Tanners and Quarrymen: The Irish Immigrants of Westchester County

“Caught between long periods of unemployment, the natural ruggedness of the work, and the economic and social inequities of the time, the communities that sprang up around the quarries, particularly Waverly…became slums infested with crime and corruption…there was probably no place in the country that contained so many thieves as Waverly…” (Torres, 56).

Go great-great grandpa. This is the neighborhood where my family settled upon arriving in America from Ireland. Three generations of my family lived around these marble quarries, in the neighborhood of Waverly, in the town of Eastchester, New York. In the Westchester county of the late 1800’s, most of the Irish immigrants worked in the quarries. By the turn of the century, the demographics changed and the neighborhood filled with mostly Italian immigrants. It’s debatable whether Torres’s description is accurate.

There is a Waverly Street in Tuckahoe, a line of well-maintained suburban houses. There is also Waverly Square, a collection of shops in the Tuckahoe/Eastchester area. I wonder if my ancestors could have imagined their  now a well-to-do neighborhood in one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

Hugh Lamb would have attended school here. It closed in 1884.

John Lamb, an immigrant from Ireland – possibly county Westmeath – and his son, Hugh Lamb were tanners, specifically glove makers. It seems that they made the gloves for the quarrymen. I’m still researching this role in quarry neighborhoods. Since Masterton (one of the quarry owners) employed blacksmiths at various site to take care of the work horses, oxen and mules, I’m guessing that he would have had craftsmen to make work gloves for the men lifting and blasting marble.

James Joy, another Irish ancestor, was a stonecutter. Stonecutters were step up above the laboring quarryman, requiring skill and expertise to design a ton of marble into an evenly cut pillar. The quarryman was responsible for lifting the marble intact, and the stonecutter cut and dressed the marble.

I have to wonder if my folks were part of the “crime and corruption” crowd, as Torres describes. I can only imagine they stories they could tell about early life in Westchester or the conditions for Irish immigrants, leaving their homeland due to famine. So that is my task, my goal as a writer: to take the outline of history and then imagine their stories.

Source: Torres, Louis. Tuckahoe Marble: The Rise and Fall of an Industry.Purple Mountain Press, 1976.

Also take a look at: http://eastchester350.org/

Research and Road Trips

I love historical fiction. I love being transported to the past, to understand what life was like in a particular place and time through the eyes of a strong character or a gripping plot. I’ve always had a much better time studying history through novels, rather than textbooks.

I love writing historical fiction for the same reasons. I hope that one day my stories can also transport a reader to the past. My downfall is research. I adore it. Libraries, archives, old photographs and manuscripts make me clap my hands and say “goody!”

I’m working on the Famine trilogy, which begins by tracing one family’s journey from Ireland to New York.¬† Luckily, I’ve spent a few summers in Ireland. There, I was part of an archaeology field school that excavated a Famine village in County Mayo. I know how the cottages were constructed, how small they were ….how families of 6 or 8 or 10 would live their lives here, along with the cattle and other livestock. In the same structure. The outlines of the potato lazy beds still exist, small plots of about the size of my living room (11×11, if that). That patch of potatoes was intended to feed the entire family for months. When the blight hit, all the food for the common farmer was gone. Not to say their wasn’t food in the country – there was. It was being exported to the rest of Britain, and the world. Starvation ensued.

Tanners and Quarrymen is manuscript #2 in the trilogy. The rural town north of the Bronx where my ancestors settled is now a well-to-do New York suburb. The original houses are gone. However, the Eastchester Historical Society opened their doors and allow me to peruse through their photos and documents. My ancestors worked as stonecutters in the marble quarries and as tanners – making gloves for the quarrymen. These laborers helped build the towns of Eastchester, Tuckahoe, and Westhttp://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=pagansaintand-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=1157003656&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrchester County.

I wanted to see what my family experienced, as much as possible. It was their labor and hard work that allows me the luxury of blogging, to play on Twitter, to consider going back to school for another degree. It’s as if one stone is built upon another. The least I can do is tell their story as best I can, as honestly as I can. To do that, I need to trace their journey and follow their struggle, one stone at a time.

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