Friday, August 12, 2022

Irish clues at a cemetery in northern New York

I am in northern New York this week. I took the scenic route through Vermont, because I wanted to stop at an ancestral graveyard on the far side of Lake Champlain to pay my respects ... and see if there are any other details I may have missed since my last visit 15 years ago.

The graveyard, located on Irish Settlement Road near the intersection with Military Turnpike (which has an interesting history) is small, but well kept. It contains mostly 19th-century graves of Irish settlers who came this area starting in the 1820s after an economic crisis struck the local weaving industry in County Meath, Ireland.

A 4x great grandfather is buried here, along with two of his sons, daughters-in-law, and many descendants. He died in 1837. The gravestone gives his place of origin - "A native of Philpotstown, Meath." In the past I have looked up this townland, and found two possibilities:

  1. Rataine Civil Parish, Barony of Lower Navan, Co. Meath. South of Navan, containing part of the town of Dunderry. It is small and has a small population (blue arrow on the map below).
  2. Ardsallagh Civil Parish, Barony of Lower Navan, Co. Meath. Larger area and population to the southeast of Navan, and very close to Hill of Tara, which is located a mile or two to the east (red arrow).

On this visit, I did a walk around the entire graveyard and noticed a stone belonging to another family which lists another nearby placename: Athboy. See it on the map below? It's on the left side, maybe 10 miles from the red arrow. 

This piece of information verifies that immigrants buried in the Irish Settlement graveyard hailed from the same area. Does it mean that the Philpotstown marked by the red arrow is the correct place of origin, because it's closer to Athboy? Maybe. 

Or maybe not. The economic crisis affected an entire region, so even though people settled in the same area in New York, it doesn't mean they were next-door neighbors back in Ireland. More research is needed. I hope to visit Ireland some day to do it in person, on the ground, seeing all of these places with my own two eyes. 

There was another piece of information on my ancestor's gravestone, at the very bottom, right above the dirt:

"Also, Barnard his son died Feb"

So the son died a few months before the father. It makes you wonder if the two deaths were connected in some way. The stones do not say.

I paid my respects to my 4x Great Grandfather, touched the stones of other ancestors and relatives, and continued on my journey. 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Father's Day memories: How farmers made Apple Jack


Thought I would share this story in honor of Father's Day. Last year, we had an outdoor brunch with my dad, who shared an interesting story about his own father, my grandfather. 

My grandfather came of age during Prohibition in farming country in western New York. The people there were not only skilled at procuring alcohol from north of the border in nearby Canada, they were also skilled at making it. Lots of people brewed beer or cider for underground sale or home consumption ... and sometimes made harder stuff, too. 

Apple Jack memories
"Apple Jack" was one type of home brew popular among the Irish and Scots immigrants and their descendants living in the area. My grandfather's method, according to my father, involved taking a casket of hard cider, and putting it out in the barn on a really cold night. The water would freeze around the outer edge of the casket, but the liquid in the center - concentrated cider with a much higher alcohol content - could be tapped and extracted. This was how Apple Jack was made in those parts, and in other parts of the northeast during colonial times.

My father also remembered going fishing with his dad in the 1950s, and stopping to buy worms from local apple farmers. It turns out that a certain type of worm used to thrive in the discarded mash from the cider presses. Fish apparently loved them, so farmers would sell them as bait. Part of the ritual when buying worms, my dad recalled, involved the farmer offering some sweet cider to the kids, and a glass of hard cider to the adults, if they were so inclined. On a hot summer's day, that must have been refreshing.  

The tradition of home-brewed alcohol still lives on. We used to live next to an Italian immigrant from Naples who brewed his own wine in the cellar and generously shared it with neighbors. It's very interesting to see much younger people who were born in the United States and have no family traditions getting into brewing beer using home kits. Others have gotten into craft beer, or spirits made by local companies, often family-owned companies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Pilgrim's struggle with soil

Forest camping in Plymouth Massachusetts

Earlier this year, I took our son on a scout camping trip in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth was made famous by the Pilgrims, who arrived in 1620 to escape religious persecution and create a new life for themselves and their children.

But if you were to visit Plymouth today, you would be surprised about how empty the area is. Driving through Myles Standish State Forest to the campground, we were struck by the wilderness around us. Miles and miles of scrubby forest and sandy soil, with most of the plant life consisting of short pitch pines and bushes, as shown in the picture above.

Indeed, Plymouth and nearby areas of Southeastern Massachusetts must have been a shock to the Pilgrims. Not only were the winters colder and the summers hotter than in England, the soil was terrible for planting. Quoting the Soil Science Society of America blog post titled "What type of farming challenges did the Pilgrims face?":

In the coastal area of Plymouth Colony, soils are shallow, sandy and stony. This contrasts with the farmlands of southern England, with deep, nutrient-rich loamy soil. In addition, the English soils were more fertile and tillable by hand or with draft animals to a depth of perhaps 6-12 inches. Massachusetts coastal soils were not deep, and sit on top of hard bedrock. The Pilgrims did not bring draft animals (horses or oxen) and although the sandy soils could be tilled or cultivated by hand, they were very stony, making this difficult work.

