Posted by: fulto20e | October 13, 2010

Irish Immigrants in PA

Please bear with me while I explain the train of thought that led to this post:

The (frankly) racist cartoon images of the Irish that we have been looking at made me angry, mostly because the idea that the British were superior only escalated to more and more violence in the UK. Over the years I’ve developed an interest in the oppression of the Irish, both in their own country and as immigrants to the US. So, in thinking of my favorite films in relation to the cartoon images, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York immediately came to mind.

American’s do not have the best record of welcoming the Irish with open arms, as demonstrated in the film. With a quick google search for information on Irish immigrants (originally looking for images) I came across a news article that caught my attention: 19th Century Irish Railroad Workers in Pennsylvania Grave May Have Been Murdered. Well, I’m a Pennsylvania girl, so of course I had to read it. As it turns out, these Irish workers constructed Mile 59 “one of the toughest stretches” of the PA railroad to construct (as it happens, Mile 59 is located in Chester County, my home town!)

“Within six weeks of the arrival, all 57 men were dead. They were buried in a mass grave near Malvern, Pa., and their deaths were kept a secret by the railroad company. Duffy ordered that the shanties were they lived be burned down for sanitary reasons.”

It wasn’t until May 2010 when two brothers, one a history professor at Immaculata University, having discovered the mass grave concluded that:

“local vigilantes, perhaps with the blessing of the contractor Phillip Duffy, simply came into the forest and killed all the workers, believing it was the only way to keep the cholera from spreading… And right after the men were buried, Duffy had the site torched to hide the evidence.”

What does all this have to do with the hideous cartoon images of the Irish? The sad fact is that Irish workers in America were forced to take the most dangerous jobs that no one else was willing to do. The article on the murdered Irish workers in PA concludes with this unfortunate statement:

“Railroad construction was so dangerous that it was said, ‘[there was] an Irishman buried under every tie.’”

Clearly, the lives of immigrant workers, especially Irish workers, were not valued by those who employed them. They were executed and buried in a mass grave without a second thought, because they may have infected “real” Americans. Although the Irish fled to the US in search of a better life, they were faced with even more prejudice and intolerance.

To read more on the killed Irish workers in PA – The Duffy’s Cut Project (this website also has images of the bones found.)

There is also a book: The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad



  1. I’ve done a lot of work on anti-Irish racism in Britain, but there is also, as your post demonstrates, a history of such discrimination and violence in America. Let me know if you want to look at some other books on the subject!

    • Hi Professor Martin,

      I’m fascinated by the Irish struggle, both at home and in their immigration to the states, so I’d love any book recommendations on the subject!

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