Quarantined, They Died; Now, They are Remembered


BOSTON HARBOR — Some 600 people gathered on a bright Saturday morning of the 2019 Memorial Day weekend to dedicate a permanent marker on Deer Island to those Irish emigrants who some 170 years ago left their island during the Great Hunger (“An Gorta Mor”) for the United States only to be too sick to enter the country when they arrived in Boston Harbor.
Standing at the wind-swept site, a visitor can gaze over the harbor and see city neighborhoods where in the mid-1800s tens of thousands of Ireland’s men, women, and children who managed to survive the harrowing ocean journey in relatively good health made new lives for themselves. But not everyone made it to the farther shore beyond the small island they embarked upon. Quarantined there by civic and medical officials fearful of the spread of deadly diseases like typhus to the general population in Boston, over time almost 1,200 would-be immigrants, historians say, never left the tiny prominence that faced the city proper. Their fate was to die waiting.
Those who gathered on May 25 near the towering Celtic cross witnessed its dedication as the symbol of the Great Hunger Memorial, a commemorative to the hundreds of Irish refugees who arrived at the island in the years between 1845 and 1852 with cases of what officials called “ship fever,” most likely a form of typhus. The cross and the memorial site were 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.”
The day’s events included welcoming remarks by MWRA executive director Fred Laskey, a blessing by Boston’s Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, and remarks by Boston’s Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The rector of Holy Cross Cathedral, Msgr. Kevin O’Leary, also participated in the ceremony, and Irish-born vocalist Mairin Ui Cheide Keady performed the Irish and US national anthems.
City of Boston Archivist John McColgan, whose research of historic records helped tell the story of the quarantine station on Deer Island, gave the keynote address at the ceremony, a 2,500-word recounting of the chapters that made up the full story. He had noted earlier that historical accounts say that 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.
The backstory to the memorial dedication initiative was the discovery in 1990 by a backhoe operator working to help build a wastewater treatment plant for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority of some skeletons initially believed to be the remains of those captured Native Americans two centuries earlier. But laboratory tests later confirmed they were the remains of Irish refugees.
For many Irish who died in those years, the burial place was mass graves at Deer Island’s historic Rest Haven Cemetery. 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 in unmarked graves on the island at the city’s expense.
The event marked the completion of a decades-long effort to erect a memorial to those unfortunate immigrants that will be visible from virtually every point of the harbor’s edge. As first conceived by the late Dr. Bill O’Connell and his late wife 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 cut by Rob Flynn, owner of Flynn Stone in Lakewood, Pennsylvania and put into place in mid-May on a promontory of Deer Island by crews who donated labor, materials, and heavy equipment.
Among those who took up the cause for the memorial over the years include: Mike Carney of Seacoast Contractors of Winthrop, Mark Porter, John Flaherty, stone mason Bernard Callaghan, Boston Sand and Gravel, Greenhills Bakery, members of the Teamsters union, and former Irish Consul Generals Michael Lonergan, Breandán Ó Caollaí, and Fionnuala Quinlan. The team completed the effort that had been nurtured for five years by immigration attorney John Philip Foley and Boston Irish Reporter publisher Ed Forry, who had worked together since 2014 to pick up where the O’Connells left off.
Some of those present, including Cardinal O’Malley in his invocation, 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, said to 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.”
Said Walsh during the ceremony: “Like much of Irish culture, this memorial marks profound suffering with remarkable beauty. 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.”
The cardinal 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.”
(A portfolio of photos from the dedication ceremony may be viewed online at billbrett.com)

Words of Remembrance

“Deer Island has a place in this tapestry of endurance. The victims we remember today were far from home, but not yet attached to our immigrant community. So for them, it may have felt as if the “emerald thread” was broken. But today, in our prayers, our education, and our collective memory, through this powerful monument to their hopes and their hardships, we weave their thread back into the pattern.”
– Mayor Martin Walsh

This event speaks to “our interdependence and our interconnectedness, how we are connected to one another and connected to the people who died on this island and who are buried here.”
– Cardinal Sean O’Malley

“The causes of the catastrophe [on this island] are enormously complex. But fundamentally they reside in colonialism. Ireland was England’s first colony. Expropriation of land and wealth by an aristocracy alien in race and religion bred misrule, endemic poverty, violence, and war lasting into recent times.”
- John McColgan, Boston City Archivist