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Virginia: The men who built the railroads

The Virginia Fardowners: who were they?

This item on aspects of immigrant life in Virginia USA has been contributed by Kevin Donlevy, A Virginian descended from Irish immigrants, Kevin has a passionate interest in Irish history and heritage:
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. Few of these émigrés were from Ulster; the great majority coming 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 often used to indicate an unknown individual, someone strange and not from one's own area or county. This regionalism means that Irish workers would naturally align themselves with friends and kin who had the same language and even local dialect.
          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, Galway and Sligo, in the provinces of Leinster and Connacht. There were often violent fights between the two groups, and these confrontations reflected a "closed-shop” mentality, a powerful group effort to preserve the small amount of job security that this exhausting work provided. Similar labor disturbances occurred in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as in Canada.

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."

The Railroad and Sligo Immigrants to Virginia, U.S.A.

During the 1800s numerous Fardowners including, as we have seen, many immigrants from Sligo, went to work on the canal or railway sites in the state of Virginia. Records from tombstones record the burials of these Sligo immigrants:  

Patrick & Catherine Boles, who left Riverstown, Co. Sligo are buried with children John  and Francis in Lynchburg, Va.  Patrick was born c. 1812. and became a US citizen in 1854. 
James Bowles was working as a canal laborer (a "navigator") in 1851 near Lynchburg.
Martin Burns died in 1853 at age 64.  Educated in Ireland, he arrived in Va. in 1819 and was a life-long teacher in Cumberland County.
Patrick Cavanaugh died in Richmond Va. in 1845; his wife Mary died in 1843. 
Patrick Cummins, born in 1830, applied for US citizenship in 1854 in Lynchburg.
Hugh Foley, born in 1826, applied for US citizenship in Lynchburg in 1854.
Owen Kivlighan lived from c.1807 to 1892, and is buried at Thornrose Cemetery, Staunton, Va.
A. O' Connor was a merchant in Norfolk, Va. in 1815.
James O' Connor, 1759-1819, edited the Norfolk Herald newspaper; his wife Elizabeth died in 1811 at age 37. (see: archOConnor.htm)
Taaffe O' Connor was a grocer and vintner in Norfolk, Va. in the same era.
Dan Tahaney  (1815-1870) came to the US in 1835, marrying Bridget McCann in New York in 1837. They settled in Kingsville, Va. (now West Va.) and are buried at St. Vincent's Cemetery.

Historian Kevin Donleavy would like to hear from anyone with information on these exiles to Virginia (Va.), about whom very little is known to date. Kevin is part of a research collective, Clann Mhor, which has developed a Master List of some 2,000 Irish who worked on the railway in Virginia during the mid-1800s. For more information, please visit the blogsite Clann Mhor on the Web. Some railway workers died of overwork, cholera, or accidents. More went west with the railway, to Clifton Forge, Covington, West Virginia towns, Cincinnati, and finally Chicago.

Clann Mhór

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.
          An English commentator on those times 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


  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 a family of Moynihans in Knocknagree, 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.

          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.

Historian Kevin Donleavy would like to hear from anyone with further information Contact Kevin HERE

Some external links for further information:





In response to the above article Kevin Donleavy has added this insight into some aspects of living conditions at the time:

