Canada’s Irish Ambassador Kevin Vickers speaks about Famine Irish at Miramichi Canada’s Irish Festival
Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, delivered an address about the Canadian Famine Irish at the opening ceremony of Miramichi Canada’s Irish Festival on July 17th, 2015.
In an interview with CBC Radio (Moncton, July 20th), Ambassador Vickers recalled:
“There is a great deal of history here. That is one of the things I spoke about at the Irish Festival. In 1847 a ship arrived here in Miramichi, the Loostauk. 417 passengers left Ireland to come to Quebec, but they were overcome with sickness on the seas and had to make port for Miramichi. There were 117 who died during the crossing, and another hundred died here at Middle Island, Miramichi, upon the boat’s arrival. That history I know is not known in Ireland, and surprisingly, when I gave that talk about the Loostauk and the numbers of people that died here in Miramichi and Middle Island upon its arrival, many of our townspeople were not aware of that history. So there is a great opportunity to enhance one another’s knowledge of how Irish the Miramichi is, and for Ireland to realize the generosity of Canadians when they arrived here in these famine ships.”
Here is an excerpt from the draft of Ambassador Kevin Vickers’s address, prepared with consultation from Dr. Jason King:
When I launched the Digital Irish Famine Archive last month, I noted that it commemorates and pays tribute to the Grey Nuns of Montreal and people of French and English Canada, like Bishop Michael Power in Toronto and Dr. John Vondy in Chatham, now Miramichi, New Brunswick, who gave their lives caring for Irish emigrants during the Famine exodus of 1847. Let us turn now to the story of that most remarkable man, our own ancestor, who laid down his life in treating the Famine Irish right here on this very island, Dr. John Vondy. When the Loosthauk arrived just off of these shores and disturbed the “usual quiet” of the “little town” on the 3rd of June, 1847, it was to the credit of our ancestors that “the appeal to their humanity was spontaneously responded to”. But after provisions had been delivered to the ship, its fever-stricken passengers needed to be quarantined, and so they were brought here, to Middle Island. According to the Miramichi Gleaner, they were
landed on this island, where temporary fever sheds had been erected for their reception… The number of deaths, as far as we have been able to ascertain since she put into this port, up to yesterday evening, was forty – a shocking mortality – and several bodies were interred on Saturday, Sunday, and yesterday evening on the Island… The disease is typhus fever.
Dr. John Vondy.
Despite the obvious risk, it was twenty six year old Dr. John Vondy who volunteered to take charge and almost single-handedly care for the Irish emigrants. Once again, I ask you to look around and try to imagine those horrific conditions he voluntarily subjected himself to. Look past the walking trails, picnic sites, horseshoe pits, volleyball nets, the canteen, and the interpretive centre, and picture the utter desolation of this place. It was on this island that forty Irish people died almost immediately after their arrival, and 96 in total, in June of 1847. It was on this island that they languished from typhus fever with only Dr. John Vondy and a couple of other people to care for them. It was on this island that Dr.Vondy freely came to care for up to 350 fever-stricken Irish emigrants, from the Loosthauk, the Richard White, and the Bollivar, knowing full well the extreme risk that he took in doing so. According to one eyewitness, he “was exceedingly kind to the sick, feeding and moving them into comfortable positions [until he] took the disease himself”. And it was on this island that Dr. Vondy fell ill, on the 22nd of June 1847, where he lay dying for a week, nursed by his sister, until he finally perished on the 29th of June. According to the Miramichi Gleaner:
He fell, a sacrifice to that alarming disease with which the passengers of the ill-fated ship Looshtauk were visited, and expired on Friday morning last, about 3 o’clock. His remains were placed in a double coffin, made perfectly air tight, and conveyed from Middle Island to Coulson’s slip, and from thence to St. Paul’s Churchyard, followed by an immense concourse of people.
We have seldom witnessed an occurrence that cast so deep a gloom over the community. As soon as his death was announced, all the shops were closed and business partially suspended throughout the day. The sum of £60 was subscribed in the churchyard, for the purpose of erecting a suitable testimonial to commemorate the sad event, and testify the respect felt for the memory of the deceased.
Middle Island Memorial.
It was on this island that Dr. John Vondy gave his life caring for the Famine Irish. He was no ordinary man. Let us acknowledge that while he tended to the sick, Dr. Vondy was not well supported, and toiled almost by himself without adequate facilities, shelter, or even food to alleviate their suffering. Still, he did all that was within his power to care for the sick. Imagine the fear that he must have felt when he too fell ill, until his sister came to nurse him in his final days and hours. Like Bishop Michael Power in Toronto, and the Grey Nuns of Montreal, Dr. John Vondy exhibited selfless devotion in tending to the typhus-stricken Irish emigrants right here in 1847.
This island is a special place. It has witnessed some of the darkest moments in our history, when we recall all of those Irish emigrants who perished here, or beforehand at sea. But it has also witnessed some of the finest moments in our history, when we recall the heroic deeds of Dr. John Vondy. His story, like that of Bishop Michael Power and the Grey Nuns, is one of laying down his life to protect the most vulnerable. It is a story that belongs to the most cherished part of our history. It is a story of Ireland and a story of Canada, of Middle Island and the Miramichi, which binds our peoples together. It is also a story that attests to the bonds that were formed on this island, between the most vulnerable Irish who came to New Brunswick, and the people of Miramichi who cared for them.
Today we are increasingly confronted with images of desperate people crossing seas in ramshackle ships that resemble the Loosthauk. We can only hope that they will encounter caregivers like Dr. John Vondy when they come ashore. In an age of increasingly desperate acts of migration, his compassion provides a lesson for us all.