Presented at the Deer Island Great Hunger Memorial dedication
May 25, 2019 Copyright, John McColgan
An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s “Great Hunger”, saw an estimated 1.5 million people die of starvation and disease. Another two million emigrated. Many of these perished from the plagues they fled - thousands on the ocean journey, thousands more on North America’s shores, and thousands in quarantine, in places like Deer Island in Boston Harbor.
The causes of the catastrophe are enormously complex. But fundamentally they reside in colonialism. Ireland was England’s first colony. Expropriation of land and wealth by an aristocracy alien in race and religion bred misrule, endemic poverty, violence, and war lasting into recent times. The 1801 Act of Union was supposed to combine Ireland and Great Britain into a single body politic. But Ireland remained a de facto colony, an agricultural resource run for the benefit of English industry and commerce. Irish industry was nipped in the bud, leaving an expanding population without adequate subsistence or livelihood. Between 1815 and 1845, nearly a million people abandoned Ireland for North America, many thousands to Boston.
Then, in harvests from 1845 through 1851, an unknown fungus destroyed the only food source for millions. The Imperial government could have deployed its massive resources to prevent people from starving. Laissez faire ideology prevented it from doing so. It responded instead with measures that were ineffectual, wasteful, or downright harmful. Soup kitchens were closed because free food was regarded as a disincentive for starving people to work. Better to waste money on purposeless public works schemes. The burden of financing relief passed from central government to local Poor Law Unions, even though these local bodies were bankrupt. British officials in any case saw an upside to the Famine: reducing Ireland’s excessive population would bring needed reform to its agricultural economy. Non-intervention with the course of famine was reinforced by ethnic and religious prejudices popular in Britain. Lacking a mission focused on saving lives, British policy had the effect of profoundly escalating death and emigration.1
Boston felt the impact in 1847 when an unprecedented influx of Irish immigrants landed in the city. Hundreds, destitute and sick, had nowhere to turn for food and shelter but the House of Industry in South Boston. Part-homeless shelter, part-hospital, the House of Industry was the City’s workhouse and asylum for the poor. In April and May, 429 arriving refugees were admitted, many carrying, in the filthy rags they wore, lice bearing the highly contagious scourge of typhus. Eighty-six of them quickly died. The disease had spread easily in deplorable, crowded conditions aboard the “coffin ships” that brought them. The infection now spread among the institution’s regular inmates, nurses, attendants, and officers.2
The spectre of what was happening alarmed Bostonians, and a burgeoning anti-immigrant nativism intensified. With typhus crippling the House of Industry, epidemic threatening the city, and refugees still flowing in, the City Aldermen and Common Council formed a special “Joint Alien Passengers Committee” to deal with the crisis. Faced with citizen disquiet and a fiscal conundrum, the Committee enforced laws requiring shipmasters to post indemnity bonds for support of foreign paupers. To address the public health emergency, it established a quarantine hospital on Deer Island for the care of sick indigent immigrants.
172 years ago today, May 25th, 1847, the committee appointed Dr. Joseph Moriarty as hospital Superintendent and Resident Physician. The hospital opened May 29th, the last Saturday of May. Committee members met on the island to oversee the launch of operations. Their meeting minutes record a unanimous decision to locate a burial ground “near the northwest side of the most northerly hill on the island.” James Turner, the new Hospital Steward, was also on the island. In the eight months of his employment Turner would bury 365 immigrants in that ground. Across the harbor, Captain Ellis, and First Mate Mr. Knell, sailed the sloop “Betsy Ransom”, on the first of countless journeys transporting the ill from Long Wharf to the island hospital. Anchored off the island’s southern point were the first two Atlantic vessels to land passengers at Deer Island quarantine: the barque “General Greene” from Cork with 95 passengers; the ship “Clairborne” from Liverpool, with 259 passengers. Calvin Bailey, City Inspector of Alien Passengers, declared eleven from the “Clairborne” indigent and secured bonds from the captain indemnifying the City for the cost of their care. The Port Physician, Jerome Von Crowninshield Smith, found two passengers from the “General Greene” and six from the “Clairborne” suffering from “malignant diseases”, and ordered their transfer up-island to Dr. Moriarty. One of the six, Mary Connell, age 1, would die on 3 June, the first victim of the Great Hunger James Turner would bury on Deer Island.3
In the first four months the hospital admitted 1,779 patients. 1,175 were discharged; 214 died; thirteen were taken dead from ships.4 Among these statistics were the McCarthy family from Sligo. Patrick and Alice, in their forties, with seven sons ranging from thirteen years to six months, arrived August 2nd aboard the “Iowa” out of Liverpool. Five-year-old Patrick later in life wrote of his family’s harrowing and tragic experience emigrating to Boston. On the eve of their departure, someone broke a hole in the thatch roof of their cottage and ran off with a large side of bacon meant to sustain the journey to America. Presumably saving himself from starvation, the thief deprived the family of the sustenance that may have avoided the deaths that robbed the boy of his parents and two siblings on Deer Island. Through the eyes of his five-year-old self, Patrick recalled the well-worn route of the Famine emigrant: the cattle boat to Liverpool - a cruel and galling symbol, played out a thousand times, of people and food exported on the same boat. Following the stay at Liverpool and the Atlantic journey, the family landed at Deer Island, where a large tent on the quarantine ground failed to shelter them from the rain. City death records reveal his three-year old brother Philip dying of typhus on the island August 9th; the infant, Peter, of a virulent diarrhea on September 2nd. On September 7th Patrick and his brother John were walking about the grounds when their father called to them from a window, in tears, that mother was dead. “A few days after this happened,” Patrick wrote, “I noticed a large striped plaid dress of my mother’s, hanging on a line out of doors, and stood looking at it for a long while. A woman came to take it away and I made a vigorous outcry of protest and was hustled off somewhere.” Six months later his father died at the hospital of a fever relapse. After release from the island the orphans, sheltered and fed by relatives and Catholic charities, survived the streets of Boston, except younger brother James, taken by cholera at the Fort Hill Hospital in 1849. Such a childhood. Yet Patrick McCarthy would one day obtain a law degree from Harvard and be elected Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island.5
