Revival of a dream for Deer Island

Ed Forry

The long-awaited memorial to the Irish who died before they could reach Boston during the great Irish famine and were buried at Deer Island may soon become a reality.

The late podiatrist Dr. Bill O’Connell and his wife Rita O’Connell, longtime stalwarts of Boston’s Irish community, spent many years learning about “The Great Hunger,” the famine that ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, leading to the death of many from starvation while countless others sought to extend their lives by cramming into sailing ships and set out for America.

In Boston, as some 25,000 Irish souls arrived in our harbor on “coffin ships” between 1847 and 1849, 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. More than one baby perished from “marasmus,” a severe form of malnutrition that leaves a child emaciated and with almost no energy. Although many Irish did survive, those who didn’t were buried in unmarked paupers’ graves on the island.

When the O’Connells discovered the graves on Deer Island, they reached out to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which was building the massive sewage treatment complex there, and asked for help in memorializing the dead immigrants.

It was a decades-long dream of Bill and Rita to establish a memorial to those long-lost Irish, and in the early 1990s they gathered some friends to find a way to create a fitting memorial. They researched the history of those who died on the island and discovered that a primitive cemetery there contained the graves of hundreds of Irish, with no proper marking or memorials.

With a small group of friends, they formed the Deer Island Irish Memorial-Boston Harbor; their mission, they wrote at the time, “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 – Ireland’s Great Hunger.”

But when two other Famine memorial efforts formed in Cambridge and Boston, the O’Connells’ effort was overlooked, and those early plans fizzled. Sadly, the Marshfield couple have since passed way, Rita on the last day of 2012, and Bill in 2014, and their vision for a Deer island memorial seemed to die with them.

That same year, Ireland’s Consul General in Boston, Michael Lonergan, reached out to see if the O’Connell’s efforts could be resumed. With his encouragement, a new working committee was formed. and the effort has been sustained by Lonergan’s successors, Breandán Ó Caollai and current Consul General Fionnuala Quinlan.

This year, the committee, now called the Irish Great Hunger Memorial Committee, is working with the MWRA and public- spirited business people from Winthrop to develop a new vision for the memorial: a 16-foot classic Irish/Celtic cross has been designed and carved in granite, and it will sit on a four-foot concrete foundation on a majestic Deer Island promontory overlooking Boston Harbor from which visitors will be able to see the shores of Boston, from the downtown skyscrapers to the city’s southern waterfront, including South Boston, Dorchester, and Quincy.

There will be informative plaques installed, and a series of granite blocks surrounding the cross, with an interpretive sign explaining the significance of the memorial.

The details of the agreement are being finalized, but there has been great progress, and the committee hopes the memorial will become a reality as early as this summer.

It will indeed be a fitting memorial to those hundreds of Irish who sought refuge here in Boston, but died before they could start new lives in America. It also will be a wonderful tribute to Bill and Rita O’Connell, who had the vision and commitment to remember those many lost souls.