- St. Patrick’s Day, Part II -
The old house of worship was like so many others scattered across the hills and hollows.
Well-constructed of sturdy timbers with stones cut and fitted for the builder’s use by the hands of accomplished tradesmen, the building was a testament to their craftsmanship and the religious faith of its congregation.
Today there are but a few stones left strewn about the building site, on a flat clearing carved out of a steep hillside. Its plight is, sadly, like all too many old country churches now-a-days.
The churchyard cemetery is all that remains of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, located a mere stone’s throw above the Silver Run Tunnel on the old Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road line.
It is the final resting place for the earthly remains of many sons and daughters of Ireland, who helped tame and settle the wilderness in this section of western Virginia.
As youngsters growing up on Low Gap near Cairo, we trudged through the woods and paths to nearly every spot of interest or curiosity. I had heard many folks mention the Catholic cemetery near Silver Run Tunnel, but never made it there.
When I mentioned the cemetery to my son, Scott, who is on a quest to ride 2,021 miles on his mountain bike this year, he rode to the cemetery and checked it out. A few days later, he returned with my wife Deb, and me, in tow.
Entering a cemetery, sometimes a person is struck by the feeling of being in a solemn, sacred place. I’ve been to many graves in a lot of cemeteries over the years. Some make me feel that way. Others don’t. This one did.
As we walked amongst the tombstones, one in particular caught our attention. The man had been dead for nearly 150 years, and still an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss hung over the place around his grave. On it was inscribed these haunting words,
Sacred to the Memory of
A Native of Tuam
County Galway, Ireland
Who Died By The Explosion At
The Ritchie Mines
February 24, 1873
Aged 29 years.
The back side of the stone was plaintively inscribed words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Dear God, Thy Will Be Done.”
Was it a statement of faith? A cry of grief? The inevitable, resigned acceptance of the loss of a son, a brother, a father, a friend? Likely it was all of those, and more.
According to the description of St. Michael’s mentioned in the History of Ritchie County by Minnie Kendall Lowther,
“The Catholics, an ‘ever loyal and hardworking people,’ constructed a log church on ‘Tunnel Hill’ in early days, but a modern structure, the largest of this denomination in the county, now adorns the site. Here, in this churchyard, the first graves of the community were hollowed out, and the dates on the stones show that some were laid here in the (eighteen) fifties, and others during the dark days of the Civil War.”
And how, pray tell, did these good Irish Catholic folk wind up in a hillside cemetery in Silver Run, near the Town of Cairo in Ritchie County?
The answer is that two very different things combined to bring them here – potatoes and railroads.
Crops of wheat, grains, with cattle, hogs and sheep grown on large estates in Ireland were exported to England, while the Irish peasants dined on potatoes.
Indeed, the “Irish Cobbler” – supposed by legend to have been discovered by an Irish shoemaker, or cobbler, in the early 1800s – is one of the most succulent and favored varieties of potato. It is still planted to this day by farmers right here in Ritchie County.
But when the Irish potatoes were dug back in that summer of 1845, in a matter of days they turned into a blackened, soggy, rotten inedible mess.
Anyone who has experienced the rancid stench of a rotten potato wasting in the cellar or kitchen pantry can appreciate the nasty mess a whole spoiled crop would have been.
Although no one understood the cause at the time, the crop had been afflicted with a potato fungus that was spreading across continents around the world, including America and Europe. Ireland simply had it the worst.
One half the total crop was lost in 1845. The next year’s crop failed, too. Then the next. And the next. The Great Irish Potato Famine of 1846, or Great Hunger, proved to be a continuing national disaster of epic proportions.
Ireland, which was predominantly of the Catholic faith, had long suffered as a colonial possession of Protestant Britain.
Irish Protestants were seen as loyal subjects of the crown. Irish Catholics, on the other hand, were considered rebels who should be punished or eliminated.
For centuries, British law banned Irish Catholics from the professions, running for public office or owning land. Most Irish peasants subsisted with crops of potatoes grown on small rental plots containing only 5 acres of land, or less.
In 1844 the population of Ireland was 8.4 million people.
Over the next 10 years, nearly a million people died from starvation or malnutrition related diseases. Whole communities were wiped out. Hundreds of the dead were buried in graves with no coffins, covered with only inches of dirt.
British and Irish Protestant landlords evicted those tenants who could not pay their rent. One landlord in Roscommon evicted over 1,500 families during the Hunger, to “clear” his estate of unprofitable tenants.
By the time the Great Hunger ended in 1852, the population had declined to 6 million.
In addition to the million people who died then, another million souls emigrated, mostly to America. Emigration continued and by 1900, Ireland’s population had fallen to 3.2 million people. It stands at just 4.9 million today, never having recovered since the Famine.
And what of those Irish Catholic immigrants? Most of those buried at St. Michael’s came from one place on the beautiful, barren, rocky west coast of Ireland – County Galway.
Their names were still prominent in Ritchie County a century or more later: McGinnis, Deem, Donnelly, Gaughan, Connelly, Welch, Naughton, Dillon, Bradley –did they know each other at home in the old country? Did they just meet here?
Advertisements for jobs then often cautioned “Irish Need Not Apply.” Signs on businesses warned “No Dogs and No Irish Allowed.”
Many were talented stonecutters, and found work on the B&O RR, building and maintaining the many tunnels along the line. Some settled in Ritchie County communities along the rail line, like Silver Run, either because they liked it here or they had nowhere else to go.
Some became well-known business and community figures. Some found less desirable pursuits. And some, like Patrick Clark, came hoping for a better life but only found an early grave.
It was a hard life they had. We would all do well to remember that, and appreciate what those folks gave us.
Perhaps we could all stop whining so much about how rough we have it these days.