her native soil.

Catherine was just 29 when she died.

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 Dr. Watson, one of the leaders of the Duffy’s Cut excavation since it first began in 2003.

The project has cast extraordinary light on the lives and deaths of Irish immigrants working on a railroad outside Philadelphia in the early 1830s.

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.”

The John Stamp sailed from Derry with a number of the Duffy’s Cut Irish on board.

“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,” said Dr. Watson.

Watson added that during the upcoming trip a marker will 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 Duffy’s Cut site. This work is expected to begin in the near future.

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 in recent years as Duffy's Cut.

From before the start of the excavation work, Dr. Watson and his colleagues believed that the deaths were caused not just by cholera, the reason reported at the time, but by murderous attacks carried out by local nativist and know nothing gangs.

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

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