Deer Island memorial getting a second look

Ed Forry

The awful years of An Gorta Mor, the great hunger that ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, saw thousands of Irish board ships that took them across to America. Between 1847 and 1849 some 25,000 souls arrived in Boston Harbor on the “coffin ships,” which under an edict by the city’s health officials were steered to Deer Island, where the passengers would be examined, and if necessary, quarantined to prevent the spread of any communicable diseases from coming ashore.

Hundreds failed to survive, and most who died were laid to rest in unmarked paupers’ graves right there on Deer Island. The names of Irish burials reads like a roll call of Irish Boston: Ahearn, Barry Doherty, Dolan, Donahue, Foley, Gallagher, Leary, Looney, Mahoney, Regan, Riley, Ryan, Shaughnessy, Twohig, Walsh, York – more than 500 Irish surnames, many of whom very likely were ancestors of families who survived the journey and went on to build new lives in America.

Some twenty years ago, a small group of met with then-Mayor Ray Flynn and his staff to plan a memorial for the Deer Island deceased, those hundreds of poor Irish emigrants who  had escaped the terrible famine only to fall just short of the “promised land.” A committee led by Dr. Bill and Rita O’Connell of Duxbury researched the site’s history and resolved to establish a lasting memorial.

A small amount of money was raised, and they reached out to others for design and fundraising ideas, eventually creating a website (  The island is now connected to Winthrop by a causeway, and Boston’s MWRA sewage treatment plant is adjacent to the burial grounds.

The agency pledged support, and the city of Boston committed $50,000 from the Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust Fund for construction costs. But the initial design, calculated to cost ten times as much, proved impossible to raise.

In addition, when the Deer Island plan was first conceived there was no local Irish famine memorial. But in 1997, philanthropists John O’Connor and John Flaherty established a memorial near Harvard Square, and then-Ireland President Mary Robinson presided at  the dedication. In 1998, at the corner of Washington and School streets on the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston, a committee led by the late developer Tom Flatley dedicated a dramatic memorial featuring two plaintive statues that evoke both the suffering of the famine victims and the hope of those who fled by boat to Boston and began the city’s Irish transformation.

The hopes to create a memorial at Deer Island continued to drive the O’Connells, and even after Bill’s wife Rita was diagnosed with cancer, the Duxbury couple kept the dream alive. Last year, when Boston hosted a worldwide Irish famine commemoration, Dr. Bill tried without success to arrange a Deer Island visit for new President Michael D Higgins; then, at year’s end, Rita succumbed to her disease.

Two months ago, Ireland’s Consul General to Boston Michael Lonergan reached out to revive the Deer Island effort. “As you are aware Dr. Bill O’Connell has been very involved with this project for some time and as you know, sadly his wife Rita passed away over Christmas,” Lonergan wrote. “I wondered if we might meet ourselves just to have a chat about the feasibility of this and what we might be able to do to get this project back on track and in a reasonable timeframe.”

Early last month, a small group gathered to begin the effort, and I was delighted on behalf of our newspaper, the Boston Irish Reporter to join the effort. Already, contact has been made with the sculptor Ted Clausen, the MWRA, and the Browne Fund.  It is likely that a more modest memorial will be designed, but the new supporters bring with them a resolve to get it done. It would be a fitting tribute not only to the famine victims, but also to Dr. Bill and to the wonderfully dedicated Rita.