Ulster woman is a symbol of people who died in early America

Morning View
Morning View

The life and lonely death of an Ulster woman in America 183 years ago was finally marked with a proper burial yesterday in Northern Ireland.

Little is known about Catherine Burns beyond her entry in the log of the John Stamp ship that took her from Londonderry to Philadelphia in 1832: that she was aged 29, a widow, from Co Tyrone, and had no luggage.

Like the millions of other people who travelled out from Europe to the new world in the 1700s and 1800s, Ms Burns must have been hoping to find the American dream.

Like a very large proportion of those immigrants, she in fact found poverty, hard work and an early death.

The Duffy’s Cut Project, by Pennsylvania’s Immaculata University, has researched people from Donegal, Tyrone and Londonderry who died building the Philadelphia-Columbia railway. A bullet wound suggests that Ms Burns was murdered, perhaps in a bid to contain the cholera that killed most of the 57 Irish workers who were buried in a ditch.

The service yesterday at Clonoe Chapel near Coalisland attracted 400 people. The tragic story of youthful hope and promise cut short has struck a nerve, in much the way that the student balcony deaths in Berkeley last month did.

The earliest surviving editions of this newspaper, from 1738 and 1739, have advertisements for boats that took immigrants (of both Ulster traditions) out to America.

Settlers had by then already been crossing the Atlantic for more than a century. When Ms Burns landed a hundred years later, America was independent from Britain and immigrant traffic levels were much higher than in the 1730s. They would stay high until the early 20th century.

Catherine Burns’ grave is akin to the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. At least we know her name, but little more.

But she is a poignant symbol of the many people who died in the making of that extraordinary nation that still attracts people from around the globe, the United States.