Category Archives: Social History

Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.


[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

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Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland

Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007. Continue reading

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Reading History: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland

In a now famous injunction, E.H. Carr in his classic text What Is History? suggests that if you want to know the historian, then you should know their history. While Carr meant this in terms of the politics that will have informed the historian, I’m using it in this post, as a jumping off point for an extension of Carr’s injunction. More than just knowing the historian’s history, it might be worth knowing their reading history. And so, here’s a short look at one of the history books that I can both recall reading in a vivid way, but which has also survived in a way that many other books I was given over the years has not. Continue reading

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The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I have done a good deal of running around in America seeking the best place, but all my sorrow I have lost by it. The American country is gone.

– Letter from Patrick Kearney to John Kearney, 21 December 1890[1]

Migration is often perceived as a two-stage journey: departure and arrival. The letter quoted above from Patrick Kearney to his brother reveals that often a migrant’s journey did not end at the first port of call. His pitiable disappointment at having little to show for all his years of “running around” challenges the myth of the American dream. As one historian notes “the emigration movement…is heroic to look back on… but for the individual emigrant it was often a personal tragedy.”[2] Historians have challenged the assumption of destined success, but many continue to focus on either the negative or positive experiences of migration, neglecting the breadth of possible outcomes and opinions for a more limited binary either/or explanation. Different feelings on this movement can be found within the same ethnic group and social class. Irish-born Seamus Ó Muircheartaigh and Kate Flanagan both moved to several countries and states across America in search of work but their views display a certain dissonance. In “Mo chiach mar a thána” (“Alas that I ever came”) Ó Muircheartaigh wrote  “Sin mar a chaitheas-sa tamall dem shaol,/Ó bhaile go baile gan toinnte ar mo thaobh” (That’s how I spent part of my life,/Going from place to place, with no company at my side).[3] Some held a much more positive opinion, like Kate Flanagan who wrote to Mike, her brother-in-law in Ireland, telling him that “I can’t help but think it would be better for all the family in Ireland to come to this country,” humorously adding “if it was only to get away to a more agreeable climate.”[4]  Remembering that we can move beyond a dichotomy of good or bad, or immigration as from origin to destination, would allow for more novel attempts to explore the varied experiences among different ethnic groups, and more importantly, to highlight and explain the importance of transience among immigrants in the Unites States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. How frequently did people move from one place to another? What were the impediments or facilitators of this movement? Was transience purely an economic decision? How were communities affected by the changes over time and place? What were the networks that sustained them and how were these networks in turn sustained?

Of course you can question, why should we focus on immigrants and mobility when looking at American workers? The first response to that question is that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a huge movement of people to the American continent enabling the industrialisation of the United States. We should keep in mind a notable recent work documenting this process, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg, which reveals that the popular image of uncontrollable waves of people entering the US is a false one and that the American government was capable, when willing, to limit this movement.[5] Another answer to this question lies in the large numbers of people. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States are classed as foreign-born in 1880, 42 percent of those engaged in manufacturing or extraction industries were immigrants.[6] This number grows into an overwhelming majority if we include the children of foreign-born and African Americans. The importance of immigrants in the development of American industry is hard to overstate.

Simultaneously there are problems with categories, as people are often grouped into broad headings based on religion, nationality or ethnic group that might not be particularly useful. If we scratch the surface of these broad communities and we find further important differences; northern and southern Italians, Corkonians and Fardowners, Cornish and English to name a few. Nationally based fraternities (e.g. the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the case of the Irish) tried to foster ethnic cooperation and promote a hyphenated identity reconciling their Old World origins with their lives in the New World, a somewhat paradoxical effort, and again we should try to bear in mind to local complexities when detailing particular groups. Likewise leaders in trade unions also engaged in contradictory efforts to remain loyal to both their own ethnic group while promoting unity with workers from other backgrounds. Immigrants also exhibited similar diversity in their patterns of movement. ‘New immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe bucked earlier immigration trends, with larger numbers returning ‘home’. Historians estimate that fifty percent of Italians returned home between 1908 and 1923, compared to single-digit repatriation rates for Russian Jews and the Irish.[7] Contemporaries noted this difference at the time with usage of the label ‘sojourners’ rather than ‘immigrants’, but few historians have addressed the question of how this affected their views of movement and migration.[8] A continuing reexamination of immigrants bearing these problems in mind might reveal that immigrants had a more nuanced sense of self and association than historians have previously ascribed to them.

