Researchers Make their way to Arranmore for Clues to US Dig

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This article appeared in the Donegal Democrat 10 Jan 2011

Pictured, from left: Bianca Fernandez, Jackie Thomas, Professor Rotman, Kasia Ahern and Rhiannon Duke. Bianca, Jackie and Rhiannan are expected on Árainn Mhór next month for additional research. Photo: Séamus Ó Concheanainn.

Professor Deb Rotman of Notre Dame University is leading a team of students on an archaeological dig in the United States that has sent them to Árainn Mhór for additional research.


The question of how an American university with a French name was dubbed "The Fighting Irish" eventually led Notre Dame University Professor Deb Rotman to Donegal's Árainn Mór.

While the story of Irish emigrants in America's big East Coast cities has been well documented, less work has been done on those emigrants who travelled to more rural parts of the country.

What the archaeology professor learned was that South Bend, Indiana, home to the famed university, was also home to a large, 19th-century Irish enclave that was created by Notre Dame's founder, who employed Irish labourers to build his school.

But "if you really want to understand Irish America, you really should look at Beaver Island," Deb said. The professor learned about the island nearly four years ago, but did not conduct her first excavation there until this past summer.

Beaver Island is already familiar to the people of Árainn Mór. The island, located about 30 miles off the Michigan coast in the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, was twinned with Árainn Mór in 2000. A monument on Árainn Mór features a beaver for Beaver Island, an otter representing Árainn Mór and a fish to represent the links between the two.

The original connection was made long before the islands were twinned. Beaver Island was home to many emigrants from the Donegal island in the 19th century, and Beaver was virtually a Donegal Gaeltacht in the years around the turn of the 20th century.

The web site for the Arranmore Ferry credits a Charlie O'Donnell, his wife and their children with being the first Árainn Mór emigrants to Beaver Island after being evicted from their home. A number of families followed, and by 1880 there were estimated to be more than 250 families with Árainn Mór connections on Beaver Island.

"Once I decided I wanted to see Beaver Island, I decided I should see Árainn Mór," the archaeology professor said. She came to Árainn Mór in May of this year. "When I was there in May it was very quiet, but it was just starkly beautiful."

Deb had thought the islands would have been so physically similar, that for the Irish emigrants Beaver Island "would be like being home". But what she discovered was somewhat different: Unlike Árainn Mór, Beaver Island is fairly heavily wooded. Deb now believes instead that the Donegal newcomers were drawn in part by the remoteness. Even today, Beaver Island is a little more than two hours from the mainland by ferry.

"That was familiar," the archaeologist said, noting that while Árainn Mór is not as far from the mainland -- the ferry takes about 20 minutes from Burtonport -- the Donegal island "is very much on the periphery". And Beaver Island waters boasted excellent fishing, another draw for the emigrant islanders.

Deb described Beaver Island's location this way: The US state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, with the thumb on the right. Beaver Island would be "basically off your ring finger on the mitten of Michigan," Deb said. With an area of about 53 square miles, Beaver is the largest of the seven islands in its archipelago.

The archaeological dig on Beaver Island has turned up a host of items -- glassware, toys, buckles, even household waste. "We're finding everything you would expect in terms of the kind of household items that people would use," Deb said. It's still early days.

"We're still processing the artefacts," Deb said. She said that from the time archaeologists and researchers get out into the field, it takes about a year to have each item excavated washed, identified and processed, "and then we can do the analysis".

Archaeology is very time-intensive work. She explained that they excavate one thin layer of soil at a time, to ensure that any found artefacts are associated with a particular layer. Think of it: They are excavating about half a metre of soil, but they are doing it maybe three centimetres at a time.

"It takes a long time to process through all those," she said. The deposits they are finding on Beaver seem to be clearly stratified, which means "as you dig deeper into the ground, the further back in time you go," Deb said.

Some of her students plan to travel to Árainn Mór next month, to continue their research. They will speak with some of the island's older residents to learn more about life on Árainn Mór in years past.

The students will also map derelict cottages on the island, and plan to do research in the National Archives and National Library in Dublin, as well as at the folklore collection at University College Dublin. Deb and her students spent a week in Ireland before they began the dig, to learn more about rural 19th-century life and culture before undertaking the excavation.

The Beaver Island Project: Historical Archaeology of 19th-Century Irish America in the Midwest, is well documented at the web site,

The site not only details questions researchers hope to address, but also provides students' research into different aspects of life at the time, such as agricultural labour, domesticity and temperance. The site also enables visitors to post comments in response to the work.

"We would love for people to share their thoughts on agricultural labour, or whatever it might be," Deb said. "If there is a story they want to tell, if they want to contribute in some way to the project in terms of their knowledge and history, we would love for them to be involved. We would like this to be a community endeavour, both Beaver Island and Árainn Mór."

The Beaver Island Historical Society is an official partner in the project and Deb has committed to spending at least three years on the work. Their initial dig is at a homestead dating back to middle of the 19th century that was donated to the society.

"The occupational history of the house is really a snapshot of the spectrum of the historical occupation of the island," Deb said.

Deb, director of undergraduate archaeology studies at Notre Dame, said many of her students are Irish-American, but the project has drawn students from other backgrounds. "There are so many interesting variables and chapters in this story that really anyone could find something that piques their interest," she said.

And she said the research the students bring home from Árainn Mór will better enable them to analyse the artefacts they find and develop a clearer picture of 19th-century life on Beaver Island.

The emigrants from Árainn Mór "may have physically left behind a place, whether Ireland or some other country, but they very much brought Irish cultural traditions with them," Deb said.

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Lindel Buckley

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