Story By Sue Ellen Woodcock
Nearly 1,000 people, many of them with Irish deep in their blood, gathered recently on a tall hill overlooking Boston Harbor, the same harbor that was host to hundreds of ships, some known as “coffin ships” filled with Irish immigrants fleeing the famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1849.
People from all over came to show their pride and respect for the 850 men, women and children who died on Deer Island during the famine.
“It took my breath away when I first saw it,” said Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) head Fred Laskey.
“This project started many years ago and with many good intentions, but to get it over the line I met with a remarkable group of individuals – Mike Carney, Mark Porter, Peter O’Malley, John Flaherty. Mark Porter who literally bulldozed their way through bureaucracy, and received wonderful help from the MWRA to make this event what it is today,” Boston’s Corporation Counsel Gene O’Flaherty said.
After 25 years of talking about an Irish Memorial at Deer Island, which is part of Boston, it was finally a group of Irish tradesmen who pulled it together to erect a 16-foot Irish cross overlooking Boston Harbor. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh acknowledged the early efforts of the late William and Rita O’Connell who helped launch a memorial idea decades ago.
Robert Flynn of Pennsylvania was the stonecutter who created the cross. Feeney Brothers of Boston helped erect it and Local 25 also worked on the project. Maureen Keady sang the national anthems of both Ireland and the United States.
Among the speakers were John McColgan, Boston’s city archivist, who recounted the history of the famine, including Deer Island where the sick were taken. Boston managed a quarantine hospital at Deer Island in 1847 and it is well documented in the city’s archives.
“An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s Great Hunger saw an estimated 1.5 million people die of starvation and disease. Another 2 million immigrated, many perished from the plague that they fled, thousands on ocean journeys and thousands more already on the shores, and thousands in quarantine in places like Deer Island,” said McColgan.
Patients were transferred from the Long Wharf to the hospital on Deer Island. Soon, ships with sick started sailing directly for Deer Island.
The first to be buried on Deer Island because of the Great Hunger was a one-year-old girl Mary Connell, according to McColgan.
“If it wasn’t for Irish immigrants leaving Ireland, coming to Boston, meeting at the Hibernian Hall I would not be standing here as Mayor of the City of Boston,” Mayor Marty Walsh said. “For the Irish from Ireland who are here today, thank you for your contributions to our city and our country.”
Walsh noted that President John F. Kennedy spoke of the emerald thread in the tapestry of the Irish past and Deer Island is part of that past. Somehow by erecting the monument the thread is mended.
“It’s unbearably sad to imagine the reality of what happened right here and in Boston Harbor,” Walsh said. “Those who were lost here deserve a better fate.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, compared the “orphan ships” in Boston Harbor to “children at the borders of our country, who are fleeing oppression and hunger, and whose parents are making the sacrifice to save their lives and give them a new future.”
“We pray that immigrants coming today will receive a welcome from people who have made the difficult journey and are open to being brothers and sisters to those arriving from every part of the globe,” he said.
Toward the end of the dedication the Boston Currrah Rowing club placed a wreath in Boston Harbor and two fireboats displayed plumes of water.