                                                          LIFE ALONG  THE  TRACKS

          In the early 1850s in central Virginia, as the work of building the railroad and blasting the tunnels got underway, some 240 Irish workers had most of their physical needs met at a country store in western Albemarle County. The store ledger for 1852 gives us some details about this ethnic working community as it emerges from the shadows of anonymity.
        This ledger consists of some ninety-odd pages for those employed on the Virginia Central Rail Road.  Each Irish worker's purchases were recorded in these daily records.  Passbooks were  issued by the VCRR to each worker, and each book was numbered.
        The men probably visited the store during the daylight hours, most of them tired and grimy with  rock dust. The variety of items purchased suggests that the store was of considerable size, for the inventory was somewhat large and varied.
        Food and clothing were the major purchases. The food basics included flour, sugar, salt, molasses, rice, beef, fish, tea, and coffee.  The store sold molasses by the gallon, salt by the bushel, and flour by the barrel.  Clothing items frequently bought were pants, flannel shirts, suspenders, shoes, drawers, socks, and overcoats.  On rare occasions, there were  luxury items bought: a satin vest, "fine Boots,"  a black hat, a green coat, a  "Figured Vest,"  and cotton and silk handkerchiefs.  Perhaps the single men intended to make a good impression upon any young available girls by sprucing themselves up with such finery.
        Other store goods included blankets, candles and boxes of matches, writing paper, soap (sold by the pound), pipes, thread, rolls of calico, plugs of tobacco, bars of brown soap, and starch (by the pound).
        On the days when large quantities of beef and fish were brought to the store, there must have been a stream of Irish buyers. These two items were sold within a few hours of their arrival.
        Here's an outline of the beef sold on a typical workday, March 9, 1852:
John Dunovan,  Passbook number 179,  bought 111 pounds.
Patrick Lee (# 238)  bought 106 pounds.
Thomas Nash (# 209)  bought 225 pounds.
John Ambrose (# 13)   bought 144 pounds.
Michael Carmody (# 185)   bought 112 pounds.
Tom Hunihan (# 236)  bought 252 pounds.
Maurice Rallehan (# 201)  bought 236 pounds.
John Dillon (# 203) bought 113 pounds.
        On that same day, local man William Graves purchased 512 pounds of beef, presumably to feed Irish workers who boarded with him. Another local, Samuel Morris, bought 106 pounds.  In all, some 1917 pounds of meat were sold that day. The beef was probably recently butchered and roughly dressed.
        When eggs came to the store, they were quickly snatched up, according to the ledger pages. On February 25 and 26, John Dillon got four dozen, Thomas Nash got nine dozen, and Michael Mungoven got six dozen. A few days later, Mungoven returned for four dozen more eggs and fifty pounds of bacon.
        Whenever mackerel was present, it probably came in large barrels of salty brine. On March 4, 1852, Tim Holehan bought four dozen of these fishies, John Dunnovan bought two dozen, Denis Callahan bought three dozen, and Michael Mungoven bought three dozen.
        When Martin Nee was hired onto the railway work force, he visited the store for the first time in April of 1852.  On the 3rd of the month, this newcomer was sold thirty pounds of beef and two blankets. Two days later he popped in for two pounds of black pepper. He bought fourteen pounds of fish on the 6th, as well as two barrels of flour. He returned on April 8 to carry away 38 pounds of bacon, and on the 16th he came back for an additional 13 pounds of bacon.
        Most of these emigre Irish must have thought at times they had arrived in the land of milk and honey, bainne agus mil.  They knew only too well the horrors of food unavailability and starvation as they labored with pick, shovel, and crude explosives, but they were on their long way from underdog to citizen, from iochtaran to cathroir.
        The rural establishment was situated close enough to the tunnels that some workers stopped in every day for their small bit of tobacco. Perhaps they would pass some time going to the brick post office, which was located beside the Brooksville Inn where civil engineer Claudius Crozet lodged.  The majority of these Irish were single men, mostly young, and they devised ways to occupy their off hours: tending cabbage and potato plots, catching a needed nap, discussing their work conditions, or talking about Repeal efforts in Ireland. (These activities aimed at dis-establishing the union of Ireland and England imposed by London in 1801.)  Certainly some would have tended their mountain-spring efforts to brew highly-sought uisce beatha, pure whiskey,  among the oaks, pines, and tulip-poplars high in the hills.
        We can easily speculate that there would have been music, dancing, and singing among these Gaelic arrivals, some of whom knew each other in Ireland.  A fiddler would have used free time to go over tunes with a melodeon player for a Saturday night hooley. The dancers would have included men taking the women's places in some formations.  Many of these exiles would know such set dances from Cork as the Newmarket or Skibbereen or Ballyvourney steps. Or they would  " step it out "  to such Kerry formations as the Dingle, Glencar, or Kenmare sets.
        Songs would have accompanied these transplants who had come  "over the western ocean."  Many would have known  "The Jail of Clonmel," which had been put into English by Cork writer J.J. Callanan.  The verses focus on a wandering spailpin farm hand from the Iveragh peninsula in Kerry who traveled up to the Duhallow area searching for work.
        Favorite Cork songs would have included  "The Groves of Blarney"  and a comical piece, " The Peeler and the Goat."  There might have been ballads from well-known Thomas Moore.
Political songs would have been sung on occasion: "The West's Asleep,"  and  "O'Donnell Abu,"
and  "A Nation Once Again."  Some singers would have given out "Mollie Ban" or a version of  "Bold Jack Donohue"   (hanged in Australia in 1828).  Kerry emigrants could sing  "The Outlaw of Loch Lene."  Some here in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1850s might have already heard verses about the rescue of the Fenian political prisoners from Australia, Sooner or later, these Irish would hear Americans singing  the cowboy ballad, "The Streets of Laredo."  They'd show a smile of recognition, for the melody came from Ireland and is used in such songs as "Phelim Brady the Bard of Armagh "   and the lament for O'Sullivan Beare.
        Here in Virginia, the Irish stayed together, realizing that their strength was in their numbers and kin and friends. The sight of the hills and mountains gave them mental relief from their arduous labor, but they would have been constantly reminded of the land they were forced to leave behind.

























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