Quarantined, they died; now, they are remembered

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke to a gathering of some 600 at the dedication of the Deer Island Irish Memorial. Photo courtesy Bill Brett

Some 600 people gathered on a bright Saturday morning of the 2019 Memorial Day weekend to dedicate a permanent marker on Deer Island to those Irish emigrants who some 170 years ago left their island during the Great Hunger (“An Gorta Mor”) for the United States only to be too sick to enter the country when they arrived in Boston Harbor.

Standing at the wind-swept site, a visitor can gaze over the harbor and see city neighborhoods where in the mid-1800s tens of thousands of Ireland’s men, women, and children who managed to survive the harrowing ocean journey in relatively good health made new lives for themselves. But not everyone made it to the farther shore beyond the small island they embarked upon. Quarantined there by civic and medical officials fearful of the spread of deadly diseases like typhus to the general population in Boston, over time almost 1,200 would-be immigrants, historians say, never left the tiny prominence that faced the city proper. Their fate was to die waiting.

Those who gathered on May 25 near the towering Celtic cross witnessed its dedication as the symbol of the Great Hunger Memorial, a commemorative to the hundreds of Irish refugees who arrived at the island in the years between 1845 and 1852 with cases of what officials called “ship fever,” most likely a form of typhus. The cross and the memorial site were built “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.”

The day’s events included welcoming remarks by MWRA executive director Fred Laskey, a blessing by Boston’s Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, and remarks by Boston’s Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The rector of Holy Cross Cathedral, Msgr. Kevin O’Leary, also participated in the ceremony, and Irish-born vocalist Mairin Ui Cheide Keady performed the Irish and US national anthems.

City of Boston Archivist John McColgan, whose research of historic records helped tell the story of the quarantine station on Deer Island, gave the keynote address at the ceremony, a 2,500-word recounting of the chapters that made up the full story. He had noted earlier that historical accounts say that 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.

The backstory to the memorial dedication initiative was the discovery in 1990 by a backhoe operator working to help build a wastewater treatment plant for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority of some skeletons initially believed to be the remains of those captured Native Americans two centuries earlier. But laboratory tests later confirmed they were the remains of Irish refugees.

For many Irish who died in those years, the burial place was mass graves at Deer Island’s historic Rest Haven Cemetery. 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 in unmarked graves on the island at the city’s expense.

The event marked the completion of a decades-long effort to erect a memorial to those unfortunate immigrants that will be visible from virtually every point of the harbor’s edge.