The Famine Irish and Forced Migration: An Early Canadian Refugee Crisis (Toronto, May 22-23, 2018)

Famine Irish and Forced Migration poster

May 22 & 23, 2018: Archives of Ontario
May 22, 2018: St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
May 23, 2018: Ireland Park and Dr. George Grasett Park

For over 500 years, Irish men, women, and children have crossed the Atlantic to Canada. Yet never during that time had people arrived in such great distress as those immigrants and refugees fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine in 1847. Following two successive failures of the potato crop, that of 1846 being almost total, more than three million people (in a population of about 8.5 million in 1845) were receiving rations at soup kitchens across Ireland in July 1847. During these same months, starving and penniless Irish arrived in Canadian ports, cities and towns. The British government declared the worst of the famine over that autumn, shutting down the soup kitchens, yet the 1848 crop failed completely and public policy shifted towards local rather than centrally administered relief. Not until 1852 was the Irish countryside relieved of potato blight. A million or more died and a further million emigrated in the worst demographic catastrophe in nineteenth-century Europe.

This two-day symposium brings together personnel from the academic and heritage sectors in Canada, Ireland, and the USA who are active in the production, curating, and promotion of knowledge about the Great Irish Potato Famine. The symposium will firstly consider the immediate and long-term impact of the arrival of Famine Irish forced migrants in the united Province of Canada, the experiences and perceptions of their Canadian caregivers, and their patterns of integration and resettlement in rural and urban communities. Secondly, it will discuss how new scholarship about the famine is being brought into the public domain through museums, memorials, and online public history initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic.

The symposium comprises morning and afternoon conference sessions on both days at the Archives of Ontario, including a documentary screening and the performance of a one-woman play. On the evening of day 1, the Great Famine Voices Roadshow open access oral history workshop will take place at St. Michael’s College. In the late afternoon/evening of day 2, there will be a series of field trips to two sites of Irish interest in Toronto (Ireland Park and Dr. George Grasett Park) and a closing reception at a restaurant.

This event is open to the public. All are welcome.

A registration desk will be present both days, but prior notice of attendance is appreciated. Please direct inquiries to:

Professor William Jenkins, Department of Geography, York University:


Tea, coffee, and lunch will be available both days.

DAY 1: (May 22), Archives of Ontario, Spragge Classroom

9:00 Registration

9:30 Welcoming remarks

9:45-11:15 Keynote 1: Mark McGowan (University of Toronto), Suffer the Children: Finding the Irish Famine Orphans in the British North American Colonies

11:30-12:45 Paper Session 1: Resettlement and Remembrance

  • Laura Smith (Ireland Park Foundation), The Burial and Commemoration of Deceased Irish Famine migrants on the Burlington Heights, Hamilton, Canada West
  • William Jenkins (York University), Exploring Hidden and Unhidden Irelands in Toronto in the 1850s and 1860s

Tour: Archives of Ontario lunchtime tour and exposition of Hawke Papers

2:15-4:00 Paper Session 2: Famine Experiences and Narratives

  • Jason King (Irish Heritage Trust), Unpublished Irish Famine Journals in Ontario: A Preview of a Virtual Exhibit
  • Robert Grace (Université Laval), The Famine Irish in Quebec City: After the Shock
  • Max Smith (York University), Toronto’s Temporary Lunatic Asylum and Famine Immigrants, 1841-1850

5:00-9:00 Great Famine Voices Roadshow Oral History Workshop and Reception. Madden Hall, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. Host: Irish Heritage Trust and Irish National Famine Museum.

Great Famine Voices Roadshow logo 2

DAY 2: (May 23), Archives of Ontario, Spragge Classroom.

9:30-11:15 Paper Session 3: Creating Famine Memory

  • Robert Kearns (Ireland Park Foundation), Ireland Park Foundation and the Unveiling of Dr. George Robert Grasett Park
  • Dan Horner (Ryerson University), Irish Famine Migration and the Making of an Orderly Urban Landscape in Montreal
  • Colin McMahon (York University), “‘A People without Ancestry’?: Great Famine Memory in Montreal and Boston at the turn of the 20th Century”

11:30-12:30. Documentary Screening: The Famine Irish and Canada’s First Responders., introduced by Kevin Moynihan

1:30-3:30. The Legacy of the Carricks Famine Irish Shipwreck

  • Simon Jolivet (Public Historian, Montreal) The Irish who never reached Grosse-Île: the history of the 1847 Carricks shipwreck in Gaspésie, Québec.
  • Play Rose Marie Stanley, Emigrants.

3:40-4:00.  Closing discussion.

Field Trips to Ireland Park (Eireann Quay) and Dr. George Grasett Park (299 Adelaide Street West).

7:00-11:00. Reception at a downtown Toronto restaurant, TBA.

7:30-8:15. Keynote 2. Booker Prize-nominated author Michael Collins pre-dinner reading about his Irish Diaspora Run in the footsteps of the Famine Irish in Canada.