Cleveland Irish: Fardown Getdown
by Francis McGarry
In August 1839, Irish laborers working on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal feared labor reductions and the loss of their jobs. The job was to work from sunup to sundown, mostly in a ditch covered in mud and water. This was tough physical labor for workers familiar with injury, maiming and death.
A job was better than no job and canallers fought to work. The C&O Canal Company experienced ten major labor disturbances from 1834 to 1840. On August 11th, 1839, about 100 armed Irish workers from the Paw Paw Tunnel bordering Maryland and West Virginia, marched on German workers near Little Orleans, Maryland. The violence resulted in twenty-six Irishmen arrested, and many of those sent to prison, a couple for twenty years.
In January 1834, word on the canal was jobs were going to be cut and there were financial issues. Some work crews were being dismissed without pay. Over 700 Longfords armed with guns and clubs attacked a settlement of Corkonians. Ten Corkonians were killed, some shot in the head, and the Corkonian shanties were burned.
The militia was deployed
and workers that were arrested were soon released as calm was restored. President Andrew Jackson ordered the Secretary of War to send two companies to “put down the riotous assembly.”
The Canal Company’s president was John Eaton, Jackson’s former Secretary of War and close friend. The C&O Canal only made it sixty miles past the site of the 1834 riot, 100 miles short of the planned route.
Irish workers on the Wabash and Erie Canal battled each other. Fardowners (Longfords) and Corkonians participated in the Indiana Irish Wars. Some historians interpreted this as Catholic and Protestant violence similar to Ireland. That has been proven to be incorrect.
In the 1820s and 1830s, pre-famine migration included large numbers of Irish from County Cork and the Province of Munster as well as County Longford and the provinces of Leinster and Connacht. These folks were almost exclusively Catholic. American newspapers support this immigration data. On the Illinois and Michigan Canal, Corkonians and Fardowners agreed to a temporary peace to attend Mass together.
Canal workers journals indicate that ‘far down’ indicates the ‘lower counties.’ This is not a geographical reference, but a reference to elevation. It was applied by Corkonians as a derogatory term traced to the 9th century in Ireland and is first seen in North American vernacular in the 1830s.
Between 1815 and 1834, over 400,000 Irish departed for North America. Sixty percent of the 1830s Irish immigrants were laborers or servants. In 1825 that number was thirty-eight percent.
The Erie Canal
was completed in 1825 and was considered a great success. Immigrants arrived as states endeavored to increase domestic trade and commercial exchange with more canals.
Only about half of the Irish immigrants landing in American traveled in family groups. The majority were young, single and male. Female Irish immigration would be more numerous post famine. Irish families in the 1830s were more likely to move to England rather than the U.S. These Irish immigrants arrived ready for deployment to build canals and then railroads. Most had no better option; if they did, they took it. No one dreamt of creating paths at least 60 feet wide by “pick, shovel, auger, wheelbarrow and cart powered by man, oxen, horses and gunpowder.”
Illness and epidemic were common and living conditions were horrid. One estimate notes that alcohol consumption of canallers between twelve and twenty ounces of whiskey during the workday. That does not factor in post-work consumption.
After a labor riot near Sydney, Ohio in 1840, newspapers bemoan the amount of whiskey on the Canal and its symptoms of “diminished vigor, impaired health, broken constitutions.”
You Get Riots
The tough work, irregular pay, poor living conditions and constant threat of injury or death contributed to the development of frustration, anger, loneliness and alienation. Add to that streams of whiskey and imported regional antagonisms and you get riots.
Regional rivalries and faction fighting began with mass brawls between families/clans in Ireland. Such fights involved groups of men numbering 100 to over 1,000, organized along kinship lines. They would engage in prearranged combat at fairs, markets and festivals. The village of Ballingary in County Limerick witnessed intense faction fighting between Shanavests and Caravats in 1833. Stones and pistols were utilized by both groups.
When the militia raided the Fardowners following the 1839 riot on the C&O Canal, documents were found that indicated cryptic communications, including passwords and signs for their membership. This is indicative of secret societies in Ireland.
In America it was not a new fight, just new surroundings. The violence was not limited to the 1830s. The Plain Dealer reported on riots in the 1850s.
“On Saturday morning last, as we learn from the Herald, the Irish riots were renewed in Steubenville. About four hundred Fardowns were assembled in the morning under the command of one Collins, who was lodged in jail for disorderly conduct.
The party then started to their stations, under the surveillance of some policemen, who, however, could not keep them from breaking the peace, for, as soon as they arrived within gun-shot of the Corkonian shanties, on Section 18, in the neighborhood of Bloomfield, the commenced firing bullets into the habitations of their countrymen, who, in company with their women and children, fled to the hills and farm houses for protection. From this point we quote the Herald’s report verbatim: ‘When the shanties were depopulated, the Fardowners entered, took possession of whatever they could carry off, destroyed what they could not, and set two shanties on fire and burned them up.’”
It is unsettling to read these accounts of Irish killing Irish. It is difficult to grasp the life of a canaller, I have only run a wheelbarrow for a summer and Sergio only brought us coffee. McGarry’s are more gentlemen scholars. However, you don’t get to ignore the parts of history you don’t like.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is an assistant principal and history teacher. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.