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Monumental undertaking

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Pierce O’Reilly

Hundreds of Irish immigrants who died at Staten Island’s Quarantine Station 150 years ago and were buried in unmarked graves nearby will be remembered later this summer when a monument is erected at Silver Lake Public Golf Course.

The memorial is the brainchild of Caitlin Tormey, a student at Notre Dame Academy, who has spent much of the last four years researching the unmarked graves and what she calls "the darker history" of the Irish community on the island.

"These Irish people were buried in a potter’s field and it’s part of our history, even if we don’t like what we hear," she said this week.

Tormey, who’s 17 and headed to Princeton University, is confident that a commissioned memorial will soon be erected near the 18th fairway of the Silver Lake Golf Course on Staten Island, the most likely location of the unmarked graves.

"It’s down to bureaucracy and politics now," she said.

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The story started four years ago, when Tormey was an eighth grader at Notre Dame and decided to do a social studies project on the area known as Marine Cemetery. She discovered that many Irish immigrants who came to the United States during the 1847-1860 Famine years became ill and died at the Tompkinsville Quarantine Station, which was on the waterfront at what is now Victory Boulevard.

"Many of these immigrants were buried in mass graves," Tormey said. "It was commonplace to see night processions during those years, bringing the bodies to their final resting place. There was nowhere else to bury those people but in mass graves."

With the help of Staten Island historian Richard Dickenson, Tormey was able to piece together a partial list of those who died. As she worked, she said, she began to feel that a monument should be erected in their memory.

"They came looking for a better life, [but] some of them never made it," she said. "I think their trials and struggles should be remembered."

Tormey also had several struggles herself as she went about her research.

"There were little or no records dating back that far," she said. "Land-purchase documents were destroyed in a fire and it was very difficult to get information."

Her campaign also involved numerous letters, petitions and soliciting donations from the community. She has raised more than $3,000 and said that people are "generally amazed to hear" the story.

Two of the most important donations Tormey received were a boulder, from Vanbrough Construction Company, and the engraved plaque, from Artist Memorial Company, that will become the memorial stone and message later this summer. She also received support from several political figures, including Borough President Guy V. Molinari’s office. She also contacted Borough Parks Commissioner Thomas Paulo, who is helping to iron out the final details.

Commissioner Paulo told the Echo that he was confident the monument would be in place before the end of the summer.

"I’m meeting with both companies this week to see what progress has been made and I’ll then make a decision on the erection date," he said. "It will definitely be in place before the end of the summer."

The monument is a granite boulder some five feet high with a plaque a little lower down.

"The plaque will have a brief account of the Irish Famine, the number of immigrants who came through Staten Island’s quarantine, those who died there and were buried near the golf course," she said.

Tormey has decided to recognize all those who have donated $100 or more by putting their name or message on a granite block at the base of the monument. The monument is to be placed next to the cart path leading to the 18th green of the public course.

"Hopefully, everyone who passes it will stop and just think for a minute about the Irish immigrants who died looking for a better life," she said.

Tormey, whose father’s family comes from Roscommon and mothers from Donegal, is, incidentally, the fastest 1,500-meter indoor runner in her age group in the U.S. She hopes to major in art history and minor in economics at Princeton.

"I’m disappointed the monument isn’t in place already, but I’ve learned an awful lot about politics in the process," she said. "I won’t stop until those people are recognized and especially there struggle for a better life that they never lived to see."

While many contacted Tormey to donate money and wish her well, others, she said, have written simply to say "thanks."

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