The epic journey the Irish made to America during the Great Hunger can still be seen in a modest field on Staten Island that once overlooked the blue water of New York Bay.
Here on a gentle slope, just a short walk away from the Staten Island Ferry, the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries Group assembled on Sunday to commemorate the tens of thousands of Irish who died and are buried in unmarked graves directly underfoot and in the nearby vicinity.
Today all that remains of the quiet spot where the starving Irish found some refuge is a quarter-acre field of manicured grass dotted with little tufts of clover; the wide view of the bay is obscured now by government buildings, high-rise apartments and the newly built borough courts.
Looking around at this unprepossessing square, it’s hard to imagine the scale of human horror that unfolded here 165 years ago. Until you see the sign in the middle of the field, that is.
It reads: “Marine Hospital Quarantine Cemetery, 1799-1858. Final resting place of thousands of Irish immigrants who died and were buried here between 1845-1858. They perished at the gateway to a new life in America.”
IrishCentral is live from the International Commemoration of Ireland's Great Hunger on the grounds of the NYC Marine Hospital Quarantine Cemetery on Staten Island. Thousands of Irish immigrants who fled Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 are buried here. They died at the gateway to America, never realizing the dream of a new life. This event is held by the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island (FACSI). Read more about the site's history here: http://bit.ly/2qL25mvPosted by IrishCentral.com on Sunday, May 21, 2017
The sign was financed and erected by the Abandoned Cemeteries Group and this Sunday, on a late spring afternoon with the sun shining and the temperature hovering in the high 60’s, a group of chattering young locals sat on the nearby courtyard steps, completely unaware of what of what this place had been or what lay beneath them.
The former Marine Hospital opened at the turn of the eighteenth century, and it saw its main use during the disaster of the Great Hunger, when it was stretched to breaking point caring for malnourished and dying Irish immigrants who were arriving by the tens of thousands on an endless line of arriving coffin ships.
“Why are we here today?” Lynn Rogers, executive director of Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, asked the gathering on Sunday. “What brings the Irish to Staten Island?
“Well, you have to know a little of the history,” she continued. “In the 1830’s there had been a potato blight and what the Irish did was sell off a lot of their stuff – farm animals, tables, clothes and so on to make money – and they more or less survived. They made some money and they bought some food and everything was better.”
When the 1840’s hit they did exactly the same thing, sold off their meager possessions to ride out the crisis. “They sell their stuff again but the blight doesn’t get any better this time. So now they have nothing. They expected to make some money and make it through another year only it doesn't happen.”
That left tens of thousands as good as destitute. “There was nothing to eat, nothing in storage, the potato was the only crop they could afford to cultivate but the blight never ended.”
The result led to the Staten Island Fever Hospital and open trenches they started building right outside the hospital windows.
“I happen to be a native Staten Islander,” Judge Michael Brennan, 75, told the gathering. “My great grandfather came through this very site from County Kerry. I found easily him in the Census of 1826 because he had a brother by the name of Henry, which is very unusual name for an Irish Catholic. He and brother (my great grandfather) Michael got on a ship and came here in 1841 four years before the Great Hunger.
“They walked up the hill from the ferry terminal and they came here. But for many a few years later it was the only part of America they ever got to see. They died here. I have never forgotten the stories my grandfather, who lived until 1953, told me that he had heard about open carts filled with cadavers being carted up the hill. We don’t know how many died here during the Great Hunger because entire families were wiped out and there was no one left to record their names.”
They died in their thousands at the very gateway to America Brennan said, before their dream of a new life away from the shadow of oppression and starvation could be fulfilled.
For a site so important to the story of the Irish in America, for some reason – borough politics? diverging interests? distance? time? – the Irish community of greater New York has yet to embrace this modest plot of land with the attention it deserves.
Rogers has worked tirelessly for years to highlight its significance to the city and the nation but to date her own group has been the main driving force behind the annual commemoration.
The irony that a center of justice should be built on the spot where thousands of Irish died due to an ancient injustice is an irony we should probably not overlook.