Sixty-three years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm opened his article “The Tramping Artisan” with the statement “the story of nineteenth-century labor is one of movement and migration.”[9] While his article represents an attempt to explain the personal and social impact of frequent dislocation on skilled journeymen in Britain, the premise applies equally to immigrant workers in America. The development of transnational history has seen a reevaluation of borders as the defining parameters of historical phenomena and the scholarship related to them. Some of the exciting new work on Irish America includes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the American West 1860-1910, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race and The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, and they each forcefully challenge traditional historical assumptions on the Irish in the West, Irish identity and organizations.[10]  Transnationalism in turn has led to the reexamination of people’s movement, formerly through the prism of migration, through the more broad term of mobility.[11]

Many questions are waiting to be answered by future projects. Some questions that can be raised about American studies follow, but many other similar questions could be asked of other sub-fields of nineteenth and twentieth century history. What effect did the staggered migration have on working-class ethnic communities? Did it impede or encourage ethnic, fraternal or union organization? How did the immigrant experience in eastern cities differ from the American West? Were there significant similarities or differences in both the experience and perception of mobility between ethnicities, occupations or classes? Some of these questions have been partly answered in relation to specific groups, for example Liping Zhu and Sue Fawn Chung’s pioneering work on the Chinese communities in the American West.[12]

Simultaneous with the advent of these new approaches has been the comparable decline of the study of labor and trade union history and in response historians should try to reengage with the history of workers, offering fresh perspective and utilizing the new historiographical approaches that have emerged in the intervening decades. Craig Calhoun recently presented an important challenge to labor history in The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, arguing that not all social movements were inherently progressive and that these groups expressed a much broader spectrum of goals and beliefs, often more conservative, than historians have credited to them. It can be hoped that further research will uncover more stories of people’s lives, with their accompanying perceptions and convictions and help us determine whether these are valid assertions. For my part I fully intend to keep digging for answers.

 

 

[1] Séamus De Búrca (ed.), The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957), p. 251.

[2] Terry Coleman, Passage to America: A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century (1972: London: Hutchinson & County), p. 248.

[3] Seán Ó Dubhda, Duanaire duibhneach : i bailiú d’amhránaibh agus de phíosaibh eile filidheachta a ceapadh le tuairim céad bliain i gCorca Dhuibhne, agus atá fór i gcuimhne agus i mbéaloideas na ndaoine ann (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1976),132-133. English translation by Dr Bruce D. Boling, Brown University, from Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiii.

[4] Kate Flanagan to Mike in Ireland was more positive Napa, California to her brother-in-love, Mike 31 March, 1899. Flanagan Family Letters. Private collection generously shared with me by Professor Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri, Columbia.

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] U.S. Tenth Census, 1880, Report on the Manufactures of the United States (Washington, D.C, 1882), pp. 17, 36.

[7] Mark Wyman, Round-trip America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 9-12.

[8] Two important exceptions are the collection of essays in Dirk Hoerder (ed.) Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies. The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Donna R Gabaccia, Italy’s many diasporas (Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2000).

[9] E. J. Hobsbawn, “The Tramping Artisan,” The Economic History Review, New Series 3 (1951): pp. 299-320.

[10] David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Transnationalism does not ignore nationalism or the nation-state rather it prompts historians to simultaneous consider “differing geographic scales – the local, the national, and the transnational.” Ian Tyrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (1991):  p. 1033.

