Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online


May 11, 2013

CANAL DISCOVERIES: The Irish in song

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The passing of time has created certain stereotypes that persist to this day that tell us that Irish immigrants were singularly responsible for building the Erie Canal. Although historians are uncertain about the exact ethnic composition of the pool of laborers that toiled to build the Erie Canal, in Lockport we know that the Irish were well represented. This is found in early accounts of the scene that described separate housing for the Irish and stories of the ethnic-based fighting that sometimes verged on rioting.

Census data gives a limited picture of the laborers because many workers only stayed in the region for a few years as construction proceeded in the community. After the 1830s when the Erie Canal underwent its first enlargement, we do know that the Irish did come in much greater numbers and many stayed and made Lockport their home. Many local families of Irish descent maintain their residences today in Lowertown in the same area where their immigrant progenitors also made their early homes.

Perhaps certain Irish stereotypes persist today because of the Celtic flare found in the folk-style Erie Canal music that has been passed down through the generations. Irish immigrants were largely responsible for shaping what we know today as Erie Canal music. The Irish used old folk tunes and gave them new lyrics that explained their travails along the path of the Erie.

These songs not only tell the story of the backbreaking work of digging the canal, but also show us the great pride of accomplishment felt by the Irish workers. The Irish even took pride in the name they gave themselves, “canawlers,” as it added an Irish brogue to the canal lexicon. The Irish immigrants knew they involved in a project that was much larger than themselves, one that would change the course of human events.

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