Fr. Benny Fee praying at the grave in Clonoe, County Tyrone
By Ray O’Hanlon
Catherine Burns is this week at rest in her native County Tyrone.
Her remains had been flown to Ireland by Dr. William Watson, one of the leaders of the Duffy’s Cut excavation project in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
She is the second of the more than fifty Duffy’s Cut victims to be given a reburial in Ireland, the other being Donegal native John Ruddy.
Burns was just 29 when she died at Duffy’s Cut in 1832.
The cause of death was likely cholera, though murder at the hands of nativist gangs was also a possible cause.
Her resting place was unmarked and forgotten until Dr. Watson and his team from Immaculata University began work on the site in 2003.
“It was remarkable in all ways. Fr. Benny Fee said Mass and there was a great turnout for the reburial,” Dr. Watson told the Echo.
"It's miraculous. This whole thing's miraculous. I was sitting in the church and it was kind of like an outer body experience. I couldn't believe it was happening. The choir, the sermon, the trappings of the mass, the whole community out. It's just overwhelming," he earlier told reporters covering the reburial.
He praised the effort by Clonoe Parish and the crowd that turned out for the funeral.
"This is incredible. It's a lot of people, and good people," he said.
According to a report in the Belfast Telegraph, it was not known exactly where in County Tyrone that Catherine Burns was from. But Fr. Fee, Clonoe’s parish priest, said that "all of Tyrone belongs to Catherine Burns.”
The young immigrant’s remains were carried into the chapel by three women from the parish who are also called Catherine, along with a researcher from the Duffy's Cut Project.
According to the report, during his sermon, Fr. Fee said it was an "awesome privilege" for the people of Tyrone to welcome Catherine Burns home.
He said she had set off for America because she had "no other choice", adding: "she could stay at home and starve or she could gamble on taking the ship across the broad Atlantic and with a bit of luck, catch the tail of the American dream."
Catherine’s square box-shaped coffin was buried beneath the Tall Cross of Clonoe, a few meters from the parochial house where a Tyrone flag was flying next to an American flag.
Catherine Burns had sailed to America on the John Stamp out of Derry. Others of who would become known the Duffy’s Cut Irish were on board the ship.
In the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died while building the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad between Malvern and Frazer, not far from Philadelphia and at a site that, in recent years, became known to the wider world as Duffy’s Cut.
Duffy’s Cut is on land immediately adjacent to a railroad track used by SEPTA and AMTRAK.
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.
By no means all the Duffy’s Cut dead have been accounted for.
Dr. Watson and his team are now preparing to extract core samples for an estimated fifty men buried in a mass grave at the site, just yards from the railroad track.