Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut

Oubliette – a secret dungeon with access only through a trapdoor in its ceiling

Like many people I have a fascination with those ghosts that won’t be silenced. Our disappeared dead who despite the odds find a way back from the unmarked graves in which they have beeen hidden. In the last few weeks I’ve come across a number of this kind of ghost story. Most startlingly, the tragedy of Duffy’s Cut.

Yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph reports on the burial in Clonoe, Co Tyrone, of Catherine Burns a widow of 29 who was one of 57 who left Ireland in 1832 to escape destitution. All those who emigrated were dead within six weeks. Not only of cholera, but, there were those like Catherine who were murdered out of fear of contagion and prejduice at Duffy’s Cut (Philadelphia).  No word was sent back to their relatives – Philip Duffy, the overseer, ordered the shanty town they lived in to be obliterated. (Full article HERE).

I do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. Searching for ghosts is bound to be a fruitless waste of time. But searching for ghost stories can be important and meaningful.

This quote is from an article about what prompted the investigation. The article is about a sort of ghost busters operation which the author doesn’t think will come to much in terms of actual ghosts but the point he makes about legends of hauntings – using the example of Duffy’s Cut – makes fascinating reading.

Here it is the legend of spectral Irish labourers dancing in the woods which ” helped two Immaculata professors locate a mass grave. Duffy’s Cut, along the rails in the Malvern woods, is the burial site of 57 Irish immigrants”. (Full article HERE)

I’m not sure what motivated these professors to become so dedicated to bringing proper rest to those forgotten emigrants as to work as ‘fathers’ in this present day for them to bring them home for proper burial. (See short documentary film ‘The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut’.)

I think more generally we may have a lot to thank them for because it’s been on my mind for some time how little we know of our pre-famine history. In my family, I can trace back to the end of the 19th century but really nothing more. It’s like there is a sort of sandbar in the way. I don’t remember anybody ever asking. The ‘stranger than fiction’ story of Duffy’s Cut gives a voice to what went before – even if it is a chilling one. Begins to flesh out some of the world that led up to the famine, may give back some kind of human (as opposed to historical) continuity as more comes to light.

But in the meantime, Catherine Burns has come home to Co. Tyrone and the others are finding their way back to lie hopefully somewhere close to those relatives who must have wondered what had become of those that they had ‘waked’ on Derry Quays not so many years before they themselves went on one way or another. May God be with the souls of the dead – as my grandmother would have said.

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