After 170 years, the sacrifice of hundreds of Irish refugees recognized with Deer Island memorial

This portrait of William T. O’Connell, who worked for years to build the Irish Famine Memorial in Boston Harbor was taken for Bill’s fifth book, “Boston: Irish.” Bill and his wife, Rita, worked for years to build the memorial. Both O’Connells died before the memorial was built.

By Carol Beggy

WINTHROP — Some 600 people gathered on a bright Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend to dedicate a permanent marker to those Irish emigrants who some 170 years ago left their country during the Great Hunger (“An Gorta Mor”) only to be too sick to enter the United States.

Standing at the wind-swept site, a visitor can gaze over Boston Harbor toward city neighborhoods where Irish immigrants who survived the famine in 1840s Ireland and the harrowing ocean journey flocked to Boston. But those who died while quarantined never got to those places. Their journey and lives ended on Deer Island.

Those gathered Saturday on Tafts Avenue at Deer Island in Winthrop near the towering Celtic cross to witness its dedication as the Great Hunger Memorial, commemorating hundreds of Irish refugees fleeing the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 who arrived at the island with “ship fever.”

Those who died were quarantined on the outskirts of Boston Harbor, where more than 850 would perish before entering their dreamed-of new home. The blessing and dedication for the Great Hunger Memorial was held on May 25, 2019 for the Celtic cross memorial that was built “in memory of the Irish souls who, in hope of avoiding starvation, left their native land for new lives in America, only to perish and be interred in unmarked graves.”

Saturday’s events included a invocation and blessing by Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap Archbishop of Boston, and remarks by Boston’s Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Cathedral Rector Monsignor Kevin O’Leary also participated in the ceremony.

City of Boston Archivist John McColgan, whose research of old record helped tell the story of the quarantine station on Deer Island, some 850 Irish died there from 1847-1850 and perhaps up to 1,200 by 1852. Historical accounts note that two centuries earlier, in the 1670s, some 500 Native Americans who had been captured near modern-day Natick during King Philip’s War were interned on the island where close to half of them died of starvation and exposure, according to the Boston Irish Reporter.

The memorial was erected on Deer Island, the site of a wastewater treatment plant managed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority because during construction work in 1990, some skeletons were accidentally discovered by a backhoe operator, said McColgan, the city of Boston historian. Some initially believed the bones were those of Native American Indians. Laboratory tests confirmed they were the remains of Irish refugees.

For more on the history of the monument, see Joe Mahoney’s piece that ran in newspaper leading up to the dedication, here.

For many Irish, the burial place proved to be Deer Island’s old Rest Haven Cemetery from 1847 to 1850, according to the Boston Irish Reporter. Figures as to how many were buried in an unmarked grave vary because a number of bodies were claimed by family members and buried elsewhere in or around Boston. Those who were unclaimed – they had died alone – were laid to rest on the island at the city of Boston’s expense.

The event will mark the success of the effort to erect a memorial to those immigrants that will be visible from virtually every point of the harbor’s edge. The brainchild of the late Dr. William O’Connell and his wife, the late Rita O’Connell, the memorial was designed to stand as a poignant and dignified marker of what happened on the island some 170 years ago. As Rita O’Connell told the Boston Irish Reporter: “It’s important we don’t forget the stories of people such as Patrick J. McCarthy, who lost his mother, father, and six siblings on Deer Island but went on to graduate from Harvard and become mayor of Providence.”

Saturday’s dedication took place in front of the stone Celtic cross, which was donated by Rob Flynn, owner of Flynn Stone in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, which was put into place this month on the south side of Deer Island by crews working for Boston area contractors who donated labor, materials and heavy equipment.

Others who took up the cause for the memorial include the former Irish Consul Generals Michael Lonergan and Breandán Ó Caollaí, stone mason Bernard Callaghan, Boston Sand and Gravel, Greenhills Bakery, which donated all the food for the dedication, the Irish Cultural Centre of New England, members of the Teamsters union, and Boston Irish Reporter Publisher Ed Forry and Boston lawyer John Philip Foley, who both worked to pick up where the O’Connells left off.

Read more about the history of the memorial in the Dorchester Reporter here.

“This was a group that many years ago left a land that was desolated, came here with hope in their heart and the future seemed to be bright if they could make it,” Irish singer and storyteller Mairin Keady told WBZ-TV.

Some of those present drew parallels between the Irish refugees of 170 years ago and immigrants who come to the United States today.

“I was thinking this morning, as I was sitting here…some of the [Irish] ships got turned away from Boston Harbor,” Mayor Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, told reporters after the ceremony. “You think about the relevance of it today, people being turned away at the border, families being separated at the border. It’s kind of history repeating itself.”

“Like much of Irish culture, this memorial marks profound suffering with remarkable beauty,” Mayor Walsh said during the ceremony. “The truth is, it’s unbearably sad to imagine the reality of what happened right here and in Boston Harbor. Children dying of fever in their mothers’ arms. Older people ending their lives thousands of miles from the only homes that they had ever known. Whole families isolated, bewildered, with no escape but to hold onto each other and to hold onto their faith.”

Cardinal O’Malley compared the 19th-century Irish children who arrived on “orphan ships,” to “those children at the borders of our country, who are fleeing oppression and hunger.” He added: “We pray that immigrants coming today will receive a welcome, a welcome from a people that have made that difficult journey and whose families have suffered, and who are open to being brothers and sisters to those who are arriving from every part of this globe.”

All photos by Bill Brett

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