Sandy soils do not hold the nutrients – or water – that plants need for a bountiful harvest. They are more susceptible to drought, because the water filters through faster. The Pilgrims were lucky that the Wampanoag shared more suitable crops with them, such as corn and squash. These crops are able to grow in less ideal conditions. It’s reported that a late-season rain helped boost the harvest as well.

During that brutal first winter of 1620-1621, nearly half of the 102 Mayflower passengers died, and the colony came close to failing, as described in Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War.

The Pilgrims were determined, but it was not enough, especially as members began to die around them and it became clear that raising crops in the New World required a different approach. If you have Pilgrim ancestors, they survived only because the Wampanoag (specifically, the Pokanoket people) showed them how to farm. One of the many gifts the Native Americans gave to the Pilgrims were crops, such as corn, that were better suited to their new farming location, as well as the "Three Sisters" technique for strengthening soil nutrients and avoiding famine, as described in the SSSA blog.

Walking around the desolate Plymouth backcountry, I spotted two other things the Wampanoag introduced to the English settlers: wild turkeys and cranberries! Cranberries are now one of the few crops to truly thrive in southeastern Massachusetts, and you can see the bogs everywhere. 

Cranberry bog plymouth massachusetts



Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A special request for St. Patrick's Day

Dingle Peninsula, Ireland. Licensed from Depositphotos

Growing up outside of Boston in the 1970s and 1980s in a (mostly) Irish-American family, St. Patrick's Day was a big deal. As with other North American cities that had large Irish-American populations, people with roots in rural Ireland wanted to celebrate their heritage. St. Patrick's Day was the special day to do it. 

The celebrations were well-intentioned, but could also be superficial or even out of control. 

We kids would wear green clothing and greet each other with "Erin go Bragh" (Anglicization of the Gaelic Éire go Brách, “Ireland till the end of time”). We would also indulge in junk food with green food coloring, including green cookies, green cake, and the infamous Shamrock Shake

The adults wore green, too. Some put on T-shirts and plastic hats that said "Kiss me, I'm Irish." There was a huge parade in South Boston, as well as Irish music performances and banquets around town. 

That said, the main attraction on March 17 seemed to be the partying on the sidelines of the parade, or heavy drinking in the bars, which could get wild. Very wild.

As Boston's demographics have changed, the parades are smaller and the wearing of green are not as common. But the revelry seems to be just as crazy

In Ireland itself, St. Patrick's Day was once a subdued religious holiday, commemorating both Saint Patrick's death and the arrival of Christianity. In addition to attending Mass and wearing green, people would have a special meal even though it was Lent. In recent years, though, the celebrations have looked to America for inspiration, and taken on a more lurid, commercial tinge.

Shop window in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day

It's disappointing that a day honoring a saint and intended to recognize one's Irish heritage has become a big excuse to party. It seems hollow.

So, can I make a special request for St. Patrick's Day this year?

Instead of celebrating the superficial aspects of March 17, how about making an effort to recognize Ireland's history, culture, and spiritual life?

If you have Irish roots, take things a step further. Think about your ancestors' journey to a new land and a new life, and record their stories. Dig out those old photos, documents, and genealogy records, and make an effort to preserve them for the next generation.

St. Patrick, I think, would approve.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Pandemic-era Eagle Scout Service Project with the Boston Area Gleaners

Last summer, my son led his scout troop (Troop 355) to gather hundreds of banana boxes for a local group that fights food insecurity. This was part of an Eagle Scout Service project, which is required of all scouts seeking to attain the rank of Eagle. The following pieces of information are from the project summary he prepared.

The Boston Area Gleaners is truly a fascinating organization that not only provides fresh produce to local food banks, it also targets food waste on local farms by taking excess produce. The humble banana box is an important part of the storage and transportation infrastructure, as this video shows:

According to the Greater Boston Food Bank, the pandemic has caused food insecurity among children to rise 117% in Eastern Massachusetts so that now 1 in 5 children live in a home that is food insecure. In 2020, the Gleaners collected and distributed 8 million lbs of fresh produce to go on tables across New England. To run their operations, the Boston Area Gleaners need lots of banana boxes! 

The original goal of the project: obtain 400 empty boxes, and deliver them to the Gleaners by July 31st. This represents capacity for the Gleaners to transport 14,000 pounds of produce, enough fruits and vegetables for nearly 38,000 meals! Most cars can fit between 5 and 15 banana boxes each (bigger cars or trucks could most likely fit between 20-25 boxes).

By the end of July, scouts from Troop 355 as well as parents and siblings gathered 450+ banana boxes, and did so safely, following safe social distancing requirements. Twenty scouts from Newton and Boston took part, with support from scout parents, scoutmasters, and other members of the community.

Managers and staff at Star Market, Shaw's, Stop & Shop, Russo’s, Market Basket, and Whole Foods played a crucial role in setting the boxes aside, which otherwise would have been crushed or used for other purposes. 

It really was a great learning and leadership experience, and a great cause. Thank you all for your help!