New resting place for mass grave immigrants in New York

 

IN THE mid-19th century, newly arrived Irish immigrants wandered Staten Island, penniless and disoriented, scrounging for food, waiting for children, spouses, siblings or parents interned in the quarantine hospital to die or be discharged.

They were remembered here this weekend, at a moving ceremony that united those who left Ireland and those who stayed, forever linked by what Edward Cardinal Egan called “the immense suffering” of the emigrants.

A dozen men in green kilts, white Aran jumpers and berets with Tricolour plumes, from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, were pallbearers for two oversized coffins. A beige coffin contained the remains of adults, a white one the bones of children. Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, the Ambassador to Washington, Michael Collins, and Niall Burgess, the Consul General in New York, represented those who stayed. After the service, women wearing Tricolour sashes seized the opportunity to have their photographs taken with Martin – proof that those who stayed still cared about the ones who crossed the Atlantic.

Some 600,000 European immigrants passed through the Staten Island immigrant station between 1799 and 1858, when it was burned to the ground and transferred, eventually to Ellis Island.

“The Irish influx during the Famine destroyed the quarantine hospital,” explains Lynn Rogers, executive director of the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries. “The Irish relatives of those in quarantine built a shanty town. The locals didn’t want them. A lot stayed on in Staten Island, including my ancestors.”

At least 1,000 people died in the quarantine hospital, of typhoid and other diseases. They were buried in a mass grave across the road from what is now the Staten Island ferry station. There were Germans, Scots, English, Poles, Czechs and others, but Rogers says the majority were Irish. In 1957, a car park was built over the mass grave. “We found a whole row of remains cut off at the knee; a bulldozer rolled over them,” says Rogers. “People back then didn’t care.”

Six years ago, the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries interrupted a plan to build a courthouse on the site of the mass grave, forcing the authorities to excavate and remove the remains of the quarantine victims. Until Saturday, the remains were held in storage. They’ve now been placed in a 19th century receiving tomb, while the former parking lot is transformed into a cemetery.

Cardinal Egan linked the wave of immigration in the 19th century to the present day. “It’s not easy for those who are coming now, just as it was not easy for these children,” he said, gesturing towards the white casket, “and these adults,” he nodded at the beige one. “Imagine the pain of those who saw their relatives put into a mass grave. But somehow we made it, and we became citizens of the United States of America...”

“The famine is the foundation of Irish-American identity,” Consul General Noel Burgess said later. “You’re struck by the strength and integrity of the memory here in America. In Ireland, we dealt with it by forgetting for six generations.”

Martin’s four-day visit to the US started in the 21st century, explaining the Lisbon Treaty. By Saturday, he had journeyed back to the 19th century. At number 7 State Street, on the southernmost tip of Manhattan, he visited Our Lady of the Rosary, where a home for Irish immigrant girls received more than 100,000 of the 308,000 young Irishwomen who passed through the Port of New York between 1883 and 1908.

Maureen Murphy, a history professor at Hofstra University, quotes a certain Cardinal Gibbons, explaining the protective mission of the home at the end of the 19th century: “These young maidens, after escaping the perils of the sea and landing on our shores, become a prey to the land sharks that infest your city” who sought “to rob those innocent and confiding women” of “the jewel of purity, for which the Irish maiden to all the world is so conspicuous.”

Like most of the women who left Ireland at the end of the 19th century, Murphy’s own grandmother worked as a maid. “Irish emigration was unusual, because there were more women than men,” Murphy explains. “The eldest boy inherited the land. One daughter was dowered off. Opportunity for boys depended on the economy, but for the girls there was always work.”

Murphy and Fr Peter Meehan, the priest at Our Lady of the Rosary, want to turn number 7 State Street into a research centre. Fr Peter found five leatherbound registers in a safe, containing the names, ages, county of origin, date of arrival and address of destination of 60,000 women – a gold mine for historians and genealogists.

As a politician, Martin said, he most enjoyed his day on Capitol Hill. But as a former history teacher, he was in his element discussing books with Murphy: “In my journey here, and through the various events I attend, a door keeps opening into the story of the Irish in America for me.”