Lasting memorial in Boston to forgotten Irish famine refugees

(Photo by Joe Mahoney / CNHI) A ceremony scheduled for next Saturday, May 25, 2019, will dedicate a 16-foot Celtic cross that memorializes refugees buried in unmarked graves on Deer Island in Boston. Having fled famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century, many of the immigrants arrived malnourished and suffering diseases such as typhus and dysentery. The sick were quarantined on Deer Island, where an estimated 850 were buried in unmarked graves.

BOSTON -- They yearned for a better way of life for their families when they arrived in America by the boatloads, sickened and starving after weeks of journeying across the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland.

But while quarantined on a spit of land jutting into Boston Harbor, many of them died from typhus, dysentery and malnourishment. For 170 years, the skeletal remains of an estimated 850 immigrants were buried on Deer Island in unmarked graves. No coffins. No headstones.

They were forgotten victims of a human catastrophe known in Irish history as the Great Hunger, when a years-long potato blight in the mid-19th century contributed to a famine that took the lives of more than 1 million people and prompted an estimated 2 million others to emigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia and England.

Now, local Irish Americans, working with public officials in Boston, have created what they say will be a permanent memorial to those immigrants who came so close to reaching their destination.

On May 25, a ceremony will be held at Deer Island. A towering 16-foot Celtic cross produced from blocks of granite is to be blessed by Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the son of immigrants from County Galway, is slated to offer remarks.

The cross, donated by Rob Flynn, owner of Flynn Stone in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, was put into place this month on the south side of Deer Island by crews working for Boston area contractors who donated labor, materials and heavy equipment.

Standing at the wind-swept site, a visitor can gaze over Boston Harbor toward city neighborhoods where Irish immigrants who survived the famine and the rigorous ocean journey flocked to -- Charlestown, Dorchester and South Boston.

Those who died while quarantined never got to those places. Their first and last stop was Deer Island.

Deer Island

"These people scraped up whatever they had to try to come to the United States because if they stayed in Ireland they would have been exterminated like so many others," said Michael Carney of Winthrop, whose company specializes in constructing seawalls and who is among those spearheading the memorial project.

In 1997, or 150 years after the height of the Great Hunger, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced regret over the wave of death and emigration that Ireland experienced during the famine years. "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy," Blair stated.

Carney, the son of immigrants from County Donegal, said finding volunteers to advance the memorial project came easily.

"When I called my friend Mark Porter (a local Irish immigrant who has a construction company) and told him about what we wanted to do on Deer Island, he said, ‘I'll be there in 30 minutes,'" Carney recalled. "That has been the response of every person we've mentioned this to."

Little is known about those who died while quarantined, except for their names, ages and causes of death. Records indicate the conditions on Deer Island, including at a makeshift hospital, were unfavorable.

One man, Timothy Ryan, jumped out of a boat and drowned while attempting to swim away when learning his destination was Deer Island, according to accounts at the time. Many of the victims were children, such as Mary Nelson, just 6 years old when she became the first of those who died at the hospital. The cause of death was often typhus, a bacterial disease spread by lice and fleas. Its victims included a 2-year-old boy named Dennis Murphy.

Today, Deer Island is the site of a waste water treatment plant managed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. During construction work in 1990, the skeletons were accidentally discovered by a backhoe operator, said John McColgan, the city of Boston historian. Some initially believed the bones were those of Native American Indians. Laboratory tests confirmed they were the remains of Irish refugees.

'Less than human'

While public sentiment in the U.S. was initially sympathetic to the catastrophe in Ireland in the 1840s, the view of refugees became scornful after Boston found itself ill-prepared to accommodate dozens of ships filled with emaciated immigrants.

"They were considered to be something less than human," said James Farrell, chairman of the communications department at the University of New Hampshire. "They were unwelcome and they were widely feared.”

Farrell said some of the same arguments one now hears against accepting Central American refugees “were used in the 1840s against the Irish, and were later used against the Italians and the Germans who came over later."

An 1847 editorial in the Boston Evening Transcript labeled the Irish refugees "the degenerate poor of Great Britain."

The same newspaper depicted the new arrivals as an economic menace threatening the employment prospects of native laborers as well as a public health threat. “No Irish Need Apply” shop signs and script in newspaper job ads underscored the anti-Irish sentiment.

McColgan said the city government opened a hospital on Deer Island in an attempt to counter the spread of typhus after the House of Industry, a shelter for paupers in South Boston, was filled beyond capacity.

Public health statistics from Boston in the 1850s show that 60 percent of the Irish immigrant children died by age 6.

"But those who survived had a profound impact on the city," said McColgan. "They changed Boston's character. It was no longer a Yankee Puritan city. The Irish made their mark, and it has been there ever since."

Celtic cross

Farrell, who has researched 19th Century media reporting on immigration, said he sees many parallels between the way the Irish famine refugees were received and the response from some quarters now to Central American asylum-seekers detained at the nation's southern border with Mexico.

"We need these kind of reminders," he said of the Deer Island memorial. "We need to remind ourselves that we haven't always treated the vulnerable with the compassion we want to think of ourselves as having, and we need to stop perpetuating the myth that America has always been open to immigrants, because that is not true."

Others who have been pitching in for the memorial include stone mason Bernard Callaghan, Boston Sand and Gravel, local Teamster members and Boston lawyer John Philip Foley.

Carney said he is delighted with the craftsmanship that went into producing the Celtic cross, noting it reflects the talents of the Central American laborers who completed it while working for Flynn Stone. A small piece of stone from Ireland was placed into the base holding the cross.

"They tried to kill my father (in Northern Ireland) because he was a Catholic," Carney said, emphasizing that he abhors prejudice based on religion, ethnicity and race. "So I love the fact that it was immigrants from Latin America who cut that entire cross. The irony is perfect."

Carney said previous efforts to set up a memorial at the Deer Island site faltered, making it especially important to finish the job this time.

"It's been 170 years, so it's long overdue," Carney said. "We just want to right a wrong."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. He is a native of Boston. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com