Museum: Immigrant SongUrbanite Baltimore Magazine Article
The Irish Shrine & Railroad Workers Museum
by David Dudley
Hard times have come again for the working-class Irish of southwest Baltimore: Patrick's of Pratt Street, the bar that once had a ironclad claim as the oldest Irish pub in the United States, closed in 2009 after 162 years. St. Peter the Apostle Church, the Catholic parish established to serve the railroad workers that flooded West Baltimore from Ireland during the Great Hunger, said its final regular Mass in 2008. But time's efforts to erase the last traces of SoWeBo's Celts have met a formidable force in retired Baltimore circuit court judge Thomas Ward, who in the late 1990s rallied historic preservationists to save and restore a stretch of five alley houses on Lemmon Street, a half-block from the B&O Railroad Museum. One of the homes opened as a museum in 2002, with the 83-year-old Ward, son of a B&O railroad man (and father of Urbanite publisher Tracy Ward), serving as unpaid docent.
Irish up: Changes are on tap at the Irish Shrine museum, with new exhibits depicting immigrant railroad workers of the 19th century.
(Photo by Tyler Fitzpatrick)
This month the Irish Shrine and Railroad Workers Museum unveils an upgrade, with an official affiliation with the B&O museum up the street and new audio exhibits that plumb deeper into the Irish-American experience in Baltimore. It's still a humble volunteer-only operation, but with an ambitious mission: Ward claims that the museum, now comprising two homes tucked into a block of two-and-a-half story brick rowhouses built in 1848, offers the earliest glimpse into urban immigrant life in the United States. (New York City's similar Tenement Museum, a restored Lower East Site apartment house, dates to 1863.) "People have no conception of how poor people lived," he says. "We only saved the mansions."
One of the two homes has been restored to its original non-glory, to convey how the original residents, the Feeleys of County Mayo and their six children (plus the boarder who lived in the basement), spent their days and nights. The 10-foot-wide house still boasts its original plaster walls, a smattering of period furniture, and bare wooden floors; the Feeley kids somehow packed into a tiny attic bedroom. A collapsed rear wall was replaced with a floor-to-ceiling glass window to reveal a battered backyard privy. "It wasn't much," Ward says, "but it was better than what they had in Ireland." The house next door is divided into exhibits interpreting the three pillars of Irish immigrant life: work (a roaring B&O machine shop), church (photos and artifacts from St. Peter the Apostle in its prime), and pub (an upstairs bar, complete with singing publicans). In keeping with the intimate scale of the exhibits, visitors can to poke around and inspect the offerings. "We're a hands-on museum," Ward says, motioning to the painted canvas that serves as living room rug. "If this were the Smithsonian, you wouldn't be able to stand on that."
Irish Shrine Museum
The museum is located at 918 and 920 Lemmon Street. For tour reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410-669-8154.
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