Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Donovan King

Michael Collins named Irish Times Book Club Author in March 2017. He reflects on 20,000 Irish Famine Refugees who died in 1847.

Michael Collins and Jason King

Irish Times Book Club Author March 2017 Michael Collins with Jason King at Rowan Gillespie Famine sculptures in Dublin, Custom House Quay.

Michael Collins has been named as the Irish Times Book Club Author in March 2017. His novel The Keepers of the Truth was shortlisted for the 2000 Man Booker Prize and the Impac Award and won Irish Novel of the Year. He is the author of 10 works of fiction including most recently The Death of All Things Seen (2016).

In the summer of 2016 Michael Collins also completed his epic 550-mile run from Grosse Ile quarantine station in Quebec to Ireland Park Famine Memorial in Toronto to raise funds to commemorate the route Famine refugees took across Canada and the locals who helped them.

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Dr Jason King presents a copy of Michael Collins’s novel The Death of All Things Seen to Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers.

After the completion of Michael Collins’s Irish Diaspora Run and the publication of The Death of All Things Seen in July 2016, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers made the following statement:

I would like to congratulate the Booker-nominated novelist and ultra-runner Michael Collins on the completion of his Irish Diaspora Run 2016. This past June and July he ran a marathon a day from Grosse Ilê in Quebec to Ireland Park in Toronto following in the footsteps of tens of thousands of Irish emigrants who fled the Great Famine for Canada in 1847. Next year he will continue this run along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way west coast trail.

I would also like to thank Michael Collins for giving me a signed copy of his new novel, The Death of All Things Seen, which has already been acclaimed as a “driven, virtuoso” work and “a formidable, demanding achievement”.  In both his novel and during the Irish Diaspora Run, Collins has sought to discover and retell some of the most powerful stories of the Famine Irish in Canada. He was particularly inspired by the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit and Digital Irish Famine Archive ( which he describes as “nothing short of genius”.

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit, curated by Dr. Jason King and Professor Christine Kinealy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, is coming to Dublin for the Irish National Famine Commemoration in September, and then will travel around the country. Next year marks the 170th anniversary of the Irish Famine migration and the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada. It is only fitting that we pay tribute to these Canadian caregivers of the Famine Irish who express our values and the enduring ties between our two countries.

In a recent Irish Times article (November 26, 2016) entitled “Remembering 20,000 Famine refugees who died in 1847,” Michael Collins recalled his epic Irish Diaspora Run and how was inspired by his visit to the “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibit:

Michael Collins at Grosse Ile

Michael Collins at the beginning of Irish Diaspora Run at Grosse Ile National Historic Site.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

Michael Collins:

Within the Famine memorial fundraising community, there’s a phenomenon quietly referred to as “famine fatigue”, which tacitly acknowledges that, in the receding century and a half since the events of those terrible famine years, there’s a limit to the emotional empathy that can be wrought from a people, no matter the numbers – one million starved and another two million were forced to emigrate.

Time moves on and yet, when I first heard the term, it rattled me that my month-long Irish Diaspora Run – a marathon-a-day for 30 days, motivated to bring awareness and raise funds to memorialise 20,000 Irish who died during the 1847 passage of 100,000 famine-stricken emigrants to Canada – might be viewed as just another far-cast mournful act of an emigrant dwelling on ancient history.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Ontario.

The term “famine fatigue” was the first reality check I would experience in what has become an evolving and contentious coming to terms with the actual cause, circumstance and culpability regarding the Famine years of 1845-49.

My first point of contact was with the highly regarded Irish Famine historian Dr Christine Kinealy, at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut who has gathered a stirring collection of Famine-inspired sculptures housed in the university’s library.


Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Dr. Jason King at launch of “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit, Glasnevin Museum, September 11, 2016.


