The Story of 1490 orphan James Flood
On May 11, 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a glass wall memorial to the 1490 emigrants during the National Famine Commemoration at Strokestown.
Colin McMahon has traced the 1490 orphan James Flood’s movements between Strokestown, Liverpool, Grosse Île and Montreal in an article entitled “Recrimination and Reconciliation: Great Famine Memory in Liverpool and Montreal at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Atlantic Studies: Global Currents 11.3 (2014): 344-64.
In McMahon’s own words (347-348):
The Famine influx has long been an emotionally charged and politically potent memory for Irish groups in Liverpool and Montreal, not only because of the devastation wrought in their port cities in 1847, but also for its evocation of the calamitous condition of Ireland that led to the harried exit of the Famine Irish from their homeland. We can catch a glimpse of the horrors of this phase of Famine migration by tracing the route of one Roscommon family, the Floods, who, having lost their land and livelihood, fled Ireland in the spring of 1847. Mary and James Flood Sr. and their nine children were among the first contingent of 465 tenants that were evicted from the Strokestown estate and participated in a landlord-assisted emigration scheme that took them on a harrowing three-month journey through the Irish midlands, over the Irish Sea to Liverpool, and across the north Atlantic to Montreal. Their landlord, Major Denis Mahon, calculated that the expense of overseeing the large-scale clearance and transatlantic shipment of his smallholders who had neither food to eat nor money to pay rent would amount to less than half the cost of maintaining them in the workhouse for a single year.
The first stage of their journey out of Ireland began with a 150-kilometre trek from Strokestown to Dublin. After four days of trudging cross-country and sleeping rough, the Floods and their neighbours arrived on the outskirts of the Irish capital. From there, they were escorted by the estate’s bailiff to Eden Quay on the River Liffey, where Major Mahon’s land agent awaited to oversee their passage to Liverpool. The inexpensive cross-channel voyage took less than a day, but the rough currents of the Irish Sea would have made it a distressing experience for this already malnourished group of migrants who were packed together on deck and in the holds of a steam-driven ferry.
Disembarkation at Liverpool’s Clarence Dock offered little respite. The Flood family and the other Strokestown migrants represented a mere trickle in the deluge of over one million Irish into Liverpool during the Famine years, most of them in search of a cheap berth on a vessel bound for North America. Entering Europe’s busiest port, with “thousands of hungry and half naked wretches…wandering about, not knowing how to obtain a sufficiency of the commonest food nor shelter,” the destitute Irish were easy prey for sharpers and harpies, “the most unscrupulous set of scoundrels” notorious for bilking hapless newcomers to the city of the little they possessed. Even a brief stopover in this “City of Plague” exposed many Famine Irish to typhus, a disease that had reached epidemic proportions in the city by May 1847. Despite quarantine facilities at the Brownlow workhouse, on the waterfront, and aboard three government supplied quarantine ships docked on the River Mersey, the louse-borne bacterial infection stalked Irish migrants upon boarding vessels that had been hastily converted for the emigrant trade between Liverpool and British North America.
The Floods survived their week long stay in a north-end lodging house in Liverpool awaiting embarkation, but would suffer terribly on their voyage to Quebec, arranged for them by their landlord. Opting for the cheapest fare his land agent could find, Major Mahon sent his former tenants across the Atlantic on a vessel that would soon gain infamy as a ‘coffin ship’. During the two month passage the Flood family and their former neighbours struggled to survive on paltry provisions while lodged in the bowels of the Virginius—a dank, insanitary, suffocating space below the foredeck that was a breeding ground for dysentery and typhus. In conditions likened by The Times to “The Black Hole of Calcutta,” typhus spread rapidly among the Strokestown emigrants. Daily, corpses were hauled up from the holds, covered in old sails or meal-sacks stitched together, weighted down, and then “buried in the deep without the rites of the Church.” Three of the Flood children (Bridget, Edward, and Mary Jr.) who succumbed to typhus en route were dropped overboard. By the time the Virginius laid anchor in the St. Lawrence River next to the Grosse-Île quarantine station on July 28th, one third of its passengers had met the same fate.
Those who survived the voyage faced further adversity on disembarkation in Quebec. Dr. George Douglas, medical superintendent of Grosse-Île, described the Strokestown emigrants as “ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and, without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” Five-year-old James Flood Jr. was among the few who emerged from the hold of the Virginius in relatively good health, but the fate of the remaining members of his family is unclear. At some point between their inspection at Grosse-Île and James’ arrival at Montreal’s waterfront several days later, the boy was separated from his family, possibly during the chaotic sorting process at the quarantine station or at some stage in the 50 kilometre voyage upriver aboard one of the crowded steamers, which carried 70,000 Irish migrants along with a typhus epidemic to Montreal, turning the city “into a virtual Quarantine Station.” It is equally plausible that members of the Flood family were afflicted with typhus upon their arrival in Montreal and were among the 13,189 Irish emigrants who were hospitalized in the twenty-two fever sheds of Pointe Saint-Charles in the southwest of the city, and possibly among the roughly 6,000 who died there and were “buried like dogs in the Hospital pit.” Whatever the circumstances that led to him losing his family, we know that James found himself alone in Montreal, a city under siege by disease. Like many of Montreal’s Famine orphans, James found refuge in the Catholic Church, in his case with the Grey Nuns in the Hôpital Général des Soeurs-Grises. He remained in Montreal’s waterfront neighbourhood very near the dock on which he was deposited in 1847, working as a labourer until 1875, at which point his name disappears from the public record.
To read Colin McMahon’s full article, follow the link (pay wall):
Colin McMahon’s article has also been reproduced in full in Marguérite Corporaal and Jason King, Irish Global Migration and Memory: Transatlantic Perspectives of Ireland’s Famine Exodus (Routledge, 2016).