Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Le Typhus, Theophile Hamel, 1848

Theophile Hamel’s votive painting Le Typhus is the only authentic, contemporary image of a fever shed and the suffering of the Famine Irish in Canada. As recounted in the annals of the Grey Nuns, it was commissioned by Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget as an iconic image “representing the typhus seeking to enter the city but stopped at the gate by [the virgin Mary’s] strong protection” (68):

Click to access TheTyphusof1847.pdf

It is installed in the ceiling at the entrance to Notre-Dame-De-Bonsecours Church in Montreal.

The content of the painting has been described in detail by Montreal’s most renowned Irish novelist Mary Anne Sadlier. In her own words:

We have in Montreal a large picture of the interior of the fever-sheds showing with painful reality the rows of plague-stricken patients with the clergy and religious in attendance on them. In the far background, the good Bishop [Bourget] himself is seen in purple cassock ministering to the sick.

[Three orders of nuns also cared for and tended to the Famine Irish.]

First came the Grey Nuns who gave themselves heart and soul to the fearful labors of the vast lazar-house…. Then the Sisters of Providence… took their places beside the coffin-like wooden beds of the fever patients in the sheds…, When these two large communities were found to be inadequate to take care of the ever- increasing multitude of the sick, a thing came to pass which struck the whole city with admiration. The cloistered Hospitallers of St. Joseph [or Hôtel Dieu nuns], whom the citizens of Montreal had never seen except behind the gratings of their chapel or parlor, or in their own hospital wards, petitioned the Bishop to dispense them their vows of long seclusion, that they might go to the aid of their dear sister communities in the pestilential atmosphere of the fever sheds.
The permission was freely given, and the strange sight was seen day by day in the streets of our ancient city, of the close carriage that conveyed the Sisters of the Hôtel Dieu from their quiet old-time convent to the lazar-house…. People pointed it out to each other with solemn wonder, as the writer well remembers, and spoke with bated breath of the awful visitation that had brought the cloistered nuns from their convent into the outer world, in obedience to the call of charity

Le Typus, Theophile Hamel, 1848

Le Typhus, Theophile Hamel, 1848

Le Typhus, Theophile Hamel, 1848

John Francis Maguire’s The Irish in America (1868) and the death of Montreal’s Irish Community Founder, Father Richards.


In 1866 John Francis Maguire, the founder and editor of the Cork Examiner, traveled to Quebec City and Montreal during a tour of North America which he recorded in his book The Irish in America (1868).  After meeting with members of the Irish communities in both cities, he wrote one of the most detailed and evocative accounts of the impact of the Famine Irish in Canada based on eye-witness testimonials.  He described the death of Father Richards as follows:

Among the priests who fell a sacrifice to their duty in the fever-sheds of Montreal was Father Richards, a venerable man, long past the time of active service. A convert from Methodism in early life, he had specially devoted his services to the Irish, then but a very small proportion of the population; and now, when the cry of distress from the same race was heard, the good old man could not be restrained from ministering to their wants. Not only did he mainly provide for the safety of the hundreds of orphan children, whom the death of their parents had left to the mercy of the charitable, but, in spite of his great age, he laboured in the sheds with a zeal which could not be excelled.

‘Father Richards wants fresh straw for the beds,’ said the messenger to the mayor.

‘Certainly, he shall have it: I wish it was gold, for his sake,’ replied the mayor.

A few days after both Protestant mayor and Catholic priest ‘ had gone where straw and gold are of equal value,’ wrote the Sister already mentioned. Both had died martyrs of charity.

Only a few days before Father Richards was seized with his fatal illness he preached on Sunday in St. Patrick’s, and none who heard him on that occasion could forget the venerable appearance and impressive words of that noble servant of God. Addressing a hushed and sorrow-stricken audience, as the tears rolled down his aged cheeks, he thus spoke of the sufferings and the faith of the Irish:–

‘Oh, my beloved brethren, grieve not, I beseech you, for the sufferings and death of so many of your race, perchance your kindred, who have fallen, and are still to fall, victims to this fearful pestilence. Their patience, their faith, have edified all whose privilege it was to witness it. Their faith, their resignation to the will of God under such unprecedented misery, is something so extraordinary that, to realise it, it requires to be seen. Oh, my brethren, grieve not for them; they did but pass from earth to the glory of heaven. True, they were cast in heaps into the earth, their place of sepulture marked by no name or epitaph; but I tell you, my clearly beloved brethren, that from their ashes the faith will spring up along the St. Lawrence, for they died martyrs, as they lived confessors, to the faith.’

The whole city, Protestant and Catholic, mourned the death of this fine old man, one of the most illustrious, victims of the scourge in Montreal.