The Irish-Americans who gathered in a Lynbrook cemetery Saturday morning came to mark a Long Island tragedy -- but also the acts of cross-cultural kindness that followed.
Bagpipe music filled Rockville Cemetery, where dozens gathered for the 175th anniversary of the creation of the Bristol and Mexico Monument. The marble obelisk marks the mass grave of 139 immigrants and sailors who died in two shipwrecks off the South Shore in the winter of 1836-37.
The Bristol and Mexico, tall ships mostly carrying Irish immigrants, wrecked on sandbars a few hundred yards off Rockaway Beach and Long Beach. Many passengers either drowned or froze to death.
When bodies washed ashore, the largely native-born and Protestant residents of southern Nassau labored that winter to gather, wash, dress and bury the unclaimed dead, mostly Catholic immigrants. In 1840, they erected the 18-foot-high monument.
Lynbrook Village historian Art Mattson said the residents acted tenderly toward the dead even though newspapers at the time called Irish immigrants "pestilence" and "vagrants."
"What we think about today is both the courage of those Irish families to come here . . . and also the people who helped create this monument," said Mattson, who wrote the book "Water and Ice: The Tragic Wrecks of the Bristol and the Mexico on the South Shore of Long Island."
Nassau residents have held an annual ceremony at the grave site for 17 years. Saturday, organizers unveiled new plaques and landscaping around the monument. They also celebrated Rockville Cemetery's addition last month to the New York State Register of Historic Places.
"This is part of Irish history here," said Andrew Healey, a member of the Nassau County Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Many who attended said they simply wanted to honor an instance of people treating strangers with humanity.
Joe Gleason, historian for the county Hibernians, said the shipwrecks highlighted the "American story" of Irish immigrants fleeing desperate conditions and the "ecumenism" of residents who cared about people different from themselves.
"When they saw that tragedy, they behaved like we like to think Americans ought to behave, or at least strive to behave," said Gleason. "It shows how in life and death, if we really put ourselves to it and strive to live according to what America's ideal is, it can be done. "