Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Month: September, 2015

2015 Annual Famine Commemoration Newry International Conference, September 23-26, 2015.

Newry FamineComm-page-001

On Saturday 26 September the National Famine Commemoration took place in Newry, County Down.  As part of the Famine Commemoration, an international conference on the the theme of “John Mitchel: The Legacy of the Great Irish Famine” was organized by Anthony Russell, Tommy Fegan, and Paddy Fitzgerald.  This is the first time the event will be held in Northern Ireland and follows on from a successful hosting in Strokestown, county Roscommon in May 2014.

Full details of the conference programme below:

Wednesday 23 Sept 7.00pm Official Opening of the Conference 7.00pm A Hedge School Event Ulster and the Legacy of the Great Famine Chair: Tommy Graham (History Ireland) Panellists: Professor Mary Daly, Professor Christine Kinealy, Professor Peter Gray and Dr Ruan O’Donnell

Newry John Mitchel statue

Thursday 24 Sept

10.00am Anthony Russell, Mitchel’s Town and The Famine in Two Ulsters

10:45am Professor William Smyth – Reflecting on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

11:15am Dr James Quinn – John Mitchel, the Irish Peasant and the American Slave

2.00pm Pechakuchas – 7 Presenters, 7 Slides, 7 Topics in 7 Minutes 1. Slavery, A Biblical Perspective – Nigel Agnew 2. Seven Famines – Dr Paddy Fitzgerald 3. Belfast Famine– Eamon Phoenix 4. Newry Workhouse – Hugh McShane 5. Famine Commemoration– Michael Blanch 6. A Famine Family – Lynn McAreavey 7. Strokestown – John O’Driscoll

Lady C

Friday 25 September

Morning Session

10.00am Christine Kinealy, The wee-men of Belfast. Female Philanthropy and the Great Famine

10.45 am Dr Laurence Geary, The Great Famine and Medicine 11:15am

Cathal Porteir, What folklore can tell us about the Great Famine that the documents cannot

11.45 am Dr Jason King, Irish Famine migration to Montreal, Toronto and New Brunswick

Newry faminecommemoration

Afternoon Session

2:00pm Dr Ciarán Reilly – ‘Famine has made sad savages among its poor’: the world of the Ulster cottier in the 1840s.

2.30pm Dr John Nelson – Like Father, Unlike Son: The Rev. John Mitchel

3.00pm Cormac O’Grada – Eating People is wrong:Thoughts on Famine

3:30pm Reflections on the Conference – Professor Christine Kinealy

Famine Programme Newry

Saturday 26 September

10am ‘The Famine Plot – A discussion on the Great Famine and Culpability’ Chair: Robert Kearns – Ireland Park Toronto; Panellists: Tim Pat Coogan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Professor Liam Kennedy, Brian Patterson.

Newry Famine Graveyard


Annual Famine Commemoration: Newry, September 26th, 2015.

Commemoration hears of famine’s heavy toll on Ulster

Cavan lost 43% of its population through death or emigration between 1845 and 1851

Irish Times, Saturday, September 26, 2015.

Newry Famine Commemoration 1

Stormont culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Minister for Heritage Heather Humphreys in Newry, Co Down at the National Famine Commemoration ceremony. Photograph: Paul Faith.

Ronan McGreevy

The tragedy of a coffin ship which hit an iceberg and sank was recalled at the first National Famine Commemoration event to be held in Northern Ireland.

Hannah left Warrenpoint in April 1849 with approximately 170 passengers and crew on board.

She sank in the Gulf of St Lawrence on April 29th, 1849 with at least 49 deaths though the ship’s list was lost and nobody knows exactly how many people were on board.

The annual commemoration was held at Albert Basin, Newry. Nearby Warrenpoint was a major port of emigration during the famine years. Hannah sailed from there on April 4th.

Most of those on board Hannah were from south Armagh. Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys referenced the Murphy family from Mullaghbane who lost two of their children in the sinking and whose descendants still live in North Crosby, Ontario.

Stormont minister for culture Carál Ní Chuilín gave an account of the sinking of Hannah. One mother lost her six children, she said.

The ship struck an iceberg in the middle of the night and many of the children were trapped below deck. The ship sank in just 40 minutes and survivors clung to ice floes, but many died from exposure.

One eyewitness reported of the survivors: “No pen can describe the pitiful situation of the poor creatures. They were all but naked, cut and bruised and frostbitten. There were children who lost parents and parents who lost children. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible.”


Dr Eamon Phoenix, a member of the famine memorial committee, stated the catastrophe directed impacted at least 3.5 million in Ireland. The population of the historic province of Ulster dropped by 16 per cent between 1845 and 1851. The worst affected county was Cavan where 43 per cent of the population was lost through either death or emigration.

Dr Phoenix pointed out that the famine affected both Catholic and Protestant communities in the North.

The famine had a “seering impact on the traditionally prosperous parts of east Ulster,” he said, adding that it was particularly notable around Lurgan and Portadown in Armagh.

