In January 1851, according to the diary of Jeremiah Pease, a British boat “castaway” off Muskeget with 256 Irish on board. Four froze to death. Who were those nameless people? From the date it is clear they were fleeing from a country that had become a graveyard to seek opportunity and salvation in America. Turning their backs forever on families and communities decimated by famine and oppression, these uninvited and undocumented immigrants hoped to find work and food. Like all who had left Ireland, their role was to survive and send money home to ensure the survival of those who had been left behind.
The fate of the poor always remains unknown. History records the battles that were fought from the perspective of those who won them; we know the kings and queens, the presidents and the generals, but what do we know of those whose lives were an endless struggle for survival? It is impossible now from a distance of 162 years to know the names of those who traveled on this overcrowded, inadequate vessel. We know that four people perished in the extreme cold, but we do not know if they were children, women or men. We will never know, but these unmourned victims of famine and poverty deserve to be remembered. Their lives have meaning; they are not simply statistics. Every one had hopes and aspirations and courage and left behind everything that mattered — language, the ties of family and of love — to brave a new world. They were risk takers and yet they were people reared in rural communities where a sense of place is fundamental and where a family’s history is told through stories of generations rather than the story of an individual.
One million Irish emigrated to the United States during the years of the famine and they made their mark on this country, gave their language and music to the culture of America and yet they carried with them the ancestral memory of a homeland never to be seen again.
The Irish history and culture class at the high school has studied the Great Famine in Ireland and its impact both on Irish and U.S. history. They know the statistics: one quarter of the population dead and another million disappeared into oblivion. They have heard the stories of death, destruction of culture and emigration — and yet the stories of leaky, poorly maintained boats carrying impoverished refugees to this country was not really meaningful until we traveled out to the eastern shore of Chappaquiddick where, on a clear day, you can see Muskeget.
In memory of all those who have died not only in wars, but as victims of oppression, the Irish history class carried armfuls of lilacs to place in the water to honor those whose suffering was so intense, and in recognition of those whose names were lost as they disappeared into a footnote of history. The warm, rainy, misty weather on the shore of Chappaquiddick was reminiscent of Ireland. The students gathered in a circle to throw the flowers in the water while Brian Scott, a teacher at the high school, sang the Scottish lament, Bonny Doon. The lilacs floated in the water while Brian’s voice rose clearly and soulfully through the mist:
Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon,
How can ye bloom so fresh and fair,
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
While I’m so weary, full of care ?
You’ll break my heart thou warbling bird
That flitters through the flowering thorn,
You remind me of departed joys,
Departed — never to return.
The words of Robbie Burns resonating with love and loss paid homage to all those long ago travelers in the place where for many their dreams ended. These young people, many of whose ancestors made similar journeys, placed the flowers in the water and quietly talked about their ceremony. A connection was made.
We live in a global, interconnected world where tragedy in one place sends voyagers out on journeys whose ending is uncertain. On Memorial Day, we remembered all those displaced and hopeful travelers who came to America and brought their culture and history with them, adding their own stories into this unique mix.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.