On Deer Island, a remembrance of hunger, sickness, burial

After 170 years, a memorial to the ‘An Gorta Mor’ refugees, maybe 1,200 in all, and others who perished in quarantine or imprisonment is ready for its blessing ceremonies on Saturday.

This month will offer a fitting commemoration of a tragic chapter in the annals of the Boston Irish. A blessing and dedication for the Great Hunger Memorial will be held on Deer Island on the 25th “in memory of the Irish souls who, in hope of avoiding starvation, left their native land for new lives in America, only to perish and be interred in unmarked graves.”

Delivering the invocation and blessing of those too-long-forgotten burial sites will be Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap Archbishop of Boston. Mayor Martin J. Walsh will also speak at the convocation.

The event will mark the success of the effort to erect a memorial to those immigrants that will be visible from virtually every point of the harbor’s edge. The brainchild of the late Dr. William O’Connell and his wife, the late Rita O’Connell, the memorial is slated to stand as a poignant and dignified marker of what happened on the island some 170 years ago. Rita O’Connell put it this way: “It’s important we don’t forget the stories of people such as Patrick J. McCarthy, who lost his mother, father, and six siblings on Deer Island but went on to graduate from Harvard and become mayor of Providence.”

According to City of Boston Archivist John McColgan, whose prodigious research of old records has laid bare so much of the sad saga of the quarantine station on Deer Island, some 800 Irish died there from 1847-1850 and perhaps up to 1,200 by 1852.

(Historical accounts note that two centuries earlier, in the 1670s, some 500 Native Americans who had been captured near modern-day Natick during King Philip’s War were interned on the island where close to half of them died of starvation and exposure.)

In 1847, a crisis unfolded nearly daily along Boston’s docks. Leaking, lurching vessels, aptly dubbed “coffin ships,” unloaded hordes of ragged Irish passengers who had fled “An Gorta Mor,” the Great Famine. Some 25,000 arrived in “Black ‘47,” and with thousands wracked by “ship fever,” likely a form of typhus, Boston officials so feared a citywide epidemic that they ordered a medical receiving room erected on Long Wharf. As overwhelmed physicians dispatched the gravely ill to hospitals, the city determined that the swelling influx of Irish aboard Boston-bound famine ships posed such a health risk that it was deemed “a settled matter that the City must support a Physician at Deer Island, and that that is the suitable and proper place to attend to all the nuisance and sickness accompanying navigation…”

The Deer Island Quarantine Hospital and Almshouse was established in that year. All famine ships plodding into Boston Harbor and judged by port officials to be “foul and infected with any malignant or contagious disease” moored at Deer Island where the port physician quarantined Irish men, woman, and children suffering from typhus, cholera, and an array of fevers and oversaw the “cleaning and purification” of ships.

Only then could the healthier immigrants set foot in Boston. From 1847 to 1849, approximately 4,186 people were quarantined “as a precautionary measure to ward off a pestilence that would have been ruinous to the public health and business of the city.” Not all were to make it off the island.
Even before Bostonians grasped the health hazard posed by Famine ships clotted with direly ill passengers, the Irish newcomers had not been welcomed. By 1847, the city was changing – and its Yankee population didn’t like what was happening. Anglo-Protestant families who had ruled over the city since their Puritan ancestors set foot in the region in the 1620s embraced still the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice of Boston’s founders. Ephraim Peabody, whose family ranked high among Boston’s founding fathers, lamented that the Irish were infesting “proper Bostonians’ ” turf with a horrific “social revolution.”

As the city’s population swelled from some 115,000 to over 150,000 in 1847 alone, the newcomers quickly discovered that they had escaped the Famine only to find themselves in a new battle for survival among what historian George S. Potter dubbed “the chilly Yankee icicles.” The age-old prejudices that the Irish had encountered on the “old sod” now confronted them in the New World, and as some one million often-unwelcome Irish poured into America from 1845-1850, the roughest reception awaited them in Boston. For many, the first and last site they would inhabit in America was the Deer Island Quarantine Station across from the Boston shore.

It was scant surprise that so many Irish reaching Boston were sick after the six-to-eight-week Atlantic crossing. During the Great Hunger, over a million people perished in Ireland from starvation and associated diseases between 1845 and 1852. More than two million emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, and other sites, and roughly six percent of the Irish emigrants fleeing to Boston and other North American cities died at sea from disease or went down with vessels ill-suited to the crossing.

The logs and records of Famine ships sailing to Boston and elsewhere recorded unforgettable scenes of human fear and misery. In an 1848 letter penned by British official Stephen E. De Vere, the description of the berths is chilling: “The passengers have not more [room] than their coffins.”

And a Parliamentary Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the Operation of the Passengers Acts related: “I have known cases of females who had to sit up all night upon their boxes in the steerage,” said one eyewitness, “because they could think not of going into bed with a strange man.” With men and women packed into steerage so tightly, there were scant or no means to preserve even a semblance of privacy or modesty. Fevers spread rapidly and lethally.

Irish men, women, and children, all thrashing with sickness, crying out in their fitful sleep, and dazed by the growing realization that no matter whether their ship went down in a storm or disgorged them in America, they would never see Ireland again. An elderly woman slumped against the rail of a coffin ship was heard to exclaim, “God save me. Old as I am, I should never have left Ireland. Who knows where I’ll be buried now.”

For many Irish, the burial place proved to be Deer Island’s old Rest Haven Cemetery from 1847 to 1850. Figures as to how many were buried in an unmarked grave vary because a number of bodies were claimed by family members and buried elsewhere in or around Boston. Those who were unclaimed – they had died alone – were laid to rest on the island at the city of Boston’s expense.

Many immigrants who were not sick enough for quarantine on Deer Island did not last long in Boston’s North End Irish tenements and rooming houses, where conditions were little better than on the crowded coffin ships. A Boston Committee of Internal Health study of the slums related that the Irish languished in “a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases huddled together like brutes, without regard to age or sex or sense of decency. Under such circumstances self-respect, forethought, all the high and noble virtues soon die out, and sullen indifference and despair or disorder, intemperance and utter degradation reign supreme.”

The lack of sanitation in the slums, or “rookeries,” unleashed a wide array of disease, cholera proving the most lethal. Of Irish children born in Boston during the Famine years, approximately 60 percent died before the age of six.

To bestow the respect and recognition the Deer Island dead were denied in life, the Boston Irish community and the community at large are invited to attend the memorial ceremony on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Event parking and assistance will be provided by the MWRA. The site is accessible by driving to Bennington Street in East Boston, taking MA-145 N, Pleasant Street, and Shirley Street to Elliot Street in Winthrop. It’s about 13 minutes from the tunnels. For folks using GPS, use this address: 190 Tafts Ave, Winthrop, MA 02152. There will be ample free parking on the island, but arrive early, as there’s limited room at the site.

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