[12]  Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Sue Fawn Chung, In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchant in the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

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The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Oral History in Ireland: A Status Update

OHNILast weekend (12-13 Sept.) I attended the second conference of the Oral History Network of Ireland, held in Kilkenny. Founded in 2010, OHNI has held a number of events to bring together oral history practitioners and to further develop the field across the nation. One of the unique characteristics of this conference, and indeed of the network, is the encouragement of participation by those working outside third-level education. Though I did hear one complaint that it still feels dominated by academics, it is much less so than most events of this type. The workshops, sessions, and discussions over the course of two days covered a wide range of topics and themes including ethics, interviewing, communities, digital media, heritage, and history (the full programme and abstracts are available here). Lots could be said about all of these, but I will briefly touch on issues of community and access that I heard raised at multiple points during the weekend.

Rob Perks bravely gave both a workshop and a keynote address on Friday afternoon. The former, ‘Archiving oral history recordings’, drew extensively on his work as lead curator of Oral History at the British Library and summarized workflow processes and best practices. After a short break for the wine reception, Rob was back for his keynote, ‘The development of community oral history in the UK: reflecting on the issues and challenges’. It took a broad view of the discipline, beginning with nineteenth-century social investigators, dialect studies, and folklore, and moving on to George Ewart Evans and the BBC Radio Ballads in the post-Second World War period. The main part of his address focused on two waves of community oral history in the UK: the 1970s to ‘80s and from the 1990s on. The first was characterized by local activist groups and publications and through this many of the current generation of oral historians, including Rob himself, immersed themselves in the field. The second wave has been characterized by the availability of Heritage Lottery funding as well as broadening definitions of ‘community’. These trends raise questions and issues that apply beyond the UK context:

  • ‘Celebratory impulse’[1]: Who or what is the community? Asking this question involves taking risks, but is necessary to delve beneath the surface.
  • ‘Shared authority’[2]: This is definitely a laudable goal, but is it achievable?
  • Avoiding ‘one source history’: How can we compare and contrast oral testimony with other forms of primary sources and place local history in a wider context?
  • Re-use of community oral history for purposes not initially foreseen: What documentation is kept? Who has control over the sources? Who will have access?

Overall the trend in the UK has been from community oral history to oral histories of elites, whereas US work has primarily followed the opposite trajectory, but these questions can apply to all projects in different types of ‘communities’.

The issue of who or what constitutes a community also arose in the discussion at the end of the panel ‘working-class communities, trade unions, and politics’ (with presentations from Mary Muldowney, Liam Cullinane, and John Gibbons). How are communities constituted – by geographical area, by the way in which their members speak of them, or by exclusion? Oral histories of working-class communities often focus on social networks, mutual assistance, and a sense of solidarity, and while the reality of these attributes is undoubted, panel attendees also highlighted the existence of people in the same geographical proximity or industry who either chose to separate themselves or were deliberately excluded. The former case included families who felt they had dropped in social status and wanted to maintain an outward ‘respectability’, and the latter case included strikebreakers. In addition, the study of an urban working-class neighbourhood in the 1930s, for example, might include those who had since geographically or economically moved out of that community. But while these types of people should be part of the historical narrative, their experiences can prove difficult to capture, because they themselves may decline to be interviewed and others within the community may avoid mentioning or questioning these divisions.[3]

Presentations in the final panel of the conference ‘the place of oral history in the Irish heritage landscape’ addressed two main issues: funding and the place of oral history within definitions (legal and otherwise) of heritage in Ireland. The latter arguably influences the ability to gain the former. However, overall the panel seemed based on the assumptions that oral histories are collected by local community groups tied to distinct geographical areas that therefore fall under the remit of a county council heritage officer. This evidenced a general failure to acknowledge, reflect on, or respond to the broader definitions of community raised by Rob Perks and others during the course of the conference. What if an oral history project centres on a community at a national or international level? My own work extends across the Irish diaspora, so where does it fit? If funding is seen as coming primarily from local sources, this severely limits projects with a broader scope.

