LEADVILLE, Colo. — According to Irish Network Colorado, there were nearly 3,000 Irish immigrants living in Leadville in the early 1880s. Many in the Irish community worked in mines, dealing with conditions described as horrific.
In the Evergreen Cemetery, hundreds of Irish immigrants were buried in the pauper section of the cemetery. On Saturday, the first phase of the Irish Miners' Memorial was revealed, which lists more than 1,300 names of the people in the unmarked graves.
Project Historian Jim Walsh said the graves were originally marked by family members, but those rotted over the decades. His research into the Irish community and Leadville began around 20 years ago and is the foundation of the Irish Miners' Memorial.
“This memorial has come to symbolize a lot more than just the names on the memorial. It's come to symbolize all of the Lost Irish," Walsh said. "Every family in Ireland has an ancestor who drifted off to North America and was never heard from. They don't know where that person is buried. They don't know what happened to that person. It's a kind of a trauma that you still feel in Ireland today.”
Before the research on the graves, they were unmarked and unnamed. Slowly but surely, more markers are showing up on the graves, many brought there by descendants.
“This space has a very powerful, visceral feeling because you realize that this is what class looks like in America. People were forgotten," Walsh said about the unmarked graves. “Instead of honoring a monarchy, we're honoring the poorest of the poor. And that's a radical thing to do, it changes perspectives, it changes dynamics. And I think it forces us to think critically about the world we live in today.”
At the ceremony revealing the first phase of the Irish Miners' Memorial on Saturday, several people spoke, including the President of Irish Network Colorado Alan Groarke.
“I was very honored as an Irish immigrant, to give back in some ways to my forefathers, the people who blazed the trail for us, in some small way. To put this memorial together, to celebrate them, and name the unnamed," Groarke said after the ceremony. “Seeing the testimonies of people here today has, I don't know, my connection to Ireland has even gotten even stronger if that's possible.”
Walsh called history the bedrock of individual and societal values. He said the way history is taught contributes to how people view the world and hopes the work behind the memorial helps shape the future.
“This memorial is for 19th-century immigrant workers. However, we honor 21st-century immigrant workers in this work," Walsh said.
The Irish Miners' Memorial will is expected to have all three phases completed in 2023.