By Ed Forry
Dr. Bill and Rita O’Connell, longtime stalwarts of Boston’s Irish community, spent much of their life learning about “The Great Hunger,” the famine that ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century. Many died from starvation, and many others sought to extend their lives by cramming into sailing ships to escape to America.
In Boston, some 25,000 Irish souls arrived in our harbor on the “coffin ships” between 1847 and 1849, and the city’s health officials steered the vessels to Deer Island, where the passengers were quarantined to prevent any communicable diseases from coming ashore.
There, within sight of our city, hundreds perished – from typhoid fever, pneumonia, dysentery, and consumption. One four-month-old baby died from whooping cough, a five-month-old from cholera infantum. More than one baby perished from “marasmus.” a severe form of malnutrition that leaves the child emaciated and with almost no energy. Although many Irish did survive, hundreds succumbed, and were buried in unmarked paupers’ graves on the island.
More than twenty years ago, the O’Connells began to research the history of those who died at Deer Island, and they helped to establish the “Deer Island Irish Memorial- Boston Harbor.” They learned that a primitive cemetery there contained the graves of hundreds of Irish, with no proper marking or memorial to honor those who lost their lives. The mission of the small committee “is to acknowledge, honor, and remember the 850 Irish men, women, and children who died and were buried on Deer Island between 1847 and 1850 during the time of "An Gorta Mor" – "The Great Hunger.”
Bill and Rita O’Connell sought to establish a public awareness of that tragic history, and to raise funds for a lasting memorial. But their plans were too ambitious: The initial design was estimated to cost more than a half million dollars, and over the two decades they were able to secure only about $11,000 in donations, with an additional pledge of $50,000 to help with construction costs. And with two successful efforts to build Irish Famine memorials in Cambridge and downtown Boston, any impetus for a third costly memorial on an island now known as a sewage treatment plant was lost.
On the last day of 2012, Rita O’Connell lost her long battle with cancer, and Bill, then 86, moved into assisted living quarters in Duxbury. He was heartened when a group spearheaded by then-Consul General Michael Lonergan wanted to pick up the pieces of his dream project and find a way to make it happen. Last spring, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited Boston, the Irish political leader greeted O’Connell at a Kennedy Library event. It was a proud moment for Dr. Bill, who took the occasion to tell Kenny about his dream plans.
Last month, on Jan. 6, Bill O’Connell passed away. Neither he nor Rita would live to see their dream come true. At his funeral mass at Holy Name Church in Duxbury, both the Mass celebrant, Msgr. Billy Glynn, and Rita’s brother, Joe Layden, recalled the O’Connells’ unfinished work. But that dream need not die.
There’s a consensus that the Deer Island Irish Memorial should be in two places – something on the island itself, and a larger memorial tablet on the city’s mainland – perhaps at Castle Island, or at Columbia Point, site of the Kennedy Library.
The Deer island site could be finished in weeks – with a marker and a simple bench near the burial site. But imagine looking out across the harbor from Castle Island, or the JFK? It’s easy to see those huge MWRA water processing tanks, easy to imagine the tragedy of just how near to safe harbor had come those 850 Irish souls who perished within sight of a new home!
Let’s resolve as a community of friends to work together to ensure that the dream of Dr. Bill and Rita O’Connell is realized, at last. If you can help, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org