March 8, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Words, Places and the Big Picture

Sarah Feeley, husband James and Children, circa 1871

We welcome you to the latest installment of our continuing series of articles as we attempt to bring our Museum to you during these strange days of Covid-19. Hundreds are enjoying these articles, and we are delighted to share our story in print, as opposed to verbal sessions at the Museum. These seem to be a help as Museum friends want a tangible resource where our story is presented, and a reference point is established for future consideration.

A recent conversation told us that people want to know how a little Museum like ours made so many remarkable discoveries about the modest family that lived at 918 Lemmon Street. Wasn't Sarah an illiterate wife, mother and washerwoman? What is there to know about someone like her? We hope you enjoy a bit of our path to discovery, beginning with her modest obituary. Just a word or two gave us major themes to research, and help us remember Sarah in a richer way.

Sarah didn’t write the notice, of course; that would be left to her children. They knew where their mother was born and raised, and must have heard the stories of the old country many times. Death was a time of remembrance for the Irish, and their life before the long boat ride to America was included in their obituaries and on their grave markers. Sarah’s children knew where she was from, right down to the name (sic) of the parish where she spent her childhood. They knew because she told them it was important to remember.

Sarah’s maiden name was a vital part of the brief remembrance that was published the day after Christmas in the Baltimore Sun. The Feeley and Liberty surnames were uncommon ones, both here and in Ireland, and those that shared them in the Baltimore area were usually close relatives. City directories included just a few individuals that shared these surnames, and census records and newspaper articles showed how these families intertwined with each other in their neighborhoods, workplaces and churches. The Feeley and Liberty families came from County Tipperary, Ireland. The Liberty family was listed in Ireland’s "Griffith’s Valuation", a land survey used for taxation purposes, as being tenants in the townland named Nenagh. Sarah’s relatives, with names like Boland and Shanahan would also make the journey from Nenagh to West Baltimore during the famine years.

Sarah Liberty Feeley was a native of the townland of Nenagh, the largest in Western Ireland’s County Tipperary North. She would make a new home in West Baltimore among many from her home town. Relations with names such as Liberty, Boland and Flannery once lived in Nenagh, but the struggles between the occupying British forces and the tragic events that accompanied Ireland’s Great Hunger brought these families to the realization that Irish life might be better experienced far across the ocean.

The town of their birth served as a county seat, and in addition to its governmental functions, was an active market town. Nenagh had been a center of buying and selling for generations, and the surrounding fertile fields produced large harvests for hundreds of years. Crop producing acreage was intermingled with grazing lands just as productive. Irish families relied on these farmlands for their subsistence, producing both crops and cattle for the well known market. The Liberty family was one of those who worked the land well into the years of the Famine.

Nenagh was also known as a place of uprising and mayhem. English troops were garrisoned there, keeping order for a government that was less than welcome. The Nenagh courthouse held trials for men that were involved in resistance to British rule, or for the delinquent paying of rents. The town jail, used as early as May 1841, held those involved in the resistance movement against British occupation of the country. A local Tipperary magistrate was attacked in April 1845 by men who were undoubtedly disturbed by one of his rulings from the bench. He was assaulted by six locals from Nenagh, but survived. Three were killed in the event, and two others wounded.

The townland was subject to surprise raids, and homes and outbuildings were searched by British soldiers. In 1849, some fifty firearms were found in private hands, and British troops disarmed and arrested the Nenagh peasantry who owned them. This added to the desperation of the people, as by that time the Great Hunger had its full devastating effect.

It was from the courthouse steps that men were hired to tumble the modest dwellings of the poor. Landlords would apply for judgments against their starving tenants, and once receiving a notice of eviction, took officers and men to their lands for the purpose of destroying the decrepit dwellings found there. Once the helpless were evicted, support beams and thatching were removed by men who had previously purchased them for their own use elsewhere. These former homes were left entirely unusable by the gangs of enforcers who arrived in the spring of 1849.

Present-Day Nenagh Heritage Center, formerly the Nenagh Jail

The Nenagh Guardian reported that by May, 1851 many areas of County Tipperary were virtually deserted, and anyone of means whatsoever had found their way to the immigrant ships bound for America and elsewhere. In some townlands only the most destitute remained, relegated to the poor houses and eventual death by starvation and disease.

Among those that deserted the County in 1851 were John and Mary Liberty, Sarah Liberty Feeley’s parents, who sailed on the Annapolis to Baltimore. Their children had left a few years earlier, and now it was their time to go as well, at 60 years of age. They would not even experience the dignity of growing old, dying and being buried on the land of their ancestors.

Nenagh maintained its reputation as a market town, but its primary offering by the end of the century was the butter produced from the large amount of cattle grazing in the surrounding meadows and grasslands. These pastures had once been small farms for many Irish, but more profitable cattle raising had turned those crop farms into grazing lands. The market had transitioned into a place where grains and vegetables were largely unavailable for purchase.

The townland of Nenagh once had ready use for a local jail, but so many had left for the sake of survival that by 1887 it served little purpose. The old buildings were given to the Sisters of Mercy, who were already serving former families of Nenagh in West Baltimore. They would use the jail for more benevolent works, but one important act remained. Two brothers had been buried on the jail's unconsecrated grounds, hanged fifty years earlier for the death of a land agent. The true culprit of the crime had confessed to the deed some years earlier, and thousands gathered to excavate and reinter the McCormack boys’ remains in their family plot.

Much ceremony was held, with the town’s shops closed for the day, and a Requiem Mass was said for the repose of their souls, with fifty priests present. Green armbands were worn by the thousands of mourners both in the church and along the procession way, with 600 carts in solemn parade. Many who had never met the young men waved banners that included the pronouncement, “Innocence Rewarded”.

Baltimore’s newspapers supplied families like the Feeleys a point of contact with their old home, and newspaper articles from the Nenagh Guardian were sent for reprinting in America via the immigrant ships of the day. These articles focused on the struggles of the Irish peasantry with British authorities, and were an inspiration to expatriates who remained a part of the struggle. The Irish of West Baltimore had once been denied freedom of conscience, but could now support their former countrymen from a land where prosperity and political expression was experienced as a normal part of life.

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