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Voyage of Irish to Lower Macungie fraught

Lower Macungie History Irish
Jay Bradley
Lower Macungie Township Historical Society President Sarajane Williams presenting at a "History on Tap" event Wednesday with assistance from vice president Ann Bartholomew.

LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. — In the wake of the Irish Potato Famine, during which about a million people died of starvation and disease from 1845 to 1852, many who fled the country ended up in Philadelphia, then in communities such as Lower Macungie Township.

But life here wasn't easy, either. The immigrants labored as miners or in other tough professions, only to be discriminated against for religious and other reasons by the largely protestant Pennsylvania Dutch population — something that echoed national nativist sentiments at the time.

  • A "History on Tap" event at Rising River Brewing brought the history of the small Irish population of the township during the mid-1800s into focus
  • Lower Macungie Township History Society told stories of the often-moving Irish population of the time, which faced discrimination
  • Rising River hopes to continue to host similar 'on tap' events on different topics in the future

In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, the Lower Macungie Township Historical Society on Wednesday took to Rising River Brewing for a "history on tap" event highlighting the history of Irish immigrants in the township during the mid-1800s.

'Some things never change'

Historical society President Sarajane Williams, who opened with a recording of traditional Irish music she recorded herself, said the 1850 Census showed only three Irishmen living in Lower Macungie Township.

But then many Irish took voyages on the "coffin ships" to the United States, and by the 1860 Census, the number in Lower Macungie had grown to 33 miners and laborers.

The number of families and laborers continues to grow, but in the next census in 1870, only two of the Irish names were listed, implying they had moved on by moving, being drafted or for other reasons.

According to local lore, some drunken bar brawls brought the local Irish population into the news in the mid- to late-1800s, as mine workers got rowdy over religion and other manners.

"It didn't seem like it was a welcoming environment."
Lower Macungie Township Historical Society President Sarajane Williams

"It didn't seem like it was a welcoming environment," Williams said. "The bar fights, that was the big hint and the fact that they kept moving, that nobody really settled here."

Some of that was the result of discrimination by earlier English and Scots-Irish settlers, who echoed their home country's dehumanization of Irish Catholics, Williams said.

"The Irish Catholics were portrayed as lazy aliens, unintelligent, dishonest and disease ridden, and were accused of threatening to take jobs away from Americans, strained welfare budgets, and were ‘criminals and rapists,'" she said.

"This sounds quite familiar," Williams said in reference to discriminatory remarks still at times levied at different groups today, prompting a laugh from the crowd.

"Some things never change."

Attendees at the Lower Macungie Township historical society event Wednesday
Jay Bradley
Attendees at the Lower Macungie Township historical society event Wednesday

'A good thing to investigate'

However Williams said that conflicted with the fact an average poor Irish immigrant had attended school and could read and write.

Many Irish immigrants found work in mines in the region, and worked many dangerous and exhausting jobs for lower wages than others would have taken at the time.

According to the historical society research, Irish laborers found work in Upper and Lower Macungie mines and laid tracks for the East Penn Railroad.

Williams said it felt like a good topic to broach in the lead up to the holiday celebrating Irish heritage.

"We didn't really know much about the Irish in Lower Macungie and I thought this was a good thing to investigate, find out."<br/>
Lower Macungie Historical Society President Sarajane Williams

"We didn't really know much about the Irish in Lower Macungie and I thought this was a good thing to investigate, find out," Williams said.

Williams also touched on the Gaelic culture that the Irish came from and historic struggles with foreign domination.

Daryl Ziegler, an attendee who said he often goes to Rising River for the brews, said he enjoyed the presentation a lot, even though his background is largely Pennsylvania German.

"It was a great presentation," Ziegler said. "I learned a lot of stuff and I loved it. I love history."

"She did a lot with a little," said Greg Laubach, a musician who performed Irish folk music after the presentation.

Other St. Patrick's Day events

Celtic revivals over time have seen the culture return with renewed interest time and time again with the music, folklore and languages garnering attention, with many Americans today identifying with their Irish heritage.

Rising River Brewery owner Ron Beitler said he hopes for the location to act as a community hub through such events. It previously held a similar "on tap" event with Wildlands Conservancy and has another event with the county's Farmland Preservation Board.

Beitler wants to have educational speakers at least monthly, including events with the historical society.

This week, the brewery will hold a variety of St. Patrick's Day events, including live Irish music today, Friday.

Many St. Patrick's Day events are set to take place throughout the Lehigh Valley, including ArtsQuest's Sláinte festival, which started Thursday on the SteelStacks campus in Bethlehem.