FAIR HILL — In the 1680s, an influx of Ulster Scots, or Scots-Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland, came to Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Many followed the Presbyterian minister the Rev. Francis Makemie to Somerset County about 1683. Certainly there had been Ulster Scots arriving earlier, but a larger wave swept over the shore following Makemie’s arrival.
In the early 1700s, a number of these early immigrant families to Somerset County broke away to become pioneers of new lands in the north of Maryland. Among the families that made the move are many familiar to Cecil County residents, including Alexander, McKnitt and Wallace. They settled, by and large, on a large tract of land called New Munster, between the Big Elk and Christiana creeks, some 2 miles from the Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church. This church dates to 1706, when it split off from the New Castle church.
For a time, the Rev. John Wilson ministered both the Head of Christiana and New Castle Church, but eventually the Christiana Church was served by the Rev. George Gillespie, who came from Glasgow, Scotland, to serve as their minister after his ordination in 1713 and until 1760.
With Gillespie at the pulpit, John Gardner and John Steele became the first elders of the church and were deeply connected with the Alexander family that was active in the congregation. Representatives of these families would be among the pioneers who later chose to move into the frontier territories — first to Cumberland Valley, Pa., and eventually all the way to Mecklenburg County, N.C. In North Carolina, many of these once Cecil locals became the framers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and peopled the area known as the “Hornet’s Nest” by Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his troops during the Revolutionary War.
Many of these early Irish immigrants remained in the area of New Munster, however, where they built homes passed down through generations. It is likely they felt quite comfortable settled on the green bucolic hills and valleys of Fair Hill’s New Munster, a tract that had been taken up and named in the 1680s by Col. George Talbot, who himself hailed from the Emerald Isle.
Of course the long arm of the Irish cane be seen in other areas of Cecil County — not the least of which is Irishtown Road in North East, which was likely the site of what was known as a “Cork Town,” a populated area where the Irish lived together in “Shanty Towns.” The name “Cork Town” designated many areas where the Irish congregated to live, usually just outside of towns, villages or cities due to rampant hatred and discrimination against the Irish. Many of these immigrants from Ireland departed their old country from the town of “Cork” hence the designation.
Once settled in Cecil County, however tenuously, the Irish set to work. There weren’t as many opportunities for the Irish women to work as there were in the cities where they took roles as domestic servants. Indeed so many Irish women served as domestic servants — maids, cooks and scullery workers — that Irish servant women came to be known collectively as “Bridget,” no matter their given name.
The men, however, worked in backbreaking labor building roads, railroads and canals throughout the county from Port Deposit to Chesapeake City and beyond. An old mournful Irish working ballad of the period tells the tale, “Ten thousand Micks they swung their picks to dig the new canal, but the cholera was stronger ‘n they an’ twice it killed them all.”
The Irish, when they were hired despite signs that read, “No Irish Need Apply” or “No Irish or Dogs Allowed,” worked in labor groups in the most demeaning, difficult and physically demanding of jobs. The pay was low, the benefits non-existent, and the death rate astronomical. Indeed by 1818 there were as many as 3,000 Irish digging the Erie Canal in upstate New York and by 1834 the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal employed early 2,000 Irish laborers. African-American slave labor was used, by not as extensively as Irish labor, because at that time slaves had a dollar value, while an Irishman did not. There would always be new arrivals to replace an Irishman who succumbed to the hard work, rampant disease or lack of sufficient food, shelter and medical care.
How “disposable” were the Irish? In 1843, Edward Hanlon from County Down in Ireland reported on the canal project where he worked that over 2,000 men, most of them Irish, were digging the Grand River canal in Illinois.
“In four weeks over 150 of my workmates died, shaking with the fever, with about 700 more lying sick. Never did I feel so much the loss of my dear parents — or the want of a Catholic clergyman for there were none within 50 miles,” he said.