Greetings and salutations from the Irish Railroad Workers Museum. Our ongoing series, known as "The Big Pivot" is bringing the Museum to you as you lay low at home during these challenging days.
Today's presentation from our "Remembrance Room” (The Passage) reminds us how the people of Ireland were brought to loneliness as their loved ones were scattered to the corners of the earth. A warm family life around the hearth with kith and kin was replaced with occasional letters from children you might not ever see again. We learn about this reality as we consider Famine survivors Brigid Conway Fahy, born in 1849, and Francis Fahy, born in 1840. They were from Ballinakil Parish, East Galway (South of Loughrea). Both were children of the Great Hunger, and remained in Ireland.
Six of their seven children emigrated to the U.S. (We count former museum Board President Michael Mellett among their descendants.) Send-offs for their dear ones must have been heartbreaking, and yet there was hope beyond the immediate crisis, albeit on the other side of the vast ocean that separated parents from children. We invite you to consider our article on the American Wake...part of our Room's narratives.
Lives of meaning and purpose were often the culmination of the experiences of those who immigrated to America. That being said, Baltimore's immigrant population was not without its own share of loss and anguish. Today we share the story of Robert Lloyd, one of our “High Kings of Baltimore”.
The American Wake
Cecilia A. Wright
The American Wake was a farewell party for someone emigrating from Ireland. Many who left for foreign lands had strong ties to their community, and an emotional sendoff from the only people they had ever known was an integral component of their departure.
Although life was hard, they preferred the life they knew with their family, friends and traditions over the uncertainty of emigration. The voyage to North America took up to eight weeks and was dangerous, as ships could sink in storms or fire. Serious diseases were also a threat, with many contracting typhus, cholera or other contagious diseases. Once an immigrant arrived, they often struggled to find work. They faced prejudice, were uneducated, and often spoke only Irish. Many viewed them as members of an “alien” religion and culture.
The Great Hunger changed their views toward emigration. Known as the Potato Famine, it destroyed families and communities, and Irish Catholics were left with little choice but to emigrate. Life in Ireland offered little opportunity. These peasants were often evicted, starving and in a state of hopeless poverty.
Emigration offered hope, and many anticipated a better life in a new land. The family would save every penny they could, and might have received some financial help from the landlord to send the oldest son first. Once settled, the first emigrant would send money home to help their younger siblings. The younger generation could eventually bring their parents to America, or send back money so they could live more comfortably in Ireland. Many families, however faced the very likely possibility they would never see their loved ones again.
With the new view toward emigration came new traditions, including the American Wake. Traditional Irish wakes were more like parties: celebrating the person’s life and an end to their suffering, rather than the somber affairs one may think of. The American Wake followed these traditions, while knowing that family and friends will likely not see their loved ones again. They included four important events in Irish peasant society: Birth, Marriage, Death and Burial.
First came Death, represented by their leaving family and community to travel to the ship. A Second theme was Burial, displayed by their boarding a wooden “coffin” ship to America...sealing their separation from family and loved ones. A third element was Birth, symbolized by their arrival in America. Marriage was the final theme, a union maintained through letters sent to each other across the ocean. During the worst years of The Great Hunger the American Wake was a more somber occasion. Gatherings were modest, with little food or resources to share. The emigrant would travel to every house in the community during the week before his/her departure. He would share details and receive well wishes from each member of the community visited.
Wake celebrations became more elaborate as conditions in Ireland improved. The community would gather at the emigrant’s family home on the night before the emigrant departed to travel to the ship. Important elements included food, drink and tobacco. Traditional clay pipes would be passed around and shared among guests. Drink was most often a strong, illegally distilled beverage called Poteen.
Food was a common gift for the emigrant, used as provisions for the journey ahead. These gifts might have included hard boiled eggs, rye or oatmeal biscuits, or traditional frog bread from a close relative. Frog bread was believed to protect the emigrant from fever. It was made by roasting and pulverizing a frog, with the resulting powder mixed into the bread dough. Guests who could not afford a gift for the immigrant would offer words of advice and traditional blessings.
The Wake would begin with traditional stories that had been passed down for generations, told by the local shanachie, or storyteller, followed by stories guests had heard about America. As the night wore on the event took a sadder tone, as family members knew the time was coming when their loved one would leave. The emigrant would share a last song or dance with their parents, and old women known as “keeners” would sing and wail in mourning of the families’ loss. The wake ended early in the morning. Guests would step outside to let the family say their goodbyes in private. Parents and siblings knew they would most likely not see each other for a long period of time, if ever again. Lastly, everyone would gather with the parish priest, to receive a blessing for a safe journey.
As they left their community, the emigrant was surrounded by family and close friends who walked some distance with them. They never took a short cut to the port, as hastening the departure was believed to jinx the arrival. After some time, maybe at the next village or beyond, the emigrant would continue on his own. The crowd who had accompanied him would say their final farewells and blessings and watch as he continued out of sight, turning to wave one last farewell.
Often the American Wake would cause some debt for the family, which could be paid off with funds sent home once the immigrant arrived and settled in America. The emigrant considered it an obligation and an honor to send money to pay the debt for the wake, in return for the memories and grand send-off they had received.
https://www.fenagh.com/history/ame rican-wake/ (accessed 11/26/19).
Robert (seated, right) worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Fire Department in 1898, one of several jobs he held. Born circa 1858, he married Alfarata Brogunier in 1879. She grew up at 909 Lemmon Street and on S. Carrolton Ave., the daughter of a watchman who worked at Baltimore’s Custom House. They began married life together in a boarding house in Hagerstown, MD. Robert worked as an iron and brass molder during a long career in West Baltimore.
Alfarata gave birth to at least 14 children, but their family life was a place of both love and loss. Their only son at the time, Robert A., died on August 25, 1887. A newspaper obituary included:
“Death has robbed us of our treasure, Of the one we loved so well.
Taken from the world of sorrow, Safely home with Him to dwell”.
Six children survived, and were raised in the row houses surrounding Hollins Market. Sons began careers as candy makers, car mechanics, carpenters and munitions workers.
(Photos and information that contributed to this article has been generously shared by Linda Knott Burnett Morgereth and family)