With its many walking trails, sounds of the Atlantic along the shores, planes flying overhead, and a distinct view of the Boston skyline, Deer Island is one of the most popular recreational areas around Boston Harbor. Today the island is home to the second-largest sewage treatment plant in the United States and is also joined by some of the other surrounding islands to form the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. However, Deer Island wasn’t always a picturesque and serene location. Much of its history has been filled with tragedy, sorrow, death, and despair. One such tragic chapter occurred during the mid-19th century.
In 1845, the Great Famine or “An Gorta Mór” struck Ireland. A period of massive starvation and disease that within a decade left around a million dead and over 2 million leaving the country in hopes of a better life and future. In 1847, a year known as Black ‘47, around 25,000 Irish refugees arrived in Boston. They disembarked from dank, dark, crowded vessels nicknamed “coffin ships” and thousands were struck with “ship fever.”
Boston city officials were panicked an epidemic could occur and ordered all sick refugees to be quarantined on Deer Island. A hospital was established on the island and around 4,800 people were admitted between 1847 and 1850. During that time, 850 would die and buried in unmarked graves across the island.
For almost 150 years the bodies were undisturbed until construction crews doing excavation work discovered them in 1990. Local Irish-American community activists spent almost 30 years trying to get proper recognition for those who died and the Great Hunger Memorial was officially dedicated in 2019.
The memorial is in the form of a 16-foot tall Celtic Cross overlooking the harbor and is also near another memorial dedicated to the Nipmuc people who were interred on Deer Island during King Philip’s War in 1675-1676.
Although Deer Island is a popular recreational area today, the Great Hunger Memorial and the Nipmuc memorial help ensure the history, story, and memories of the island won’t be forgotten.