Last week we began a journey through the tale told to us by Mount Maple, the big old boarding house at the western end of Annaquatucket Road. We pick up this week on the other side of the Atlantic, for to understand the rest of the story, one must begin to comprehend the catastrophe that was occurring in Ireland around the same time that “Our Fair Town’s” Gardiner clan was wrestling with the changes that were going on around them. While the Gardiner’s situation presented itself with opportunities, the precarious position in which young Edmund Cullen of Ballagh in County Tipperary found himself can only be described as “survival of the fittest.” You see, Edmund was living through the Great Potato Famine.
Back in County Tipperary during the first half of the 19th Century, like the rest of rural Ireland, life – which was, by all descriptions, difficult – was getting rapidly worse. The indigenous population of Irish farmers had been reduced, through a series of events too complicated to describe here, to living on English absentee landlord-owned land and existing on a diet consisting almost completely of potatoes. Don’t get me wrong. These small-farm farmers were expert at what they did. Bountiful crops of corn, wheat, and oats, as well as large quantities of beef, mutton, and poultry, were produced on their farms each season. But due to artificially high rents and an economy that was spiraling out of control, all these wonderful foodstuffs were sold and exported to England and Europe, leaving only the lowly, but nutritious, potato as Ireland’s main food staple. It was into this difficult world that Edward Cullen and his wife Mary (Ryan) Cullen brought their third son Edmund in 1843.
By 1847 the bottom had seemingly fallen out of the already difficult life that this family lived. The year prior, a strange thing had occurred. A mysterious blight had afflicted the potato crop upon which all Irish folks depended. As a matter of fact, more than half of the country’s total crop had failed; it lay rotting in the fields, a foul and putrefied mess. The winter of 1846-47 was the harshest that any living Irish folk could remember. Sickness and disease ran rampant through the closely-situated village folk, made weak by starvation. Spring finally arrived with its promise of better times, and the Irish farmers carefully tended the few seed potatoes that they had, always hopeful for better times. Their hopes, and fragile grasp on survival, were dashed when in the fall the entire potato crop failed. The Irish peasant’s world was at this very moment turned completely on its heels; death ran rampant through the already weakened populace. It was said in the winter of 1847 that the spirit of every proud Irishman who survived the blight was broken. An entire generation of hard-working Irish breadwinners were either killed or emotionally broken by a tiny spore that destroyed the potato crop. This national tragedy, of a scope that we can scarcely comprehend, is the true source of every joke about “drunken Irishman” ever told, for here a nation was destroyed and the survivors left to cope with the aftermath. It is estimated in this short two-year period of blight that 1.5 million Irish souls succumbed to disease and starvation. In the 15 years that followed this catastrophe, another 1.5 million or so left their beloved homeland. Those that left and those that stayed behind harbored and passed on to their children and grandchildren a rightful resentment toward the English landlords that precipitated those awful times, for the facts show that throughout all this the English did little to aid their brethren. The ships full of corn, wheat, mutton and beef continued to leave Irish ports even as the folks growing the grain and loading the ships were slowly starving to death. As sick Irish farmers and fathers were unable to meet their exorbitant rents, their families were evicted and left to die in the streets. American ships loaded with free food for the starving Irish were required to put into English ports first, where the ship’s contents were forcibly transferred to English-owned vessels to allow English shippers to make a profit upon the Irish misery. In 1849 the ultimate insult was paid to the Irish by their British oppressors. At this tragic moment a seemingly unaffected Queen Victoria decided to pay a visit to her Irish subjects. No expense was spared for her visit. At one banquet alone more than $5000 was spent on food and wine in a country where a family of six was struggling to stay alive for a week on a dollar’s worth of food. The next time you wonder about the ongoing war in Northern Ireland and its simmering hatred, mull that image over for a bit.
Needless to say, life for the Cullens was difficult. Therefore, in 1864 they decided to send their son Edmund off to America to live with his uncle Morris Ryan’s family, and make a go of it in the land of opportunity. The Ryans had left County Tipperary earlier in 1860 and settled in Greenville, Rhode Island, where they all worked in the textile mills. Twenty-one-year-old Edmund made his way to Greenville by way of New York City and joined his Ryan relations at work in the mills. You can be certain that throughout all of this time, Edmund, much like nearly all Irish immigrants to the new world, was sending money back to his family in Tipperary. In 1869 Edmund married local Irish lass Cecelia Cavanaugh of North Smithfield and relocated to Belleville in North Kingstown where he began work at a mill there. He was followed shortly thereafter by his young cousin, Michael J. Ryan (Morris’s youngest son), who also took up work in the mill.
We’ll leave Michael out of the tale for now, as we’re going to look at the story behind Ryan’s Market next week. Edmund’s life finally took a turn for the better as Belleville. An intelligent and hardworking man, he made his way up through the ranks until he became a wool-buyer for the Belleville Mill. His work took him all over the world and presented him with the financial wherewithal to not only raise a family of his own and support his relations back in Ireland, but to purchase for himself in August 1894 the big Gardiner boarding house which he renamed Mount Maple. The “Clan Cullen” lived at Mount Maple, Edmund continued at the mill, and Cecelia ran the boarding house.
Next week we’ll finish the tale of the Cullens and Mount Maple and take a well-deserved Swamptown gander at Edmund’s young cousin Michael and the corner market that he began in 1886, as our Irish immigrant’s story comes to its conclusion.