Minister Deenihan launches Digital Famine Archive at University of Limerick
22 March 2012
Speech by Jimmy Deenihan T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht at the Launch of the Le Typhus de 1847/The Typhus of 1847 Virtual Archive, University of Limerick, Castletroy, Limerick
It is a great pleasure to be here today as Chair of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, at the launch of the virtual archive of the annals of the French-Canadian Sisters of Charity – the Grey Nuns – and I would like to congratulate everyone involved in this very important project. This project has brought the extensive and highly evocative eyewitness accounts of the suffering of famine migrants in 1847, which up until now were unpublished and unknown, to the general public in Ireland and abroad.
The Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850 was the greatest social calamity in terms of mortality and suffering that Ireland has ever experienced. During those years, over one million people perished from hunger or, more commonly, from hunger-related diseases. In the decade following 1846, when the floodgates of emigration opened, more than 1.8 million people emigrated, with more than half fleeing during the famine years.
This virtual archive of the annals of the Grey Nuns will serve as a most fitting tribute to commemorate those who suffered, died and emigrated during the Irish famine by making eye witness accounts of their experiences accessible to the public.
In addition, the project has provided a valuable opportunity for young Irish and Canadian translators to gain professional experience and most importantly, this archive will represent a tangible and highly visible form of collaboration between Irish institutions and the Irish diaspora community in Montreal to commemorate the extraordinary contributions of those who emigrated and of their many descendents abroad.
How apt it is that the virtual archive will be housed on the History of the Family platform at the University of Limerick, because the archive commemorates and recalls the endeavours of the Grey Nuns to keep Irish families together in the fever sheds of Montreal, and to find new families for famine orphans whose parents had not survived in quarantine or during the horrific conditions of their transatlantic voyage.
It is also fitting that the virtual archive should be housed here, because it was emigrants and travellers from Munster who first bore witness and paid tribute to the legacy of the Grey Nuns for their compassion, devotion, and self-sacrifice in caring for the desolate famine emigrants.
We recall Stephen De Vere, who risked his own life in travelling steerage with former tenants from his estate at Curragh Chase, County Limerick, to Grosse Isle and Montreal in 1847 and who then shocked British Parliamentarians into enacting comprehensive Passenger Act reform with his harrowing testimonial about his voyage.
Stephen De Vere kept meticulous unpublished records of his correspondence and journals which document the impact of the famine on Irish emigrants and those who ministered to them, particularly the Grey Nuns. In these unpublished records De Vere declared that the hardships he experienced during his transatlantic voyage were ‘as nothing when compared to those so fearlessly encountered by the clergy and by that noble army of martyrs, the nuns’.
We remember too, John Francis Maguire, the founder and editor of the Cork Examiner, who did so much to pay tribute to and make public the legacy of the Grey Nuns when he visited famine emigrants in Montreal in 1866. The account of his voyage, ‘The Irish in America’, published in 1868, became highly influential on both sides of the Atlantic. In The Irish in America, Maguire quotes from the annals of the Grey Nuns when he records that:
‘In these miserable cribs the patients lay, sometimes two together, looking, as a Sister of Charity [a Grey Nun] since wrote, ‘as if they were in their coffins,’ from the box-like appearance of their wretched beds. Throughout those glorious months, while the sun shone brightly, and the majestic river rolled along in golden waves, hundreds of the poor Irish were dying daily. The world outside was gay and glad, but death was rioting in the fever-sheds. It was a moment to try the devotion which religion inspires, to test the courage with which it animates the gentlest breast. First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs.’
As you may know, this year’s National Famine Commemoration is due to be held on 13th May in Drogheda, County Louth and this project has a specific connection with Drogheda. Father Patrick Dowd, who was born in Dunleer in 1813, served as a parish priest in Drogheda during the Famine from 1843 until 1847 and then moved to Montreal in 1848, where he worked closely with the Grey Nuns to care for Irish Famine orphans.
It is therefore timely and appropriate that we now follow in the footsteps of these emigrants and travellers and now pay tribute to the legacy of the Grey Nuns in the form of this virtual archive.
I would also like to mention the very important publication, ‘Recollecting Hunger’, which is the first anthology of Famine literature to be published and which will make visible the ways in which literary texts remember the Famine to general readers and students of all ages. The editors have taken well known material and obscure texts and brought these hidden treasures of Irish literary history to the attention of the public. I know that many of the contributors are here today and I am confident that it will become another valuable means of keeping this tragic time in our nation’s history alive in our collective memory.
Finally, on behalf of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, I commend everyone, whose imagination; commitment and hard work over the past months have brought us all here today. This virtual archive is so important in keeping our history and our heritage alive and meaningful today and preserving it for future generations.