Ambassador, Bennet join hundreds in Leadville to memorialize more than 1,100 Irish buried in unmarked graves
Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Sen. Michael Bennet, and about 500 other people gathered in Leadville on Saturday to celebrate the completion of the Leadville Irish Miners’ Memorial at Evergreen Cemetery.
The event celebrated more than two decades of research, an immense fundraising effort including hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government of Ireland, and an art project that had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in a Statue-of-Liberty-esque journey.
The memorial recognizes “the 1,100 immigrants buried in unmarked graves in the Catholic Pauper section of Evergreen Cemetery, most of whom were Irish,” according to Irish Network Colorado.
Leadville was home to a large Irish community in the 1880s, with approximately 6,000 Irish-born or second-generation Irish-Americans living in the bustling Colorado mining town. Records show that 1,339 immigrants are buried in sunken graves in Leadville, an estimated 70-80 percent of whom are Irish. Nearly half of the unnamed dead are children 12 years or younger, according to a fact sheet distributed at the event by Irish Network Colorado.
Geraldine Byrne Nason, Irish ambassador to the U.S., said the Irish who ended up buried in unmarked graves in Leadville in the 1880s were also fleeing poverty conditions in their home country.
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“Ireland had been burdened by centuries of occupation, unrest, exploitation, economic hardship, and most tragically, the great famine,” Nason said. “This devastating period in the mid-1800s, punctuated by crop failures and widespread starvation, either killed or forced millions of vulnerable Irish people to leave the small island that we loved, to seek a new life beyond that homeland.”
The memorial includes a spiral walkway leading to glass panels that list the names of the unnamed miners and their families who were buried in sunken graves nearby. The panels surround a bronze sculpture of a miner, named “Liam,” who is holding a rock pick tool on bended knee.
Irish artist Terry Brennan, who molded the bronze sculpture from clay and had it shipped to the U.S. to be cast in bronze in Loveland, attended the event along with his family and neighbors from Ireland. Brennan said there was significant publicity surrounding the sculpture as it made its way to Colorado.
“I was given 25 minutes on national radio,” Brennan said. “He asked me if I had anything else to say about this, and I said ‘Bear in mind, the last time this happened, the French had put a statue on the Hudson River.'”
Nason thanked Irish Network Colorado for its work in seeing through the completion of the memorial.
“This memorial contributes to our shared understanding of what we call the global Irish — the wider story of our diaspora’s journey across the world,” she said.
Irish Network Colorado President Lisa Switzer recognized Dr. James Walsh, a history and political science professor from the University of Colorado Denver, who took up the research for the project more than 20 years ago.
Walsh said his motivation in helping to create the monument is to help people understand why it honors those whom it recognizes — those people buried in the section of the cemetery labeled “pauper.”
“At Ludlow, the workers were killed by bullets and kerosine, here they died from poverty,” Walsh said. “To the labor community, this is sacred … the people who died here, they struggled to form unions — this is the breadbasket of the Colorado labor movement right here.”
Bennet made mention of the many union and former union members from around the state who attended Saturday’s celebration.
“These miners never let their hardships weaken their resolve, they organized — that’s why so many folks from labor are here today,” Bennet said. “They worked hard and ultimately, they became woven inextricably into Leadville’s, and Colorado’s, and our nation’s fabric, and we’re here today to commemorate their fortitude, their legacy, and their example.”
Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, spoke on behalf of the Colorado labor community, mentioning the Cloud City Miners Union No. 33, which was a labor union in Leadville in the early 1900s.
“As I look at Liam, on this memorial, I see sacrifice, I see somebody who toiled in conditions unimaginable to us today, I see somebody who was a union member,” he said. “What I also see, when I look at this memorial, and I think I can say on behalf of the labor union brothers and sisters here, we see motivation to continue fighting.”