Growing up in Massachusetts, I was well aware of my frequently mentioned–though quite distant—Irish heritage. My grandfather, Eddie McInerny, was my link to my Irish legacy, and it was a big source of pride in my family. Like many Bostonians, I view St. Patrick’s Day is a major holiday and have fond memories of going to the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade as a young child. You can imagine my excitement after finding two possible Irish-American artifacts in the Boott Mill Boarding House collection from Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE).
The Irish began immigrating to America in large numbers during the 1840’s, but had been coming in lesser numbers for well over a hundred years due to earlier famines and disease outbreaks. Historians cite many reasons for the sudden jump in immigration, but the major reason for the mid-nineteenth-century boom was the great potato famine, which began in 1845 and ended around 1852. Because of the famine, approximately 1 million people emigrated from Ireland to America and a handful of other countries including England, Canada, and Australia.
When Irish immigrants got to America, they needed jobs. Their arrival coincided with the opening of textile mills in the Northeast. The Lowell Boott Mill opened in 1835 and was one of the major opportunities for newly arriving immigrants. While we were cataloging the Lowell Boott Mill Boarding House archeology collection, we came across two artifacts that could have belonged to Irish immigrants who worked in the mill and lived at the boarding house. The first one is a glass button with a painted green four-leaf clover on it.
The three-leaf clover, or shamrock, is for many the symbol of Ireland. The link between the shamrock and Ireland goes back to St. Patrick when the three leaves were linked to the Holy Trinity. The three leaves are also said to represent faith, hope, and love. The word “shamrock” comes from an Irish word, seamróg, which is the diminutive form of “summer plant,” and refers specifically to a three-leaf clover. Joseph Piercy elaborates in his book “Symbols: A Universal Language,” that the four-leaf clover is not the same thing as a shamrock, but that it is seen as a symbol of good luck in Ireland. Wearing or using an artifact with a three- or four-leaf clover could have meant many things for the wearer.
The second artifact has shamrocks on it, the symbol of Ireland. The clay pipe reads “Erin” on one side and …“One” on the other. Unlike the glass button, we can definitively link this object to Ireland. Aside from having Ireland’s symbol the shamrock on it, the pipe mentions “Erin,” which is the word for Ireland in the Irish language.
In the NMSC archeology lab, we encounter clay pipes–both bowl fragments and stem fragments–frequently. The majority of these clay pipe fragments are undecorated, but every once in a while, we come across a unique pipe that can give us information about the person who bought and used it. (If you follow our blog, perhaps you remember a previous post about a very special Pipe With Personality!) The pipe from the Lowell Boott Mill shows the user’s link to Ireland. Native Bostonians in the 1840s were largely of English descent. As a group they did not particularly welcome the tens of thousands of Irish arriving and seeking jobs and shelter. The “Erin” pipe from the Boott Mill may have represented Irish pride and resolve in a time of anti-Irish sentiment.
As a museum technician in the NMSC Archeology Lab, I am lucky to see thousands of artifacts from many wonderful sites in the Northeast Region of the National Park Service. Sometimes, it is nice to take a step back and focus on one or two objects in a collection and think about the people they may represent. In this case, perhaps the “Erin” clay pipe was used by a proud Irishman who wished to proclaim his native culture in a time of discrimination. Perhaps the four-leaf-clover button was worn by a young Irish woman seeking good fortune amidst the opportunities of this industrial city. We cannot know for certain the stories represented by these two artifacts, but the possibilities are what make my job exciting. Through objects, we get a chance to learn about people from the past who may not make it into our history books, and this is exactly what these two objects do for me.
From everyone here at NMSC, we wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Ayto, Eric G. Clay Tobacco Pipes. Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications Ltd, 2002.
Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry. Living on the Boott: Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
Piercy, Joseph. Symbols; A Universal Language. Published by Michael O’Mara , 2013.
Wisniewski, Debra J. Antique & Collectible Buttons: Identification & Values. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1997.