The final point I would like to make relates to preservation and access: one commentator at the end of the panel suggested that OHNI might ensure that individuals or groups applying for or receiving funding adhere to standards and best practices. The network also has a role to play in ensuring that policies exist for archiving and access at local and national level. In a 1997 report on oral archives historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote that ‘haphazard, incomplete and inconsistent are the words that spring to mind concerning attitudes and practices relating to the collection and preservation of oral archival material’ in Ireland.[4] Sadly, this remains the case, as no national institution has taken on a role in collecting or disseminating oral sources equivalent to that of the British Library in the UK. OHNI lists as one of its key objectives, ‘to be actively involved in archiving initiatives by promoting best practice and long term sustainability of voice archives’, but much remains to be done in this area. I have high hopes for the future!

 

[1] Linda Shopes, ‘Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes, and Possibilities’, Journal of American History, vol.89, no.2 (Sept. 2002), pp.588-98.

[2] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (SUNY Press, 1990).

[3] An earlier conference panel suggested some possible remedies: Ultan Cowley discussed a group who feel excluded from Ireland – Irishmen who spent their lives working as navvies in England – and the problematic relationship they have with their homeland; while the GAA Oral History Project focused primarily on those who maintained involvement in the organization, Alan Noonan tackled its darker side in examining an event in the 1950s that had a bitter and alienating effect for many local players involved.

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Oral Archives in Ireland: A Preliminary Report’, Irish Economic & Social History, vol.25 (1998), p.91.

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A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

As well as the many more straightforward entries into the books of the business over the course of almost sixty years, many other entries that form part of the digitised collection stand out.

In that period, before the motor car was common, hearses were typically pulled by horses and the records reveal something to us about these. For instance, entries in the books that run from 1874 to the early 1900s, we see that Thompson’s bought a good number of horses. In April 1892, for instance, the business bought a bay horse from a Mrs. Murphy for £20 even, while in 1893, they bought a brown horse from a Mr. Knox of Bakehouse Lane for the considerably more pricey sum of £30. [1] Horses were a vital part of the business, and had to be kept healthy. Thus in one set of records we find recipes for various ailments afflicting horses, like this one “for soars [sic] or galds on horses also Greece in heels” from 1905:

1 pennyworth of ground Alum

1 pennyworth of Sulphur

1/2 Pint of Vinegar

add a small quantity of warm water and then put in a bottle

Or this one, from the same time on worms in horses:

get some Guilea from the country

and grind it up in the oats

it will kill all the worms

There’s also a rather more involved recipe for treating mange:

6d worth tincture of iodine

3d soft soap

4d Black Sulphur

I dram Arnicker (spirits)

This is just once facet of the day to day running of the business which emerges from the books. Among the most fascinating elements of these records is that it shows that more than simply catering to the needs of individuals who were bereaved and had dead to bury, who went to Thompson’s in  a personal capacity,  Thompson’s were also involved in collecting and burying the dead from a variety of institutions including the District Lunatic Asylum (“A Silum” as it appears in some of the very earliest records), The Little Sisters of the Poor, The Poor Law Union, and Waterford’s Prison. [2]

Going through the records and seeing the many nameless in the books who belonged to institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor makes for difficult reading, but shows something of the way in which the destitute were treated in Irish society, given over to charity, the only ones who would in death, see they were buried in something approaching respectable circumstances. Over two remarkable pages, at the beginning of the books that cover the period 1910-1918, almost seventy entries of paid funerals come from the Little Sisters of the Poor. [3]

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Click to enlarge.

