Staten Island, New York, is the first US city to place grave markers at unmarked graves in memory of the thousands of Irish victims of the Great Hunger.
An idea conceived by the Committee for Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims (C.C.I.F.V.), the community activist group that successfully petitioned for an Irish National Famine Memorial Day in 2008, the International Hunger markers have been placed at unmarked grave sites throughout the world. Until summer 2015, however, they had not reached the States.
On achieving their goal of a national remembrance day a few years ago, the C.C.I.F.V turned their attention to goals that would unite all victims of the Irish Famine wherever their final resting place may be and so began the C.C.I.F.V Marker Project. The project aims to mark all unmarked famine graves wherever they are found - on the island of Ireland, its islands and any locations overseas - and act as an affordable and easy way to respectfully remember all unmarked famine grave sites.
The project began in the US when local group Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island (FACSI) were contacted by C.C.I.F.V. The first US marker was placed in Staten Island Cemetery on Richmond Terrace in the summer of 2015, a burial site that offered free burial for children under 2 years of age.
The marker was installed by FASCI, a not-profit organization whose mission it is to identify, restore, protect and beautify the abandoned, neglected or otherwise forgotten cemeteries, with the help of Summer Youth Employment Program workers.
During the years of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1858) tens of thousands of Irish immigrants came to New York harbor, many of whom were found with disease and perished. The Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station operated on Staten Island from 1799 until 1858, checking all those who came into New York harbor for signs of disease before being let ashore.
The hospital saw many casualties among the Irish who braved the perilous voyage across the Atlantic in search of safer shores and the medical center came to operate two cemeteries to cope with the mass of deaths among starving and weak Irish immigrants.
Those who died were buried on Staten Island. No death certificates were issued, no cemetery log kept, and gradually the burial sites disappeared from all further records.
The first marker is placed in Richmond Terrace to remember the many Irish buried in an unmarked, multiple burial site at the back of the cemetery. During the time of the famine, many fleeing hunger and poverty lived in the Irish shanty town that had developed in the direct area of the cemetery. The shanty was constructed as a result of Irish immigrant families that were confined on Staten Island due to the quarantine station
Already at the entrance to Richmond Terrace stand two statues that originally occupied the grotto in St. Vincent’s Hospital donated by the Sisters of Charity, “In Memory of the Children."
On October 25, the next marker was placed at the existing Irish memorial in Silver Lake Golf Course in a ceremony also organized by FACSI. The Silver Lake Cemetery was the larger of the two cemeteries established by the Staten Island Hospital and Quarantine Station, a place where it is estimated that over 10,000 people were buried during the famine years.
The thousands of victims will be remembered in a ceremony conducted by Assemblyman Michael Cusick while Msgr. James Dorney consecrates the cemetery grounds.
The Staten Island Markers are produced locally by Bill Fahey who has also provided markers for Baltimore and Boston although Staten Island is the first place where the marker has been inserted into the grave site.
There are further hopes to install a third famine grave marker at St. George Court House in Staten Island in May 2016.
*Originally published October 2015; updated April 2016.