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In the years following Ireland’s Great Famine (1845 to 1852), nearly two million people—roughly a quarter of the country’s population—fled to the United States. While many of these immigrants stayed in the New York area, about 3,000 made their way to Leadville.
“Leadville was like a mini Las Vegas at the time,” says Tess Julian, vice president of Irish Network Colorado and an Irish immigrant herself. “It was the place to be if you wanted to socialize and make money.”
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The small population boom in Leadville was attributed to a sudden discovery of silver; the Irish immigrants, many of whom had a background in mining, were eager to work in the high-elevation mines and begin to build better lives for themselves and their families. Despite their hard work, many of them faced discrimination. “They were really at the bottom of the social ladder,” Julian says. “They lived in gullies and tents.” The miners twice protested their meager wages of $3 per day and unsafe working conditions. Walkouts brought Colorado’s economy to a standstill.
But the protests weren’t enough to bring about better conditions for the miners. Their average age of death was 23, primarily due to workplace accidents, poor living conditions, and disease. Their lack of social status and inability to pay for gravesites meant most of the deceased immigrants were buried in unmarked graves in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Their lives remained mostly forgotten until James Walsh, an assistant professor of political science at University of Colorado Denver, was researching the Irish immigrant experience in the Centennial State for his doctoral thesis.
In 2004, Walsh began poring over historical records to learn more about the miners, and eventually used ground-penetrating radar to locate the deceased. Between 1,100 and 1,300 graves have since been located at the Evergreen Cemetery; around 80 percent of them are believed to hold Irish immigrants and their families. “The bodies are very close to the pathway of the cemetery,” Julian says. “It’s clear that they were placed in the pauper section for those who couldn’t afford better.”
To commemorate the miners’ lives, Irish Network Colorado created the Leadville Irish Miners’ Memorial within the cemetery, in collaboration with Walsh, the Rocky Mountain Irish Roots Collective, historian Kathleen Fitzsimmons, and the City of Leadville. The centerpiece of the memorial is a life-size figure of a miner on bended knee facing toward Ireland; the statue was created by Irish artist Terry Brennan and cast in bronze in Loveland. The memorial also features panels engraved with the names of immigrants, which historians found in work records from the time. The government of Ireland donated more than $140,000 for the project, covering nearly half of the $300,000 it took to complete the memorial. Because many of the immigrants hailed from the town of Allihies in County Cork, a sister city relationship has also been established between Allihies and Leadville.
On September 16, organizers will host an official unveiling of the memorial for the public. “As people are arriving, there will be a miners’ song playing that was recorded in Ireland in a mineshaft,” Julian says. Additionally, visitors will hear remarks from organizers and Leadville Mayor Greg Labbe, poems, and a presentation from Irish representatives hailing from Allihies. Visitors will also receive a boxed lunch and be able to walk the memorial. “It’s amazing to see all of this come together after so many years of hard work,” Julian says. “We’re excited to give these miners their names back.”
The unveiling ceremony will be held at Evergreen Ceremony, Leadville, and is free to attend. A full schedule of events surrounding the unveiling can be found on the Irish Network Colorado website.