At Deer Island, Bill & Rita O’Connell had a dream; many hands made it a reality

The late Dr. Bill O'Connell, pictured at the Deer island where scores of famine-era Irish were buried. It was Dr Bill 's and his wife Rita O'Connell's dream to create a memorial on the island, Their vision was realized in May, 2019, some 5 1/2 after his death. (Photo courtesy Bill Brett, from the book "Boston's Irish."

by Ed Forry
BIR Publisher
Anyone involved in Boston Irish events over the last three decades knew Bill O’Connell. The Dorchester-born podiatrist, one of five children of Irish parents, and his wife Rita (Layden) were beloved volunteers in all things Irish, from the AOH Plymouth chapter, the Corkmen and Lady’s Association, the Knights and Ladies of St. Finbarr, the Eire Society of Boston, and the Charitable Irish. And they helped found the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton.
When he first learned of the famine-era Irish who had been buried in a mass grave in Boston Harbor, he began raising funds to build a Famine Memorial on Deer Island.
As the 150th anniversary of Black 47 approached, well-funded famine projects in Cambridge and downtown Boston took precedence, dimming the doctor’s hopes for a famine memorial.
Together with stalwarts like Aisling Gallery’s Maureen and John Connelly, Margaret Stapleton, and Catherine Shannon, AOH and County Cork club members, and others, the O’Connells held a series of small fundraisers that kept the dream alive. But after Rita died in late 2012 and Bill passed away in January 2014, the stalled plans seemed to have become moot.
That spring, then-Consul General Michael Lonergan encouraged several people, including attorney John Foley and me, to revive the memorial project. Few records were available – no data base or specific plans and only about $12,000, which was placed in the custodial care of the non-profit Irish Cultural Centre.

At that point, John Foley and I set out to publicize the idea for a memorial, searching for anyone who could help make it happen. In 2017, Mike Carney, a Winthrop builder and contractor with Donegal roots, called John and said “I will get this done.” Together with two friends, Mark Porter and John Flaherty, they reached out to friends in the construction and building trades, and with support from Boston Mayor Walsh and his staff, they found a way to indeed “get it done.”

On Saturday, May 25, 2019, Rita and Dr. Bill O’Connell’s dream became a reality.