Belgium Blocks vs. the Newark Irish

by Charles McGrath


I think most of us have seen Belgium block. For those who haven't, its a gray granite block approximately 6" x 6"x12". Most of the streets in Newark and elsewhere were paved with them. For example 18th Avenue ( formerly Ocean Avenue ) was paved with Belgium block. As a matter of fact 18th. Avenue and many other streets still have them quietly sleeping under a couple of inches of macadam.

Where did they come from? I always wondered? Though intuitively you would think Belgium. I guess that would be correct because they have granite quarries in the Ardennes. But why? The answer to that I found out to be for ballast. This country back then was shipping a tremendous amount of raw material and manufactured products to Europe. It was all one way, nothing was being shipped back to this country. The ships needed weight to make them sea worthy for the return voyage. They needed ballast. The weight provided by the Belgium blocks filed that void. Hence the abundance of blocks and the paving of our streets with them rather than gold.

My father told me the following story about his father and his grandparents. Back in the 1880's during the Post Potato Famine my grandfather's parents were being evicted from their shanty in Cavin, Ireland. They were tenant farmers on a large English farm. In Ireland at that time there were two types of Irish, the Catholic and the Protestant. The former were called Shanty Irish. He told me that his father gave the evicting landlord a terrible beating. It was thought that he may have accelerated his life. He also went on to tell me he was shipped out of Ireland in a coffin to escape imprisonment. This was the family story how he arrived.

The attached site shows a typical heartless eviction and the also the origin of Down Neck feet:

A Family Evicted by their Landlords
Source: Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland

In doing research over the years I have come to the conclusion that the "coffin " that my grandfather escaped in wasn't a casket but rather a coffin ship.

My grandfather came to this country from Ireland in the late 1880's in a coffin ship. It is my understanding that these ships were used to ship lumber to Europe. Some unknown ship owner came up with the brilliant idea of replacing the need of Belgium block with Irish immigrants. They would pay for their passage and they simply walked off the ship when it reached the States. The Belgium blocks were no competition. And that's why many of us Irish are here today. I knew at times we were looked upon as being thick. But I never knew we were better substitutes for ballast than granite blocks.


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