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Kevin Cullen

The Irish, the famine, and the legacy of colonialism

The blessing and dedication of the Great Hunger Memorial took place on Deer Island on Saturday.
The blessing and dedication of the Great Hunger Memorial took place on Deer Island on Saturday. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Globe Staff

They unveiled a Celtic cross on Deer Island the other day.

It is a Christian symbol, of course, but, like many things in Irish culture, it has pagan roots. The circle that dominates the top of a Celtic cross was originally a tribute to Invictus, the Roman sun god.

On Saturday, some deity must have allowed the sun to grace Deer Island with an appearance, because the sun has been, during this relentlessly damp spring, as rare as a Chris Sale victory.

The cross marks the place where 850 souls were buried, Irish immigrants lost to disease as they fled a humanitarian catastrophe, the Great Hunger — An Gorta Mor, in the Irish language — that was man-made.

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As John McColgan, the city’s archivist, who is also a city treasure, told the crowd, “The causes of the catastrophe are enormously complex, but fundamentally they reside in colonialism.”

The Irish on Deer Island share their graves with Native Americans starved in confinement during King Philip’s War.

There is research suggesting the fungus that killed the Irish potato, which in turn killed much of the Irish nation, originated in South and North America. If true, Boston and other places in the Americas had something of an obligation to those fleeing the potato blight.

But when thousands of impoverished, malnourished Irish arrived in Boston in the late 1840s, they were widely viewed as an unwanted burden. Beyond being poor and sick, they were Catholic, which, for many of the Brahmins who literally looked down upon them from that city on a hill, made them irredeemable. The sick were quarantined on Deer Island.

As in England, many in Boston saw the famine as divine providence, God’s plan to save the Irish from themselves, by killing them off, like culling an inferior herd. Such thinking was a perverse interpretation of religious belief. But it was mainstream opinion then.

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As McColgan noted, Ireland’s British overlords closed soup kitchens “because free food was regarded as a disincentive for starving people to work.” The British government passed the financial obligations of famine relief to bankrupt local governments, a 19th century version of today’s practice of dumping immigrants on overburdened municipalities.

Ireland’s population of 8 million was decimated; 1.5 million died of starvation and disease, 2 million emigrated. Especially cruel was the fate of those who died in the overcrowded squalor of famine ships or, even worse, after reaching what they thought would be sanctuary.

In Boston, McColgan found, the first of the Irish to die and be buried on Deer Island was Mary Connell. She was 1 year old.

While nativism was common in Boston at the time, McColgan found inspiring examples of compassion. George Hillard, the Brahmin president of the city’s Common Council, urged Bostonians to look upon the Irish with charity, “even though they be aliens to our soil.”

“They have the claims of a common humanity, besides those of urgent need,” Hillard said. “We are men before we are Americans or Englishmen. They are 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.”

McColgan said doctors and nurses worked feverishly to save lives on Deer Island. No one worked harder than Dr. John Moriarty, a Brahmin whose Irish grandfather was in George Washington’s navy. Moriarty, who was married to John Hancock’s grandniece, contracted typhus from the immigrants he treated. He died at 37 in the Hancock Mansion on Beacon Hill.

John McColgan concluded his remarks with words about that Celtic cross. It sounded like a prayer.

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“This cross,” he said, “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.”

Amen.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.