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Hundreds gathered Saturday morning on a windswept hill overlooking Boston Harbor to remember ancestors who survived brutal conditions crossing the Atlantic, only to perish with the new life they’d sought just out of reach.

Beneath a brilliant blue sky, the crowd on Deer Island surrounded a tall Celtic cross to witness its dedication as the Great Hunger Memorial, commemorating hundreds of Irish refugees fleeing the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 who arrived at the island with “ship fever.”

They were quarantined on Deer Island, died there, and were buried in unmarked graves.

John J. McColgan, Boston’s city archivist, told the crowd a harrowing tale of ordinary people willing to sacrifice anything for a chance at a better life, of ships arriving full of orphans whose parents starved during the journey because feeding the children was their only priority.

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“Among Boston’s famine immigrants themselves, mortality was vast,” McColgan said. “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? . . . Numbers cease to mean anything,” he continued.

McColgan said the Irish immigrants who died 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.”

Some of those present drew parallels between the Irish refugees of 170 years ago and immigrants who come to the United States today.

“I was thinking this morning, as I was sitting here . . . some of the [Irish] ships got turned away from Boston Harbor,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, told reporters after the ceremony. “You think about the relevance of it today, people being turned away at the border, families being separated at the border. It’s kind of history repeating itself.”

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During the ceremony, Walsh saluted those who had worked for a quarter-century to build the memorial, especially the late William and Rita O’Connell, who led the effort.

“We can tell that they’re smiling down on us today because it’s not raining,” Walsh joked, before taking a more somber tone to describe the struggles of earlier generations of Irish-Americans.

Bagpiper Joe Hickey of the Greater Boston Firefighters Pipe & Drum Corps watched the ceremony.
Bagpiper Joe Hickey of the Greater Boston Firefighters Pipe & Drum Corps watched the ceremony.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Like much of Irish culture, this memorial marks profound suffering with remarkable beauty,” he said. “The truth is, it’s unbearably sad to imagine the reality of what happened right here and in Boston Harbor. Children dying of fever in their mothers’ arms. Older people ending their lives thousands of miles from the only homes that they had ever known. Whole families isolated, bewildered, with no escape but to hold onto each other and to hold onto their faith.”

Most immigration stories, he said, are tales of overcoming adversity. “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 most cruelest fates.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, compared the 19th-century Irish children who arrived on “orphan ships,” to “those children at the borders of our country, who are fleeing oppression and hunger, and whose parents are making a supreme sacrifice to save their lives and give them a new future.”

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O’Malley said the occasion was a reminder of “our interdependence and our interconnectedness, how we are connected to one another and connected to the people that died on this island and were buried here.”

He hoped the recognition of those connections would open hearts, he said.

“We pray that immigrants coming today will receive a welcome, a welcome from a people that have made that difficult journey and whose families have suffered, and who are open to being brothers and sisters to those who are arriving from every part of this globe,” the cardinal said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Joe Pike, 75, of Winthrop said he was deeply touched by the ceremony, which included the release of white doves and the placement of a wreath in Boston Harbor.

“My great-grandmother came from Ireland in 1847, so it’s very personal to me,” he said. “I’m so very happy to be here. . . . That monument will live forever.”

Dermot Quinn, a native of Rhode, in County Offaly, who has lived in Boston for 32 years, was also moved.

“It’s brilliant to see this commemoration here and show the respect for our fallen brothers back so many years ago that were forgotten about,” he said. “It’s nice today to have all these people here in remembrance of those people that died.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.