Following are excerpts from the prepared text for Mayor Martin Walsh’s remarks at the dedication of the Deer Island Great Hunger Memorial:
Thank you, Gene O’Flaherty; Cardinal O’Malley and clergy; Consul General Quinlan, as well as your predecessors, who have all been supportive of this work; Executive Director Fred Laskey and everyone at the MWRA, past and present, who helped this project along; John McColgan, our City Archivist, for your thorough research and compelling relation of these events; members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, for supporting this project and traveling to be here today; and the Boston Currach Rowing Club for your participation.
I also want to acknowledge the many people over the years who have raised awareness of these events. It’s too many people to mention, but the late Dr. Bill O’Connell and Rita O’Connell deserve special recognition. They are smiling down on us today, I’m sure.
And to those who have worked hard, in recent years, to make this memorial a reality, we are grateful: Mark Porter, John Flaherty, Peter O’Malley, John Foley, and Ed Forry, among many others. I especially want to thank Michael Carney, who has been such a driving force.
President John F. Kennedy spoke of an “emerald thread that runs throughout the tapestry of [the Irish] past.” He defined this thread as: “the constancy, the endurance, the faith they displayed through endless centuries of foreign oppression [as] religious and civil rights were denied to them [and] their destruction by poverty, disease, and starvation was ignored by their conquerors.”
Deer Island has a place in this tapestry of endurance. The victims we remember today were far from home, but not yet attached to our immigrant community. So for them, it may have felt as if the “emerald thread” was broken. But today, in our prayers, our education, and our collective memory, through this powerful monument to their hopes and their hardships, we weave their thread back into the pattern.
Like much in Irish culture, this memorial marks profound suffering with remarkable beauty. The truth is, it’s unbearably sad to imagine the reality of what happened here. Children dying of fever in their mothers’ arms. Older people ending their lives thousands of miles from the only homes they’d ever known. Whole families isolated, bewildered, with no escape but to hold onto each other and hold onto their faith.
Their suffering was a product and an extension of the misery being inflicted on Ireland at the time. But it happened right here on Boston Harbor, within sight of the city that these families hoped and prayed would be their salvation.
Most of the time, the immigration story we tell is a story of triumph, of overcoming and succeeding. We are rightly proud of our parents and ancestors. But our city’s story and our country’s story is the story of those who were lost, as well. They took the hardest risks, under the worst conditions, and suffered the cruelest fates. All of us who are members of this Irish immigrant and Irish-American community must count them and honor them as ancestors, to whom we owe a debt.
We believe with all our hearts that those who were lost here deserved a better fate. Their lives had as much value and meaning as anyone’s, and should never be forgotten. We indict those, across the ocean, who caused their suffering and who could have prevented it.
But as we mark their loss with a symbol of faith that transcends time, we have an opportunity to act on those values and relieve that suffering as it appears in our world today.
Echoes of the injustice that drove these Irish women, men, and children to our shores exist today, in the violence and poverty, often with roots in colonialism, that is forcing families to flee homes in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. So we can see the desperation of the Irish mother holding a hungry baby, in the Guatemalan mother holding a sick child in her arms today. We can see the fear and bewilderment of children held in quarantine, on our southern border today. We can see, in the face of every refugee, the humanity of the refugees we memorialize today.
Let us not be anything like those with power who ignored poverty, disease, and starvation in Ireland. Let us honor those who died here, by seeking to prevent those conditions wherever we can and by welcoming with compassion those who find their way to our shores and borders.
We are a country built not on an identity, but an idea: the idea that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the rights of all people—no matter what their religion, their ethnicity, their resources, or their place of birth. These are the rights that these Irish victims were denied in their homeland. This is the idea they heard of and they hoped for as they sought safe harbor here in Boston. And this is the creed that the survivors lived by, as they built up our city and country like every immigrant before and after them.
This memorial honors the hopes of those who died. And it calls us to our duty to defend those hopes, and make them a reality here, and around the world, however we can.
This place also reminds us that the achievement of this idea is no easy task. The treatment of Native American people on this very island in the 1600s is a reminder. The prejudice that faced the Irish in our own city, at the time of the Great Hunger and beyond it, is a reminder. The enslavement of African-Americans, the Civil War and injustices that followed, and every act of discrimination that occurs today, are reminders.
It takes courage to live up to our principles. It takes work to put them into practice. It takes putting ourselves in others’ shoes, or lack of shoes, across languages, across skin colors, across religions, across time. It takes seeing our common humanity and dignity, despite whatever forces would separate us. That’s what we do today for these innocent victims, as we dedicate a worthy addition to our historic Harbor.
I want to thank, once again, everyone who has had a part in creating and blessing this Memorial. May all who see it remember those who were lost here, bear witness to their hope, faith, and endurance, and reflect on the meaning and value of their lives, then and now. May God hold them close and may God bless all of us with their memory.