Clann Mhór


                           FARDOWNERS   ---   WHO WILL BE THE UNDERDOGS  ?

         The word  "fardowner"   appeared in America at least as early as the 1830s, and referred to people from Ireland who came to obtain work on the new systems of canals and railways. The word seems to have been applied only to immigrant workers who were Catholic, not Protestant : "The idea of hundreds of Irish Protestants working on canals and railroads...defies commonly accepted patterns." 1   Moreover, few of these emigres were from Ulster; the great majority came from the other three provinces, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht (Connaught).

         The expression derives from the Irish language (Gaelic).  Fear donn  literally means the dark man, but is used to indicate an unknown individual, someone strange and not from one's own area or county. This regionalism or particularism means that Irish workers would naturally align themselves with local friends and kin who had the same language and even local dialect. 2

         The dominant question becomes, which group gets the work, and which group becomes the underdog, the iochtaran ?  During the construction of the railroad through the Blue Ridge Mountains (1850-1860), Corkonians considered Fardowners as dangerous rivals for their jobs.

        The first workers came from counties Cork and Kerry in the province of Munster. The Fardowners, despised as "labor squatters," arrived from such counties as Longford and Galway, in the provinces of Leinster and Connacht. There were violent fights between the two groups, and these punch-up confrontations reflected a "closed-shop"  mentality  3,  a powerful group effort to preserve the small amount of job security that this exhausting work provided. 4   Similar labor disturbances occurred in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as in Canada.

         1. Jay Martin Perry. Shillelaghs, Shovels, and Secrets: Irish Immigrant Societies and the Building of Indiana Internal Improvements.  MA thesis (2009), History Department, Indiana University, page 7.

         2. On interpreting fear donn, see Perry, op.cit.  Also useful was electronic communication between the author and historian Raymond O'Sullivan, Feb. 25, 2010. See also the entry for Donn by Rionach ui Ogain in The Encyclopedia of Ireland (edited Brian Lalor, 2003), p.306. Writer Paudy Scully has noted an O'Leary family in County Cork, who in recent memory  "were called the fardowns"  (electronic communication to the author, June 4, 2011). And people living in County Donegal have worn the badge of Fardowner, in Bernard Share, Slanguage (1997), p. 89.

         3. Perry, op. cit., p.55.

         4. " The violence that dispossessed people are capable of"  is an enlightening phrase from Susan and Thomas Cahill,  A Literary Guide to Ireland (Scribner's, 1973), p. 42.

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         The above remarks are only intended as a brief introduction to one aspect of the cultural and historical research in which the Clann Mhor group is engaged. Some further items can broaden the discussion.

         It is useful to note that in the 1850s some five thousand Irish arrived in Virginia. 5  They were desperately looking for work, lodging, and sustenance. They were part of the million refugees (a low estimate) who were fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland. As scores of historians agree, they were also fleeing the spirit-breaking poverty that stemmed from the continual presence of the foreign government and troops in Ireland.

         A modern English commentator informs us that  "rural Ireland was an object of ruthless foreign landlordism. Indeed...peasant landholding, farming, and family life...were products of a long history of colonial exploitation. Through the nineteenth century, [English] landlords, helped by both agricultural policies and military actions designed in Westminster, continued to extract whatever surplus they could from their lands and tenants."  6

         The Irish railroaders just as frequently had a third competing element, Connachtmen. The  antagonisms were the same, and varied only as to which group became engaged the earliest at the railroad labor sites.

         There was labor unrest of another sort at the Blue Ridge tunnels in the 1850s, as there was at other railroad sites in the US.  On numerous occasions, when the "Irish boys who pushed the steel"  felt exploited and over-worked, and their discussions with management brought few favorable results, they went on strike.  David Gleeson cites militancy among Irish workers in Savannah, Memphis, Norfolk, Charleston, Richmond, and New Orleans, as well as other venues in Georgia, Maryland, and North Carolina. 7

         A semi-final note.  In the renowned collections of Irish tunes collected by Francis O'Neill, there is a piece entitled "The Fardown Farmer,"  noted as a double jig in 6/8 time.  And in the early 1900s,  the singer Jerry Mahoney recorded in the US a song called  "They Were All Far Downs But Me."

         5. David T. Gleeson. The Irish in the South 1815-1877  (2001),  p.27.

         6. Hugh Brody, Inishkillane --- Change and Decline in the West of Ireland  (1973),  p.9.

         7. Gleeson, op. cit.,  p.52.

        By Kevin Donleavy