By GEORGE TRAINOR
California’s First Irish Hunger Memorial was instrumental in solving a 40-year mystery. The memorial was dedicated on Sept. 10 in a rural Irish immigrant cemetery in Eugene, California. It was the concept of the Irish Cultural Society of Stanislaus County and the San Francisco Chapter of the Irish American Unity Conference. The Campaign For A United Ireland donated and installed the monument.
The cemetery is located on the Stockton-Sonora Road. The first settlers there were two Irishman named Dillon and Dooley. The two built a barn and maintained a change station for horses for the Kelly and Reynolds stage line. By 1870 the little settlement reached its peak. It was granted a post office on May 2, 1870. James Nolan, native of Ireland, was its first postmaster. Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church was built in 1886 on land donated by Nolan. The settlement at Eugene lasted until the 1890’s. The church was the last remaining building until it was torn down years later. The little cemetery that filled up around the church is all that remains today.
Back in the mid 1970’s the cemetery was severely vandalized. Many of the tombstones were damaged and some were stolen.
The Irish Hunger Memorial created a lot of local media attention. Upon reading one article, Modesto resident Bernita Roton recognized the Nolan name as one of the two tombstones she had found buried in her backyard some 28 years ago. One of the tombstones uncovered in Roton’s backyard was Michael Nolan (1864-1878).
For years Roton had searched for information about the two tombstones, contacting the historical society and other agencies. Finally she had a lead to follow. Roton stated “When I saw the name Nolan in the paper, it just hit me right between the eyes”
Roton reached out to the paper and was put in contact with area resident Jim Brennan, a distant cousin of Michael Nolan.
Campaign For A United Ireland spokesperson Seamus Canning commented, “The CFUI is proud of its contribution to the first Irish Hunger Memorial in California and congratulates the Brennan family on the return of their family headstones.”
Canning went on to say “We also commend Mrs. Roton for her resolve to find out where these headstones belonged.”
Jim Brennan returned the gravestones to Eugene and will be reinstalling them soon.