We’re all familiar with the cold welcome given the Irish by native Bostonians, the religious and racial prejudice, employment discrimination, the sometimes violent confrontations. Yet a closer look at the archives reveals that the host community was not altogether without compassion. In June 1847 the president of the Common Council reminded his colleagues of the virtue of caring for those in need regardless of who they were:
“Remember,” said the Brahmin George Hillard, “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.”6
It is in this spirit, I believe, that doctors and staff at Deer Island struggled to save the lives of Irish Famine victims charged to their care. Wherever in the world there were famine fever hospitals in 1847, doctors and medical staff were dying. On Deer Island they knew the dangers, yet were willing to risk health and life for humanity. In Dr. Moriarty’s case, the motivation may have run deeper. Moriarty was a Brahmin from Salem married to a grandniece of John Hancock. He didn’t need to take this job jeopardizing his life, his career, the happiness of his family. Why did he so earnestly seek the position? Might it have been because his name was Moriarty? His great-grandfather was an immigrant from Tralee, who fitted out privateer vessels for Washington’s navy during the Revolution. Was it because of his Irish heritage he was now on Deer Island with a passion to care for the people of his forebears? Is this proposition supported by the fact that half the names on the staff were Irish? Whether it was for the Irish, or for the city, or for humanity, Joseph Moriarty, age 37, infected by the typhus, made the supreme sacrifice in December 1847, dying in the arms of his wife in the Hancock Mansion on Beacon Hill leaving her and three young children behind.7
There were others: the intrepid sailors, Captain Ellis and Mr. Knell, perishing from typhus contracted from patients in transit aboard the “Betsy Ransom”;8 and the most well known Boston casualty of all, stricken with typhus, Captain Daniel Chandler, House of Industry Superintendent, War of 1812 veteran, and convert to Catholicism on his deathbed in June 1847. These were the first responders of Black 47 in Boston. They gave their lives for others in need, and deserve to be remembered.
Among Boston’s Famine immigrants themselves, mortality was vast. As inscribed in this powerful monument, 850 innocent people died and were buried on Deer Island between 1847 and 1850. How many more would perish in the island’s institutions in the years to come? How many more escaped death in Ireland only to die in the House of Industry, or the Fort Hill cholera hospital, or in the street? Or to perish of typhus or dysentery in the asylums and prisons and mental hospitals? Or succumb to tuberculosis or typhoid in the North End’s ramshackle tenements? Numbers cease to mean anything. The 850 souls on the island have become a poignant symbol of Famine era tribulation endured by the unnumbered thousands who suffered trauma, poverty, disease, and untimely death, ultimately thanks to a government in London, that placed political power and private profit over poor people.
The Deer Island Irish Memorial fulfils a years-long aspiration commemorating Boston’s Great Hunger fatalities. The Celtic Cross, an icon of Irish heritage, has signified, since ancient times, a place that is sacred. Victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger share this ground with peaceful Native Americans starved in confinement on the island during King Philip’s War of the 1670s. This Cross marks as sacred the earth of Deer Island 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.
John J. McColgan, Ph.D.
Archivist, City of Boston
25 May 2019

1 Published research on the Famine is vast. In this summary analysis the author consulted Christine Kinealy, Death Dealing Famine (Pluto Press, London, Chicago, 1997); Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: a History (Longman, Essex, UK, New York, 2000); Kerby Miller, Immigrants and Exiles (Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, etc., 1985, paperback 1988).
2 Annual Report of the Directors of the Houses of Industry and Reformation, April 1, 1848, City Document No. 17, (Eastburn Press, Boston, 1848), City of Boston Archives
3City Council Joint Committee on Alien Passengers records (hereafter noted as, “APC”); “Aliens Landing” passenger lists, City of Boston Archives.
4 APC, patient registers.
5 Autobiography of Patrick J. McCarthy … Edited by his Daughter Mary Josephine Bannon (Providence Visitors Press, Providence, RI, 1927). Photocopy of relevant chapters kindly forwarded to author by Dan O’Neil of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, 10 January 2001. Patrick states his family was booked on the “Iowa”. State Senate Documents, 1848, No.74 lists Alice and sons James and Philip as bonded passengers on the “Iowa”, arriving 2 August 1847. Death dates are found in City Archives list of Deer Island burials, 1847-1850, compiled in 1991 from City death registers by Ed Quill, City Archivist, 1989-1993.
6City Documents 1847, no. 26, “Resignation of Mr. Hillard as President of the Common Council”, City of Boston Archives
7APC. Genealogical information from George Andrews Moriarty, “The Moriarty Family of Salem, Mass”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGS, Boston, 1947), courtesy Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, and New England Historical and Genealogical Society.
9Op. cit. note 3. Chandler’ conversion is described in Bishop Fitzpatrick’s Diary for 11 June 1847, Boston Archdiocesan Archives.