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New documentary uncovers the Irish links to America's Tipperary Hill

The radio documentary visits the town and meets with people who have Irish ancestry.

IRISH PEOPLE HAVE emigrated all over the world, and made their mark on it in different ways.

In Tipperary Hill in Syracuse in the USA, they have left a pretty unusual mark – an upside-down traffic light (with the green light up top).

800px-Tipperary_Hill_-_greenoverred_Syracuse,_New_York The upside-down traffic light Source: Doug Kerr

That story and others from the area of Tipperary Hill are to be explored in a new documentary from journalist Tom Hurley, which will be broadcast on Tipp Mid West Radio on Monday 7 November and 14 November at 11.30am.

Conquering Tipperary Hill focuses on three distinct periods of history when the Irish emigrants were pulled towards the US: the revolutionary war from 1875 on, the building of the Erie Canal from 1817 – 1825, and then the Great Famine. It looks at emigration right up to 1925, and the story behind that upside-down traffic light.

Stories of survival

“It goes back to the fact that during the Famine you often hear about Irish emigration to America or England or Australia, but you don’t ever hear about how they got on when they got off the boat, if they survived getting off the ship,” said Hurley of the impetus to make the documentary.

He travelled to Tipperary Hill during the summer while on a trip to the US. “This Tipperary Hill location, it’s not unique by any means. There are thousands of ‘Tipperary Hills’ around the place,” he said, pointing to various areas of the US which have Irish names (like the many Dublins scattered around the country).

CANAL COMEBACK Part of the Erie Canal, which was worked on by Irish emigrants to the US. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“A lot of people who can trace their ancestry back to different parts of Tipperary, some of them have come back over the years looking for their ancestors and found them here,” said Hurley, who first heard about Tipperary Hill a few years ago.

He discovered that, for example, peopple from Upperchurch in Tipperary who emigrated to the US ended up moving to a town called Pompey, while those from Thurles often ended up in Geddes.

“A lot of people went over well before the Famine,” explained Hurley. “In 1817 they started building a thing called the Erie Canal, a man-made river linking the great lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Syracuse was in the middle of that hub.”

Erie_Canal_Map_1853 Source: Wikimedia

Irish people were attracted to working on the Erie Canal – but it was tough, back-breaking work, and some men died in the process.

In making the documentary, Hurley spoke to people who can trace their heritage directly back to Ireland, including one whose ancestor is from Kerry.

A green light

As for that upside-down traffic light? “In 1925 they put up a traffic light in Tipperary Hill but the people of Irish descent got angry over it, not because of the traffic light, but because it is normally red on top and they wanted green on the top. It’s the only traffic light in America with the green on the top,” said Hurley, who added that in the 1800s people from Tipperary were known as “the stone throwers”.

Today, Tipperary Hill is a very desirable part of Syracuse to live in – so much so, said Hurley, that some locals claim the boundary has been getting bigger and bigger.

It’s really only about four to five square miles – one guy says there’s parts of Tipperary Hill now that we would never have considered Tipperary Hill. It’s disputed what part extends into it or not.

What also fascinated Hurley was the actual location of Tipperary Hill. “Normally when you hear of people going to America, I always tend to think of New York and Boston, these places not far from the coast. [Tipperary Hill] is 300 miles inland – not only did they have to get off the boats, they had to get there [too].” It must have been quite the journey back in the 19th century.

The documentary also shows the scale of emigration from Tipperary during the Famine – one historian estimated that from May 1851 to December 1851, around 12,000 people emigrated from there.

While in Tipperary Hill, Hurley found a gift shop called Cashel House, and a street called Morton Street (just like the one in Clonmel). He also found graveyards full of Tipperary surnames like Ryan, Gleeson and Corbett.

“You know the way people laugh at people who claim Irish ancestry but don’t know any more about it besides that?” asked Hurley.

“A lot of people I met over there knew it – they weren’t bluffing, they had records, they had incredible knowledge. There is a sense of pride in the neighbourhood.”

Conquering Tipperary Hill will be broadcast on Tipp Mid West Radio on Monday 7 November and 14 November at 11.30am.  The episodes can also be listened to online on www.tippmidwestradio.com

Read: Major megalithic art find at Hellfire Club passage tomb>

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