Roughly 200 people gathered at Evergreen Cemetery on Sunday to dedicate a memorial honoring the lives of more than 1,300 individuals who were buried in unmarked graves in the historic cemetery over a century ago, many of whom were Irish immigrants. Although the memorial will not be complete until fall 2022, the ceremony, which was punctuated by speakers who sang and recited poetry, served as the culmination of years of research and international bonding.

Sunday’s event at Evergreen Cemetery also served as part of the 2021 American Conference for Irish Studies, a three-day event that began in Denver last Thursday. The conference heard historic research findings related to labor, class and immigration. On Sunday, conference participants were offered a realistic understanding of such issues as they gathered near unmarked Irish graves dug during Leadville’s 19th century mining boom.

University of Colorado Denver professor Jim Walsh, who has studied the Irish diaspora to Leadville for two decades, opened up the ceremony with a poem he wrote: “There comes a time after steel and iron and locomotives; after famine and dispersion and separation, when we must collect our dead.” Walsh later told the Herald that his poem was meant as a call to 21st century Irish communities. “It’s time to reclaim our past,” said the historian.

According to old church records that Walsh and a group of graduate students studied, roughly 80 percent of the unmarked 1,300 graves at Evergreen Cemetery were dug for Irish immigrants. In his poem, Walsh named several of the individuals buried there. Some were young men who toiled in mine shafts, others were women who died of sickness or giving birth, and roughly 100 of the graves were for stillborn infants who were buried in the unbaptized section of the cemetery.

The memorial, which is being built adjacent to the now-sunken graves, will list the names of 250 of the Irish immigrants who are buried nearby. At the center of the memorial, there will be a large statue of a miner on one knee playing a harp. Looming over the miner will be a large stone with a pickaxe resting against it.

“This is a really special day for our community,” said Leadville resident Kathleen Fitzsimmons, who played a major role in helping facilitate the memorial project. During her speech on Sunday, Fitzsimmons said that miners used to “brass-in” before entering the mines as way of clocking in. At the end of the day, if there were no incidents, miners would collect their pieces of brass before going home. “And so now,” said Fitzimmons, “we are able to brass-out our ancestors and let them rest.”

In addition to Fitzsimmons, several other speakers offered remarks at Sunday’s ceremony, including Irish Consul General Claire McCarthy, United Mine Workers of America Regional Director Bob Butero and Colorado State Historian Dr. Nicki Gonzales, who began in her role last month. During her speech, Gonzales asked that the memorial serve as a reminder of the immigrant experience in general, not just for those of Irish descent. “As we dedicate this memorial, let us not forget the Haitian migrants who are currently being round up like animals at the border,” said Gonzales.

Many speakers echoed Gonzales’ sentiment, particularly Walsh, who acknowledged that the graves were dug on land that originally belonged to Ute people. Southern Ute tribal member Cassandra Atencio, who works to preserve Ute history, also spoke at Sunday’s event. Before offering a blessing of the land using sweetgrass, tobacco and spring water, Atencio said Lake County was a crossroads of Ute and Irish culture.

Leadville resident and Get Outdoors Leadville! Executive Director Vanessa Saldivar also related the memorial dedication to the experience of Latino immigrants  both in Leadville and throughout the country. Toward the end of the ceremony, Jovan Mays, a Denver slam poet, recited a poem he wrote.

“It wouldn’t be an Irish event without art,” said Walsh. “There had to be poems; there had to be singing.”

Alan Groarke, president of the Irish Network of Colorado, and other speakers sang somber Irish folk songs that echoed through the tall pines and hovered above the sunk engraves. “You could hear the trees dance with the wind when they sang,” said Atencio. “This land is alive with spirits who have heard those songs. We both come from strong ancestors who will not be forgotten.”

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