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Memorial commemorates Irish who died fleeing the Great Hunger

  • A 16-foot-tall Celtic cross dedicated May 25 marks the burial site of the Irish immigrants who died in quarantine at the hospital on Deer Island between 1847 and 1850. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault
  • Cardinal O’Malley speaks at the dedication ceremony of the memorial to Irish immigrants who died on Deer Island waiting to be admitted to the U.S. from 1847 to 1850. Pilot photo/Jacqueline Tetrault

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WINTHROP -- Hundreds gathered on Deer Island May 25 to witness the dedication of a memorial to the 850 people who died waiting in quarantine to enter this country to escape Ireland's Great Hunger.

The memorial, a 16-foot-tall stone Celtic cross overlooking Boston Harbor, marks the burial site of the Irish immigrants who died at the hospital on Deer Island between 1847 and 1850.

At the dedication ceremony, Msgr. Kevin O'Leary led the opening prayer, which included a reading from Luke's gospel about Joseph of Arimathea burying the body of Jesus.

"We have that very powerful example in the Judeo-Christian tradition of respect for the body, both living and dead. And so I commend those who have recognized the suffering and death that took place on this land," Msgr. O'Leary said.

City archivist John McColgan spoke at length about Ireland's Great Hunger, "An Gorta Mor" in the Irish language. As a result of this humanitarian disaster, 1.5 million people died of starvation and disease. Another two million emigrated, sometimes dying during or after the voyage.

"The causes of the catastrophe are enormously complex, but fundamentally they reside in colonialism," McColgan said.

When an unknown fungus devastated potato crops in the late 1840s, the British government did not deploy resources to help the Irish. Instead, it passed measures that McColgan said were "ineffectual, wasteful, or downright harmful." Its non-intervention was "reinforced by ethnic and religious prejudice."

In 1847 Boston received an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom carried the diseases they had hoped to escape. The city responded to the public health crisis by establishing a quarantine hospital on Deer Island.

One family that stayed for some time on Deer Island was the McCarthy family. Five-year-old Patrick McCarthy lost his parents and two of his five siblings during their months in quarantine. He survived and eventually became mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.

While acknowledging "the cold welcome given the Irish by native Bostonians," McColgan shared evidence from the archives that indicated the community "was not without compassion."

McColgan quoted the words that George Hillard, president of the Common Council, said to his colleagues in 1847: "Remember that if these poor people had not thus taxed our benevolence, they must have died. You will not, I am sure, be weary in well doing or refuse to feed from the crumbs of our abundance the starving poor even though they be aliens to the soil. They are our brethren still. They have the claims of a common humanity besides those of urgent need. We are men before we are Americans or Englishmen. They are as near to us as the faint and bleeding Jew was to the Good Samaritan. The starving man is our neighbor, and he that is in distress is a brother."

McColgan said he believed that was the spirit in which the Deer Island doctors and staff tried to care for the immigrants. Many hospital staff and sailors died of diseases passed on by the immigrants they treated or transported.

"These were the first responders of Black '47 in Boston. They gave their lives for others in need and deserve to be remembered," McColgan said.

He noted that Dear Island was also the burial place of Native Americans that were starved in confinement during King Philip's War in the 1670s.

"This cross marks as sacred the earth of Deer Ireland holding remains that testify against colonialism, greed, economic exploitation and political repression, that have inflicted upon Ireland, Native Americans, and many another people down to the present the tragedies of famine, war, and forced exile," McColgan said.

Boston mayor Martin Walsh, whose parents were Irish immigrants, thanked the Irish and Irish-Americans present for their contributions to Boston and to the United States.

"Never forget where you came from and never forget the journey that your family took to get to the United States of America," Mayor Walsh said.

He encouraged all present to "honor those who died here by seeking to prevent those conditions (of poverty, disease and starvation) whenever we can and by welcoming with compassion those who find ways to our shore and to our borders."

"This memorial honors the hope of those who died. It calls us to our duty to defend those hopes and make them a reality right here and around the world however we can," Walsh said.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley offered remarks and a prayer. He said many of the ships that came to Boston from Ireland during the Great Hunger arrived with orphans whose parents died on the journey because they gave their food to their children.

"They're very much like those children at the borders of our country who are fleeing oppression and hunger and whose parents are making a supreme sacrifice to save their lives," Cardinal O'Malley said.

"We pray that immigrants coming today will receive a welcome," he said.

The memorial was designed by tattoo artist Lauchie MacDonald, who attended the dedication. The stone was donated by Robert Flynn, the owner of Flynn Stone and Design in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, and crafted by Central American immigrants.

As part of the dedication ceremony, the Boston Currach Rowing Club laid a wreath in the water of Boston Harbor, and doves were released at the site of the memorial.

Heather O'Brien, who attended the dedication, told the Pilot that her ancestors were immigrants who "came at different times for different reasons," some of them from Ireland during or after the Great Hunger.

"This is a long time coming. This has been something that the people that have an interest in the history of Boston and Boston Harbor have talked about for a very, very long time. This is well-planned, well-orchestrated. It was a beautiful event, it couldn't have gone better," O'Brien said.

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