Racing toward history’s cliff

With all credit to the late, great Yogi Berra, “it’s like Déjà vu all over again.” As of this moment, the GOP has pulled back from the brink of unleashing a medical catastrophe for anywhere between 20 and 32 million Americans. President Trump and a cadre of many Irish-American acolytes such as GOP leaders Paul Ryan Mick Mulvaney and Scots-Irish-American Mitch McConnell fell just a few votes short of “winning” their war on the poorest and weakest Americans. The Graham-Cassidy Bill, a cynical, last-gasp, hastily scrawled assault to immolate the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare or ACA), was dealt a lethal blow – again – by Senators John McCain and Susan Collins.

So rushed and ill-conceived was the GOP bill that there was not even time before September 30 for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to issue a full financial assessment of Graham-Cassidy. The estimable John McCain gave another thumbs-down, this time to his pal Graham’s heartless, careless bill. As he did several weeks ago, McCain advocated for a restoration of Senate process and – anathema to far too many Republicans and Democrats alike for far too many years – genuine bipartisan debate.

Maine Senator Susan Margaret Collins again bucked staggering pressure from the White House and the GOP to stand as one of the very few Republican legislators unwilling to rip Medicaid away from the poor and the elderly. With its near-total abandonment of protections for pre-existing conditions and removal of lifetime health-insurance caps and with merciless slashes to Medicaid, the Graham-Cassidy Bill appeared far worse than the previous GOP Obamacare “replacement” that Collins voted against.

In hopes of pressuring Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski to vote yes this time, proponents of the bill played a shell game to rip Medicaid from several states and offer it as an “incentive” to Maine and Alaska. Collins stepped up to say no – her vote is not for sale. If ever one doubted that our commander-in-chief and his crew have become denizens of the very D.C. swamp they promised to drain, Graham-Cassidy was proof-positive. Proof-negative, actually.

The GOP has promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act for some seven years. In all that time, they have come up with no viable alternative. Not even one. Instead, they just offered up a toxic hash of a “replacement” in less than two weeks. Michael Collins, shortly after signing the Treaty that partitioned Ireland, reportedly said that he had signed his own death warrant. Prediction: If the Graham-Cassidy Bill had passed, or if another fraudulent “replacement” clears both the Senate and the House somewhere down the road, the GOP will have signed its death warrant as a viable political party. The fate of the Whigs would await the once-proud party of Lincoln.

Until or unless this blind rush by the GOP to torch the ACA without a genuine, well-crafted replacement ebbs, the prescient words of Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, should remain a warning for politicians and bear repeating yet again on the edge of a political and moral tragedy:
“Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong.”

Senator Collins’s conscience has embraced those words, as her terse, blistering public rebuke of Graham-Cassidy proves.

“Deep into the depths of hell”

Each October, this writer’s thoughts invariably turn to an immigration tragedy that unfolded off local shores in October 1849. Even amid the catastrophe, common humanity trumped – all puns intended – prejudice for an all-too-brief moment.

Henry David Thoreau had never seen anything like it. On Oct. 9, 1849, he wandered the shore of Cohasset, Massachusetts, and gaped at the wreck of the brig St. John, a Boston-bound merchantman that had set sail from Ireland “laden with emigrants” fleeing the Great Famine. The vessel was one of sixty emigrant ships, or aptly named “coffin ships,” lost between 1847 and 1853.

As Thoreau surveyed the scene, he poured into a notebook a torrent of words capturing the gut-wrenching scene: “I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen and mangled body of a drowned girl,—who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family. … Sometimes there were two or more children, or a parent and child, in the same box, and on the lid would perhaps be written with red chalk, ‘Bridget such-a-one, and sister’s child.’”

On October 7, 1849, the St. John, five weeks out of Galway Bay and packed with Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, was hurled by a gale onto the crags of Grampus Ledge, off Cohasset, Massachusetts. A second “coffin ship,” the Kathleen, grounded safely nearby on a sand bar. But the St. John broke in two on the rocks. Immigrants and crewmen thrashed in the foaming surf. Eyewitness Elizabeth Lothrop wrote that “no human power could stay the waves,” which pulled the brig “deep into the depths of Hell.”

On the shore, the boatmen of Cohasset – Yankees with little affinity for the Irish – left prejudice on the beach as they tried again and again to launch the town’s lifesaving boats into the crashing surf. Led by Captain Daniel T. Lothrop, a Cohasset “salt,” the rescuers “struggled through the enormous waves for nearly forty-five minutes before reaching the area of the St. John. It was then that they noticed the longboat rowing to shore, with Captain Oliver [of the St. John] and the crew of the ship. The captain made no mention to the lifesavers that passengers had been left behind on the wreck to fend for themselves. Accordingly, the lifeboat proceeded to the Kathleen, unaware that numbers of people may yet have been desperately clinging to the remains of the brig. The magnitude of this tragedy only became apparent after the lifesavers had returned to shore and learned that the emigrants had been left stranded on the wreck.”

The rescuers managed to aid only the Kathleen in the end. Most of the St. John’s passengers were doomed. Over the next few days, 45 bodies washed ashore, and the townspeople buried them in a common grave. An exact total was never possible. At least 99 people drowned; 11 survived. In all, up to 145 may have been lost.

Among the most heart-rending stories of the disaster was that of Galwayman Patrick Sweeney and his family: “He and his wife, along with their nine children, had journeyed here in search of a new home. As the wreck disintegrated into the sea, he saw his wife and eight of their children swept away. Finally, he and his three-year-old daughter Agnes made a desperate attempt to reach the longboat. A great wave swept over the father and daughter as they approached the boat. They were never seen again.”Adding additional agony to the saga and pointing a finger at Captain Oliver, Captain Lothrop would testify that if he had only been told that there were passengers clinging to the brig’s wreckage, he might well have been able to rescue some of them.

The tragedy claimed one last victim on the Cohasset shore. An Irishwoman who had rushed to the scene from Boston in hopes that her infant daughter and her sister had survived the shipwreck found their corpses beneath a sheet on the sand. “The infant [was] tightly folded in the sister’s arms,” Elizabeth Lothrop remembered. “The mother died of heartbreak.”

The infant and at least 44 other victims were buried in a “great common grave” near the Cohasset shore, and the matter of a proper ceremony for the Catholic dead was raised. As the Ancient Order of Hibernians notes: “”It was then that the nearest priest, Father John T. Roddan, of Quincy, was asked to come to [Cohasset]. It was within a day or two after the storm that Father Roddan blessed the great common grave that held the remains for forty-five emigrants. This, in turn, served as a catalyst for Cohasset Catholics to begin petitioning Boston for a church of their own.”

In 1914, the Massachusetts Loyal Order of Hibernians raised a 19-foot Celtic cross near the victims’ common grave. Today, on display at the Cohasset Maritime Museum is all that is left of the ill-fated brig: a trunk, a small writing desk, and a piece of one of the ship’s pulleys.