Irish famine exhibit celebrates courage of Montreal’s Grey Nuns
When no one wanted the starving Irish, Montreal’s Grey Nuns cared for the new immigrants, many of whom were stricken with typhus. Several of the nuns would die. As would the mayor of Montreal.
A new exhibit titled Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger running this week at the Centaur Theatre chronicles their heroism and that of other religious orders and Montrealers.
When the coffin ships started arriving from Ireland in 1847, unloading passengers into fever sheds in the south of the city, many residents wanted the new arrivals pushed into the St. Lawrence. At one point Montreal’s mayor deterred a mob from doing so.
There were only 50,000 people in Montreal, and many were terrified. More than 100,000 emaciated, often diseased Irish were on their way to Quebec after the potato crop in Ireland failed two years in a row. The British government was unable to care for the starving and America had enacted strict standards for immigration that included costly ship fares out of reach of the impoverished Irish.
So they came to Quebec, paying cheap fares to be packed by the hundreds in dank holds, used as ballast in British trade ships that usually shipped lumber. Five thousand died on the crossing, their corpses tossed overboard. Unable to handle the deluge at the immigration depot on Grosse Île near Quebec City, where as many as 5,000 would die, many of the ships were waved on to Montreal by immigration officials.
The ill and the dying were quarantined in the 22 fever sheds built near where the Victoria Bridge now stands.
The Grey Nuns, or Sisters of Charity as they are also known, were the first religious order called in to assist the Irish. Only about 40 in number, most of them would become infected with typhus themselves, carrying the ill from the ships to the sheds and administering to them. Seven of them would die. Those who didn’t convalesced, then came back to continue caring for the Irish. They would nurse them back to health and find homes for more than 1,500 orphans, either with other Irish families or, in most cases, with French Canadians, which is why Quebec’s Irish roots run so deep.
Many members of the Catholic and Anglican clergies, including several priests, gave help, sometimes at the cost of their lives. British soldiers on security detail gave up their rations to feed the starving.
Digging through the annals and archival records of the Grey Nuns, Jason King, a Montrealer now at the National University of Ireland, and Christine Kinealy, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, have put together a portrait as seen through the eyes of the many caregivers. On display in Connecticut for a year, the modest exhibit of explanatory texts, artifacts and sculptures will tour various locations in Montreal, beginning with the Centaur Theatre.
“The exhibit is to concentrate on the people who went to help them, and in many cases gave up their life,” said Fergus Keyes. “That included John Mills, the mayor of Montreal at the time, who wasn’t Irish, wasn’t Catholic, but he set up the sheds and went and nursed the Irish and it cost him his life. Sometimes he’s called the Martyr Mayor of Montreal.”
Keyes is the director of the Irish Monument Park Foundation, which is working to establish a memorial park to honour the 6,000 Irish who would die in Montreal. At present, the only memorial to the dead is the massive Irish Rock that was unearthed by Irish labourers building the Victoria Bridge and placed over a burial spot on Bridge St. near the span to protect it from desecration in 1959. Keyes’ foundation is working to create park space near the memorial, as has been done in several North American cities.
Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger runs at the Centaur Theatre, 453 St-Francois-Xavier St. in Old Montreal, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily until April 17.