Equally distressing when you delve into the books is the number of “small coffins” or “very small coffins” which are required by various families to bury children who did not live long. In no instance was I able to find a case where the child themselves was named, but usually the entries followed the form of “for Mrs. x’s child”. Unlike the burials of adults, there was no extensive list of hearses, broughams, sidecars, or drink. These were quiet, sad, heart-rending affairs which to judge by their frequency in these books, were indeed very common. Indeed, one set of figures looking at mortality rates in Ireland across the twentieth century indicates that around 1 in 13 or 14 children born died soon afterwards in the 1920s and 1930s, when these digitised records end. [4]

Thompson’s business though wasn’t solely undertaking to bury the dead, as in the case of their individual customers, or organisations like the Poor Law Union or the Little Sisters. Their business for instance with the prison service in Waterford was mainly to do with the transport of prisoners. In one of the books now available online, there are terms of an agreement with the prison set out, including the price of fares for different jobs which reads as follows:

Contract for Horsing Vans And Supplying Cars to H.M. Prison Waterford from April 1st 1909 to 31st March 1910.

No. 1) Horsing Van when requires from Prison to Courthouse and Vice Versa at per day 15/-
No. 2 ) Horsing Van when required between Prison Railway Station at per double journey viz. from Prison to Station in the morning & from Station to Prison in the evening 6/-

3) Horsing Van for any one run viz. between Prison & Station or between Station & Prison 4/– 3/-

4)Inside or Outside Cars when required from Prison to Rly. Station or Steamers or vice versa at per journey from and to Prison 1/3

5) Inside or Outside cars when required from Prison to COurthouse, Workhouse or Asylum at per double journey viz. come to the Prison when ordered go to any of the above places and return to Prison 1/9

6) Rate per single journey between Prison & the above mentioned places not returning again to the Prison 1/3

Date this 19th day of March ’09

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson's cars for the Prison Service.

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson’s cars for the Prison Service. Click to englarge.

Thompson’s contract with the Waterford Poor Law Union about the price of coffins is also present in the records. For the Union, Thompson’s provided three sizes of coffin, as follows in 1907:

Adult coffins 4/3

middle size 2/6

small size 1/6

This small tidbit about their coffin prices for the Poor Law Union are made all the more interesting by the recording of their competitor’s prices, which are given as follows:

Whittle’s prices

4/3

1/9

1/5

Whittle’s offered cheaper on the middle and small coffins, but both businesses offered the same for adults to the Union. Incidentally, both firms appear to have helped each other frequently, charging each other for the use of spare horses, broughams and the like, presumably when one or the other was short of these things but had more than one funeral a day. This is one small glance at the more business oriented side of undertaking, and is invaluable in showing us how such things as the Poor Law, charities, and the prison system operated locally and on a day-to-day scale in either transporting or burying those in their care.

We’ve already seen the highly pragmatic inclusion in these records of a variety of recipes for looking after the horses which were so central to the running of the business, but the books contain recipes relating to human ailment too.  Take for example this entry on “Mugworth” [sic] :

Boil a handful in two qrts of beer

then leave Mistletoe simmer for one

hour strain bottle & Cork.

Dose:- Half a cupfull every

morning. if full dose proves too

difficult to take reduce it to a quarter

cup Morning and Night.

Or this one on Mistletoe:

1/2 lb of Mistletoe boiled in two

quarts of Water. leave simmer

until the liquid is reduced to about

a quart. Mix 1.2 pt. of common black

Treacle with it. liquid to be strained

before Treacle is added.

Dose:- Wineglass full every

morning fasting

“Mugworth is useful in

female irregularities.”

Equal quantities of Pennyroyal

and Southernwood added to it increases

its value.

Mistletoe – Useful in Hysteria, Epilepsy, St Vitus dance

and other nervous complaints, also used

as a tonic especially for the heart:-

These are but a few of the many recipes from the books, more of which I’ll be sure to post in time. For now though, this brief examination of these wonderful records, which are available for anyone to view truly do provide a unique insight into what was and remains one of the most intriguing aspects of social history.


 

[1] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1874-1892

[2] These are scattered throughout all four sets of the funeral books which have been digitised.

[3] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1910-1918 under “L”

[4] These figures are based on the following working paper: http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers/gearywp200943.pdf

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Filed under Death, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized