Kevin Cullen

‘Wild singing’ on the holy ground

Lt. Commander Eoin Smyth, Captain of the Samuel Beckett placed a wreath at the Great Hunger Memorial on Deer Island, commemorating hundreds of Irish refugees fleeing the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849.
Lt. Commander Eoin Smyth, Captain of the Samuel Beckett placed a wreath at the Great Hunger Memorial on Deer Island, commemorating hundreds of Irish refugees fleeing the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Only the Irish would name a warship after a playwright.

The L.E. Samuel Beckett sailed out of Boston Monday afternoon, back to Ireland. But before they left, the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Eoin Smyth, led a group of his sailors to Deer Island to pay tribute to the Irish people who never made it off that island.

The Irish call their military the defense forces, because as a people that suffered centuries of occupation and colonization, they aren’t big on aggression. The Irish military has a well-earned, distinguished record as international peacekeepers.

The Irish Naval Service has an exemplary record for saving refugees.


It should come as no surprise that the Irish navy also has a ship called the William Butler Yeats, and the L.E. James Joyce. L.E. is short for Long Eireannach, or Irish Ship.

If such writers as Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats challenged readers to consider their own place on this earth, the ships bearing their names have done far more than that.

Like its sister ships, the Beckett was dispatched to the Mediterranean to pluck refugees, many of them fleeing the madness of Syria, from the sea. In 10 deployments over the past few years, Irish warships have rescued some 19,000 refugees. The Beckett alone has saved 4,200.

For the Irish people, this is more than an obligation. It goes to their DNA. Per capita, no one turned to the sea to escape death and devastation more than the Irish. In the middle of the 19th century, when the potato crop that fed most of them failed and their English colonizers let them starve, the Irish crammed onto coffin ships and sailed off to such places as Newfoundland, New York, and Boston.

Many of them died during the passage and were dropped into the sea like so much waste. About 1,800 of them died and 850 were buried on Deer Island before leaving quarantine, their last visions being the Boston waterfront, so tantalizingly, so cruelly close.


It was all those souls that brought those Irish sailors to stand at attention as Smyth and Laoise Moore, Ireland’s consul general in Boston, placed wreaths at the memorial on Deer Island.

“As I told our lads,” Smyth was saying, “85,000 people left Cork, where we are based, on those coffin ships, and many of them never made it over. There was no one there to give them a dig out. So when we were there in the Mediterranean, it was very meaningful for us to be able to rescue those refugees, and it’s very meaningful for us to be here in Boston, where so many of our people settled, and here, where so many died.”

They did the same, remembering, stopping at sea off Newfoundland, then in New York, sailing past the famine memorial there.

Smyth was profoundly moved saving refugees from the sea, as a sailor, as a human being, as an Irishman whose people were once the world’s most desperate refugees.

“It puts everything in perspective,” Smyth said. “You see people with nothing, willing to risk everything.”

Sudanese refugees danced in gratitude for and with their rescuers on the decks of those Irish ships. There was wild singing.

Ruairí de Barra, the Beckett’s chief petty officer, was moved to write a poem to commemorate his ship’s retracing the voyage of his people a century and a half ago. He calls it “Wild Singing.”


He wrote of fireplaces growing cold on the holy ground, of lonely children playing, of mothers praying, and of the desperate conditions that killed a million people and scattered a million more.

“The arms of Canada were waiting,” de Barra wrote, “the bustling docks of the Hudson beckoning, Nova Scotia was calling to the weary, Boston to the Gael to come to rest, yet met they disaster on the ocean, mid foul shoal and tempest, no final kiss from mothers’ lips, no final lovers’ soft caress, for the coffin ship shed its sad cargo, along the shores of Newfoundland.”

It sounded like a prayer.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.