In Newtownards the potato crop failure coincided with a downturn in the linen industry which devastated the area leaving “emaciated, half-famished souls”, according to a local newspaper account.

The workhouse in Newry saw a rise in numbers from 465 in 1845 to 1,100 in 1847.

The service was hosted by Newry and Mourne District Council. The National Famine Commemoration was first established in 2008 and is held in a different part of the country every year.

Representatives of the diplomatic corps from more than 30 countries attended the event and laid wreathes.

Mrs Humphreys will also unveil a commemorative plaque in Warrenpoint, Co. Down on Sunday in honour of those who emigrated and all of the people who suffered on the island of Ireland as a result of the famine.


No More Coffin Ships

No more coffin ships

Maryam Filaih from Dublin at a welcome refugee rally on O’Connell Street Credit: David Conachy

The escalation of the European migration crisis has led to frequent comparisons in media coverage, political opinion, and public debate between the Irish Famine Migration of 1847 and the perils refugees face today.  The Rowan Gillespie Famine monuments in Dublin and in Ireland Park, Toronto, have become focal points for demonstrations of solidarity with refugees through the prism of Famine Irish memory.

Dublin Famine monument refugees

Image of three asylum seekers imposed on a photograph of the famine memorial on Custom House Quay in Dublin.

Famine Memorial protest

A section of the crowd gathered at the Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay in solidarity with people seeking refuge in Europe. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

“Let Then In”, Michael Enright. (CBC The Sunday Edition, September 13, 2015).


Ireland Park, Toronto, Ontario (Credit: Kearns Mancini)

On a sun-blasted morning last week, I biked down to the lake’s edge and sat for a long time in a small, almost hidden parkette called Ireland Park. Out on Lake Ontario, small boats, kayaks, yachts, ferries competed for space on the broad calm waters. No dinghies over-jammed with children and mothers and old men. At the Toronto Island Airport, planes took off and landed, their passengers not stateless, not homeless, no doubt all suitably credentialed.

Five bronze sculptures of figures in rags stand in a corner of the park. Their eyes are raised to the great spires and comforting money towers of the downtown. One of the figures lies dead or dying on the ground. The female figure clutches her pregnant belly. The figures are beyond gaunt; they are skeletal. The park was designed by Toronto Architect Jonathan Kearns, himself an Irish immigrant. It memorializes the coming to Toronto in 1847 of Irish refugees escaping from the horrific devastation caused country-wide by the potato famine.

At the time, Toronto had a population of around 20,000. In one year, some 38,000 Irish refugees landed in the city. Hundreds died of typhus in the so-called coffin sheds not far from this building. And still more came, over the next decades. At the other end of the park are 14 very tall towers made of black Kilkenny limestone. On this morning the limestone was warm to the touch. Carved into the interstices between the towers, are the names of some of those who came: Rose Cassady, Luke McCue, James Murphy, Mary O’Brien, Martin Carlow, Biddy Clary, Mary Ryan.

Canada has a long and storied history of taking in those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Irish, Vietnamese, Hungarians, Tamils, Bengalis Guatemalans, Turks, even thousands of political refugees from the United States. It’s what we do. It’s not a bad record but not without some failures, some historical blemishes. We failed huge numbers of Jewish refugees in the days prior to World War Two, by shutting our doors to them. Our policy was none is too many. We turned away a boatload of Sikhs in the early 1900s and we excluded Chinese except as stoop labourers. Nevertheless, in number and behaviour, the refugees we have admitted have never been anything other than assets to this country.

The vision of thousands of refugees coming to Canada may upset many people, but that’s all right. Change and the challenge of change take awhile to reach a comfort level. There will be that small minority of xenophobes who can’t abide the notion of strangers in their midst. That’s all right  too. Yes there are haters in this country as there are in any other place, in any other time.  Does it do any good  assigning blame for what we haven’t done? Perhaps. Perhaps the election next month will be a punishment yard.

The important thing is to do something generous and effective, and to do it now. Why not a pledge to bring in 50,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees by Christmas, as retired general Rick Hillier has suggested? And another 50,000 by next Canada Day? Not impossible.

A few hours after I left the park, I watched a family in midtown laughing and shouting and taking pictures of each other. They were Chinese, grandmother, grandfather, young couple, two young children a boy and a girl, maybe the age of Aylan Kurdi. They were chattering away to each other in Chinese, having a grand time. They were probably not refugees, perhaps immigrants. Or maybe they were even born here. It didn’t matter. Written on the left arm of the grandfather’s sweat shirt was one word: “Canada.”

History tells us we could be doing more for refugees: Keenan

(Edward Keenan, Toronto Star, September 3, 2015)

In 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland, Toronto was a city of 20,000, and in a period of six months, more than 38,000 refugees fleeing the famine arrived and Toronto mobilized to house them and to treat the sick.



Woman On Ground, one of several sculptures at Ireland Park in Toronto, is dedicated to remind people of the devastation of hunger. In 1847, more than 38,000 Irish Famine refugees landed on the shores of Toronto, causing a major strain of resources.