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Hart Island

Irish families discover their past in hidden New York cemetery

There are many Irish among the one million buried souls in the forbidden island cemetery near the Bronx.
God must have loved you all…He made so many of you.

THE INSCRIPTION ON the stone at a visitors’ gazebo at Hart Island - New York’s cemetery for city burials which featured last week – is still ingrained in the memory of one Irish woman who found her grandfather’s remains in the bleak fields.

About four years ago, Mary* decided she wanted to visit the final resting place of her mother’s father. That decision led her to the edges of the grim potter’s field to the east of The Bronx with a policeman as a companion.

PastedImage-8420 A mass burial at Hart Island in 1992.

Her grandfather, Ambrose Vahey**emigrated from Castlebar in 1920, leaving behind a wife, son and one-year-old daughter.

He landed in New York and began his new life in Manhattan.

Despite his absence, he maintained a relationship with his daughter through letters and presents from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“She wrote to him from the time she was 10 until two weeks before his death in 1939,” Mary told in a recent interview.

She kept all the letters which are really long and full of information about New York in the 1930s – the Depression.

Vahey had an interesting life once he settled in Manhattan, taking up odd jobs as a chauffeur and as an extra on movie sets.

He died, aged 54, on 12 September 1939 after a “hard life”.

Mary says she always knew her grandfather had received a city burial in New York but did not know what that meant.

“I had to find out where exactly he was – all I knew was that it was a city cemetery. After a bit of tracing I found out it was Hart Island. And decided I’d like to make a trip there.

If you read the letters…there is something about it. There was a story. He was quite loving…they were beautiful letters and always finished with about three lines of kisses and the sign off, ‘Your Affectionate Daddy’.”

Vahey had not seen his daughter – Mary’s mother – since she was a baby. However, he did send her new dresses and shoes for dances as she started to enjoy her late teens.

PastedImage-7396Ambrose Vahey's death certificate.Source: Melinda Hunt

In 2011, Mary brought her husband, daughter and her daughter's boyfriend to Manhattan. The trip was given extra significance by the imminent visit to Hart Island.

"I knew it would be bleak," she says. "It's horrible. There are no trees.

"But it is well documented and numbered. They don't bring you to the exact spot but we knew where he was."

ambrose Ambrose Vahey's burial record.

"There is also a lovely memorial with the inscription - God must have loved you, he made so many of you.

It is not a nice place but I just wanted to go there and I'm really glad I did.

She dropped some stones from Vahey's native Castlebar on the island.

And, to feel another connection, there was also an Irish coffee imbibed at a hotel on 54th street which occupies her grandfather's last residence.

Mary notes that she is one of a large number of Irish people who have relatives buried at Hart Island.

"We got a list of names of the people who are buried with them - half of them have Irish names," she explained.

Melinda Hunt, who head the Hart Island Project, confirms Mary's suggestion.

She also tells that she has helped many Irish families trace their relatives in the cemetery.

"The Irish are particularly careful about visiting people - keeping track of everyone," she observes. "I love to work for them."

Hunt was able to find Ambrose Vahey's burial record as part of her advocacy work with families who want to locate or disinter their loved ones.


The city of New York provides disinterment services for free and some Irish families have been able to take their loved ones back to Ireland.

Since 1869, one million people have been buried at Hart Island - and it is still active.

Although not as many burials are actually carried out any more - the figure stands at about 1,500 a year.

"The city is doing much better at identifying people and notifying families," explains Hunt. "It is important for the authorities to get it right now - especially with the press coverage the Hart Island Project receives."

There are a number of reasons that men and women still end up buried under the simple pipe markings. Sometimes, families believe they cannot afford a different option because they are unaware that they could receive burial assistance payments.

PastedImage-12917 Melinda Hunt Melinda Hunt

Currently, prisoners (usually petty offenders) at Rikers Island volunteer to dig the trenches required during morning sessions. The Department of Corrections is, therefore, in charge of the facility.

Hunt is hoping that the responsibility for it will be transferred to the Department of Parks.

"We could get it landscaped then," she said. "It's a mess now. It's largely overgrown and the burials are amongst abandoned buildings. You can't walk around and there is no real maintenance plan."

*not her real name ( knows her identity but she would prefer to stay anonymous). 
**his real name

Related: One million bodies buried – and forgotten – in unmarked graves in New York cemetery 

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