Genocide in Suburban Philadelphia: Duffy’s Cut

1832: fifty seven men are buried.

They were railroad workers, newly arrived from Ireland. It was hard labor, leveling a hill for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. People called this stretch “the hardest mile” due to its tedious, backbreaking load.  They wanted a better life. Instead, within six weeks they all disappeared . . . from their families, and almost from the pages of history. An entire railroad shanty, 57 lives, wiped out.

Residents claimed they had fallen victim to the cholera epidemic that was sweeping the East Coast that summer. But mysteries and inconsistencies remained. A local man with the notorious name “Cromwell” was associated with vigilantes. And cholera has never had a 100% mortality rate.

Recent exhumation reveals one skull riven by ax blade, another shattered by the force of a bullet, lead recovered at the scene. The trees grow tall at the burial site in Malvern, nourished by extinguished life.

Not too long ago signs filled American businesses: “No Irish, no dogs.” We Irish have assimilated so well that many have forgotten our initial despised status. As with many immigrants, the Irish helped build this nation doing the jobs nobody else wanted.  And in Malvern, PA: were murdered.

Raise a loud huzzah to all immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) who have helped build this nation.

And this month, watch the Smithsonian Channel special about The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut. Tomorrow: Saturday, June 30 at 10 a.m.; Friday, July 6 at 9 a.m.; Sunday, July 8 at 6 p.m.

Read Professor Watson’s book, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad. Greenwood Publishing: 2006.

Listen to the song “The Hardest Mile” by Celtic band Dropkick Murphys:

For Further Information

The Duffy’s Cut Project at Immaculata University and Duffy’s Cut Museum in the Gabriele Library.

Duffy’s Cut Facebook Page:

Smithsonian Channel:

Photo credits: (I am believing them that this is public domain. If you think I have used this phot erroneously, please contact me.)


The Soul in Fairy (and Faerie) Tales

“Every night when he says his prayers, he prays for the fairies, that they’ll be saved on the last day”—Eddie Lenihan, contemporary Irish storyteller

Why does the Little Mermaid want to become human? If you only know the Disney version, you’re missing great depth.

‘ “Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?” ’

The Little Mermaid wants a soul; she wants heaven and eternity; she wants God. She is happy in her beautiful underwater kingdom, but like all of us, she wants more.

Her goal is marriage with the prince because that is the mechanism by which she partakes in his conjoined soul. (The traditional notion of marriage as sacrament remains opaque to my own Protestant upbringing, so I may have to return to this idea at a later date.)

In my favorite faerie story, one of the Good Neighbors—(Themselves, the sidhe, the fey; it is discourteous to speak openly of the fairies)—either ask directly, or solicit a mortal to ask on their behalf:  ‘ “Go and ask Father Horrigan to tell us whether our souls will be saved at the last day, like the souls of good Christians . . .” ’

The answer, like most folk stories, depends on the version, and the sensibilities of the teller. In some, the priest attempts to catechize them, but they persist in saying the Our Father “who wert in heaven . . .” In T. Crofton Croker’s tale of the Priest’s Supper (collected by Yeats), the priest tells his parishioner to go back to the Good Folk and tell them to ask the priest himself, directly. The terrified fairies scatter; it is inconceivable that they personally encounter God’s servant. Eddie Lenihan’s contemporary variant has an implicit negative, with the fallen beings murdering the responding priest in rage or retaliation. Thereafter, the Bishop advises his priests to give an equivocal reply: “That won’t be known till the end o’ time, till the Last Day.”

Why do these mythological characters long for an immortal soul?

To be sure, folklorically, sociologically, the question expresses the anxieties and ambivalences of the storyteller and his audience: it is we humans who want to find out about our own eternal destinies. The storyteller is projecting, or expressing, cultural concerns through the story.

Yet—perhaps it is my inner child who wishes all fairy stories were literally, and not merely metaphorically, true—I always approach these tales with a what if wonder, with the same suspension of disbelief I extend to a good novel in which the fictional world can become more real than so-called reality.

I am Irish enough in this: Do I believe in fairies? No, not really. (clap, clap, clap.) All the same, I’m not cutting down that thorn tree or leveling that barrow. I want the supernatural world to exist.

Today, we have humans longing to be supernatural creatures. We have LARPs (live action role playing) with people dressing up as werewolves and vampires, wearing black, running and playing games throughout the streets of our towns and cities.  I have seen self-proclaimed vampires on talk shows, some of whom have fanged dental implants and who, so they claim, actually drink blood. In today’s modern world, humans wish to become other, but in the traditional stories, it is the creature who with jealousy longs to be human. And not merely human: mortal (even to embrace the slings and arrows of uncomprehended pain) and, moreover, mortal-as-eternal: in unity, or potential unity, with God.

Perhaps the mythological creatures know that which we humans have forgotten: that we were created for union with God—and not merely in the afterlife, but here and now.

May we each live our lives like a faerie: enjoying the pleasures of each day while striving for eternity, in touch with the supernatural and aware of our transformed-otherworldly nature, mindful of the end of time and longing for the immortality which is union with God.


Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Available online through Project Gutenberg,

“The Annotated Little Mermaid.” Sur La Lune Fairy Tales.   (An all around excellent site for all things fairy tale related.)

Croker, T. Crofton. “The Priest’s Supper.” Available online through the Internet Sacred Texts Archive,

Lenihan, Eddie. Meeting The Other Crowd: the Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. N.Y.: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnum, 2003.

Panzer, Dori. “Eddie Lenihan: A Storyteller in Modern Ireland.” Expedition, Vol. 46 n. 1 University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthroplogy.

Yeats, W. B. ed., The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. Available online through the Internet Sacred Texts Archive. (essentially a reprint of the Croker indicated above.)


According to the classic source from Professor F.J. Child, Thomas the Rhymer was a bard whose supernatural tale is recounted in the English and Scottish Popular Ballads #37. According to historical records, attested through land deeds, Thomas of Ercildoune was an actual person who lived in 13th Century Scotland.

The story:

One day Thomas met a woman so spectacular he dropped everything and bowed low. “Hail to thee, Queen of Heaven,” he said.

The Lady demurred, kissed him, and bade him follow: she was the Queen of Faerie. They travel for forty days and forty nights and cross a river of blood beneath a sky with no moon nor sun. In some versions, they pass a garden with a prominent tree, and as Thomas reaches for the apple, his mentress cautions against the “very fruit o’ hell” and serves him bread and claret wine instead.

Eventually, they come to a three-pronged intersection. In a tale cribbed from Christ’s teaching on the broad and narrow gates, the narrow road beset with thorns is the path of righteousness after which, says our balladeer, “few enquire.” The broad road—the wide, easy path—is the road to hell “tho’ some call it the road to heaven.” A third path, unique to fairie lore, is the “bonny road” to “fair Elfland.”

The Fairie Queen gives Thomas a taboo: he must not speak in her court.  He must serve her for seven years (or, seven years and a day). Eventually, when the Fairie Court’s periodic teine (tithe) to hell comes due, court machinations seek to sacrifice the most readily available mortal, and the Faerie Queen fears for his life because he is so handsome (“leesome and sae strang.”) As a parting gift, she gives him his wages:  True Speech, the “tongue that can never lie.”

My poems

Eggplant Literary Productions has a fabulous “transdimensional library” of books which have “never existed” or “haven’t been written yet.”

Therein, you will find my very own love songs for the Fairie Queen ostensibly penned by Thomas the Rhymer.

View the library catalog card here:

Also check out the interplanetary classifieds

and a sorcerer’s income tax return while you’re there.


Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Available online through the Internet Sacred Text Archive at