Vintage Views: Walking through the cemetery

By JAMES SPAIN

For the Monitor

Published: 02-18-2023 2:17 PM

On this February day, I walk the hallowed grounds of the Blossom Hill Cemetery and the Old North Cemetery. I stop to visit and pray for my ancestors, the four generations that have preceded me here in Concord. I find them in their eternal rest and bid them each a fond thought. They rest here in this hallowed ground with other immigrants that arrived from Ireland over a century and a half ago.

As I visit my family members, I notice the gathering of very Irish names buried nearby. The Irish did indeed stay together and watch over one another, as they passed the surviving Irishmen kept a keen eye on the surviving family members to make sure all was well. To this day and for eternity the early immigrants from Ireland rest together, for there is comfort in numbers.

As my ancestors still toiled on their tenant farms in Ireland, the little town of Concord, New Hampshire, was growing. Our Main Street boasted unique shops where you could buy whatever it might be that you need. In the year 1830, the population of Concord was 3,702 people. In 1840, that number increased to 8,540. Though there were indeed some Irish people walking that Main Street in Concord in the year 1840, the great influx of Catholic Irish was yet to arrive.

The very first Catholic Irish resident of Concord was a man named Richard Ronan. He resided here in Concord for many years with his family and passed away in 1840. It is said that Thomas Spellman took his remains to Lowell for internment. Spellman felt obligated to take care of Richard Ronan’s remains because he was the only professed Catholic living in Concord in 1840.

It was sometime later, in 1846 the great migration started to flow from Ireland across the Atlantic to the shores of America. The great famine devastated Ireland claiming thousands of lives, the potato famine is still spoken about in many Irish households to this day. There are countless stories known by thousands of famine victims, stories that have been handed from one generation to the next. Stories of sadness that we remember to this day. I know my Irish story for it was handed from one generation to the next by those ancestors that rest in the hallowed ground on Blossom Hill and the Old North Cemeteries.

I have been told by my father, and he by his father before, about four tenant farmers working the fertile Irish soil, producing potatoes each year with the hope the crops would produce enough profit for the family to survive. It was my great, great grandfather Martin Spain and his three brothers – Michael, Thomas and James – that worked the tenant farm by day and night. The crops were failing day by day as they succumbed to the potato blight. The crops did not grow, the tenant farmers lost their opportunities to farm. Life, as they knew it for decades, was changing, with change there were decisions to be made. The Spain brothers placed their shovels, picks and old plow in a shed, sold their old horse, packed their few belongings and hoped for survival as they arranged for their trip to America in 1849.

The brothers were not able to purchase passage so they followed the thousands before them, signing documents to become indentured servants. They promised some years of labor in exchange for their passage to America. Their contract placed them on a ship sailing from Galway Bay to Boston. As the cold rain fell my great, great grandfather held his few belongings in a canvas sack, his cherished Irish fiddle in his hands and his deep pockets filled with nothing but dreams for the future.

The brothers sailed across the sea and arrived in Boston with thousands of other people from Ireland, with nightmares the poor luck bestowed upon them by the potato famine would follow.

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Their agreement dictated they would arrive in the port of Boston and travel by wagon to the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. Once in Manchester, they were assigned housing and provided with meals as they worked 18-hour days in the mills alongside the Merrimack River in Manchester. This was their life for the next years. They worked long hours in poor conditions, consumed small meals, and slept few hours. Sometimes our journeys are difficult in life, we must encounter storms, hills and exhaustion to arrive in a better place.

Martin, Michael, Thomas and James survived and fulfilled their contracts in the mills of Manchester, working shoulder to shoulder with people from the same country across the ocean.

With their servitude completed the brothers planned for their future, seeking employment while never losing track of their dreams. While working in Manchester each of the brothers made many friends and the Irish roots bound them together. They met women from Ireland working with them in similar situations, they were married and kept planning.

My grandfather Martin met a young lady named Bridget Madden. Bridget was destined to become my great-, great-grandmother and spend many happy years with Martin. The brothers and their new wives packed once again and traveled north to Concord, New Hampshire, a place with many Catholic Irish with similar backgrounds. They were welcomed heartily, found employment and started their families.

Many Irishmen arrived and found jobs on the railroads and in the canals. There was a new opportunity developing in Concord on Rattlesnake Hill working as quarrymen in the granite industry. The Irish were not averse to any hard labor for their famine history in Ireland strengthened their minds and their muscles. Known as good employees the jobs became available in Concord and the four brothers walked to the hill and long careers in the granite quarries. I have been told time and again that my grandparents and uncles from Ireland arrived as strangers in Concord and experienced a very warm reception. Many acts of kindness were shown and friendships grew over the years. The large influx from Ireland settled, established long careers, had many children and purchased homes. Opportunities in America were not exaggerated and news of this great fortune spread back to Ireland with many more traveling to America in the coming years.

It was a short time before my family arrived in Concord that the thoughts of the growing community in Concord drifted across the sea to Ireland. The people were still in desperate need of relief from this tragic famine. The people of Concord established an Irish Relief Fund to raise both awareness and funds to help those in need back in Ireland. A committee was appointed and the group organized. The people of Concord gathered clothing, food, general provisions and funds to send to Ireland. The citizens of Concord sent their accumulated donations in 1847 to Boston where they were loaded upon ships destined back across the ocean. Our ancestors donated $1,293, adding this to the donations accumulated from across New England. The people of Ireland received the gifts from America with great gratitude in 1847, saving many lives of those living in poverty.

My great-great-grandparents spent the rest of their lives living in the North End of Concord in the shadow of Rattlesnake Hill. Their son, my great-grandfather, purchased his very own quarry and sent to Ireland for his loving bride, Mary Ellen Cooley. The family continued to grow, knowing the sacrifices made by those that came before them only by stories from the tenant farms in Ireland.

To this very day, I have my great-great grandfather’s fiddle from Ireland. Long silent, it serves as a reminder of his journey from Ireland to Concord, New Hampshire, with his pockets containing nothing but his dreams.

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