The Celtic Cross memorial on Deer Island
By Ray O’Hanlon
As far as these guys were concerned, Deer Island was lacking something, something big and important.
And that was a marker, a memorial to the memory of Famine times Irish who staggered ashore in this place but never made it any farther into America.
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So they got together and worked out a plan.
Plans were a familiar thing because all these guys were involved in the construction business.
And they had a mind to construct something on Deer Island, which is actually more of a peninsula jutting into the harbor since a hurricane in 1938 changed the shoreline and filled in the channel between the island and mainland.
And so Mark Porter from County Donegal and his friends Michael Kearney, John Flaherty, Peter O’Malley, Bernard Callaghan, the Feeney brothers, Rob Stone of Flynn Stone (yes!) and a few others got together and got to work.
“Deer Island was the Ellis island for Boston,” said Porter, who is from Buncrana.
And he continued: “It was a quarantine station for people that were too sick to get into the city. If any immigrants actually made it to the city and were sick, they were transported back to the island.
“From what I can gather there were approximately 5000 Irish immigrants who passed through the island between 1847 and 1850, of which 1500 died.
“Of that number, 850 were buried on the mainland. They had to have family that could claim them and pay for their burial. The remainder were buried in makeshift graves or mass graves on Deer Island depending on the death toll on any particular day.
“We have the names and ages of approximately 850 men, women and children who made the journey to America, and even children who were born on the island. You can see how far they came, and how close they were to their final destination only to be denied.
“It is heartbreaking when you realize what they went through to get this far to be denied America within eyes’ view.”
“Can you imagine what it was like in the winter for these people? They were hungry, sick, barely clothed. It must have been horrendous. There are many Famine memorials in the USA, but I really don’t think that there are any with this history and from a time the Irish were hated and despised and treated like the rats that infested the docks in Boston – which was how the Irish immigrants were described at the time.”
Porter said that the erection of a Celtic Cross to remember the Great Hunger Irish of Deer Island, Boston and beyond, was something that should have been done “years ago.”
“Because the sacrifices made by our fellow Irish have enabled us to be who we are, and to thrive in the USA today,” he said.
Since 1996, Deer Island has been part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. It is the location of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, which covers roughly two thirds of the island’s 185 above the tidal mark acres.
The rest of the island is parkland surrounding the treatment plant, and it offers a variety of recreational activities.
The new offering is the cross, and a chance for visitors to ponder those who never made it beyond the little piece of America that was all of America they ever got to see.