WASHINGTON – An Irish peddler from Macroom once got lost and stumbled upon a cottage in the woods where a man rested and fed him.
“Tell me a story,” said the man to the peddler. Unfortunately, the peddler had no story, so the host kicked him out.
That’s not likely to happen to Hagerstown storyteller Robert Wilhelm, who plans to sip tea underneath the trees beside the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and tell this tale and the story of the Irish builders of the canal to listeners at the Four Locks picnic area at 1 p.m. today on St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish folk tale ends with the rejected peddler walking back into the woods, only to come upon a circle of fairies sitting around a fire on top of a hill. He was invited to join the enchanted creatures as a deer roasted on the fire pit. All of a sudden, the fire exploded hundreds of feet into the air, and the roast leapt up and knocked him out of the circle and down the hill back to doorstep of the cottage.
“I was walking back into the woods when I came across a circle of fairies sitting around a fire . . . .” described the peddler, still out of breath as he recounted his tale to the host who’d kicked him out?.
“Well, if you had told me THAT story, I never would’ve thrown you out!” said the host.
Stories like this one and the adventures of Finn MacCool, an Irish folk hero who led a band of young travelers to various expeditions in the countryside, were still alive in the hearts of the men who left Ireland to work overseas, many of them on the canal and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Both were once major local foundations of commerce and transportation in the early 1800’s.
These tales of adventure and love brought nostalgia and comfort to the workers abroad who embarked on a new life and left loved ones at home. Like the peddler with no story, many of the laborers were from Macroom, a town in County Cork, Ireland.
“This is the way the Irish say that ‘everyone’s a storyteller,'” said Wilhelm. Don’t claim that you don’t have a story — so many things happen in life, so just tell us about your life.”
At the same time that laborers were needed to dig the C & O Canal in 1828, the first widespread famines in Ireland hit, leading many young unmarried men to get on boats and make their way to America.
The canal stretches along the Potomac River from Cumberland to Washington for about 184 miles.
A huge majority of it — almost 95 percent — was built by Irish immigrant laborers over 22 years, Wilhelm said, and many died forgotten in construction accidents, the cholera epidemic and malnutrition during those years.
“No one wrote them down in an archive in Washington or Baltimore,” Wilhelm said, so he dedicates time to tell the “human side shared in the stories of their common experiences in hard situations . . . so they could laugh about things and cry about things to people who really understood them — their fellow countrymen.”
A project to erect a monument dedicated to the thousands of workers who lie in unmarked graves after dying while building the canal is being spearheaded by Michael Burkey, district public defender for Allegany and Garrett County.
The monument will take the form of a Celtic cross, with an inscription commemorating those “dead who have up until this point been unmemorialized,” said Burkey, a member of the Irish-ancestry group the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Many of those working men married local women and raised families along the canal in shanty towns — small areas of sod buildings, lumber shacks, tents and lean-to’s, in regions that are now Brunswick, Williamsport, Harper’s Ferry and Clear Spring.
“This area was, at one time, the second-largest city in the state because of transportation systems such as the railroad and the canal,” construction projects which brought temporary prosperity to the area, said Burkey. Even so, the people primarily responsible “have been unrecognized for 150 years now.”
Many unmarked Irish laborers are interred in mass graves between Frederick and Urbana and near Hancock and Cumberland, Burkey said. Many of the tombstones were obliterated over the years, but some still exist.
Until the monument is complete, Burkey will commemorate the Irish in other ways. As the lead singer of the “Shanty Irish,” a pub band in Allegany County, Burkey and seven others will be performing tunes in pubs across downtown Cumberland with about 20 other bands in 15 restaurants and taverns in the area to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.