She was then curating a Famine-related exhibit on the Montreal order of Grey Nuns, who had not only ministered to the typhus-stricken Irish in 1847, but also undertook the care and eventual adoption of over 6,000 Irish orphans into a French-speaking Quebecois community…

In my own youth, the Famine was not discussed, partly out of a reflexive sense of shame that we had been so subjugated under British rule, but also in our pragmatic rush throughout the early 1980s toward a new Ireland of so-called young Europeans.

In the instinct to outrun history, there was an underlying economic indeterminacy tied to the protracted Troubles and with it, a spike in emigration.

So, too, a nationalist movement, in calculatedly drawing upon the famine, had stoked an impassioned Irish-American community further complicated our self-determinism. We were at once a people united and divided by our own history – by those who remained and the descendants of those who had left.

Upon emigrating to America, I wrote my first collection of short stories, The Meat Eaters, an ode to country inspired by loss and displacement.

Soon after, swayed by legions of emigrant descendants who configured their history around the historical displacement of the Famine, I began a Famine novel.

I would spend a year researching the historical record and in the end wither from the burden of inhabiting the psyche of either the Irish peasantry or the landed aristocracy.

It lives as a singular literary failure that has dogged me, given I would eventually transfer a sociological acuity to all things American, specifically the collapse of American industrialism, as captured in my Booker shortlisted novel, The Keepers of Truth.

Keepers of the Truth

The question plagued me – how could I stand as outsider, impartial witness, and documentarian to another history whilst my own eluded me?

Deconstruction of the American Dream

In the intervening years, as an ultrarunner, I would captain the Irish 100K Senior Team. In so doing, I vicariously drew upon the Famine, inhabiting the underlying perseverance of a repressed and starved people in the sublimation of distances covered.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Ontario.

In so admitting it, in drawing on this historical past, I feel, even now, a reflexive cringe at this ignoble servicing of so many dead for the concentrated efforts of trying to win a race.

Years would pass. My writing life turned solely to the deconstruction of the American Dream. Even the tenuous connection to a Famine-inspired endurance receded as I retired from competitive ultra-running.

In the interval of years, there was, too, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and of course 9/11, and, with it, the end of funds funnelled home given how terrorism was forever re-defined and prosecuted under The Patriot Act.

By the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century, I was furthest from my Irishness and deep into a new novel examining the effects of the financial collapse of 2008 on an American family.

Death of All Things Seen

Likewise, a post-financial crash Ireland, caught in the entanglement of what it meant to be European and in the midst of its austerity measures, was turned from nationalist preoccupations that had figured so centrally just decades earlier.

It was not until the fall of 2015, while taking a month-long French language course in Quebec City, that I came across the fated 1847 ocean passage to Canada of 100,000 famine-stricken Irish who had been evicted from some of the most remote estates in a great evacuation of the last enclaves of Gaelic culture.

Much of what I read was in French, or parlayed through a halting bilingual exchange with local historians. It was a story twice told: first a story of the Irish, but also a story of the French-speaking Québécois who became unwitting participants in the greatest loss of life in the Victorian period, surpassed only by the Great Famine itself and the Crimean War.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

In the narrative arc of that singular season of death, there was the providential coincidence that those who had survived the ocean crossing eventually continued along the Saint Lawrence river for some 600 miles, to Toronto – a tally of miles I registered as a distance I could run in a single month, amounting to a marathon a day.

I made a promise to return to Canada to complete a solitary pilgrimage along a forgotten route…

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Ontario.

Irish mass graves

The fault lines of the complex academic, political and sectarian divide, which appear everywhere in the historical record of the famine, did not surface as I arrived at Grosse Île quarantine island along the Saint Lawrence river.

In the great oddment of the contained history of 1847, in approaching the island, nothing suggests the province holds the ignominious distinction of containing the largest number of Irish mass graves in the world.

Grosse Île is a site of Irish pilgrimage – though, to Canadians, it is a heritage site dedicated to preserving the island’s historical significance as a quarantine processing facility from 1832 to 1932.

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Michael Collins at Grosse Ile National Historic Site

The Irish Famine is but one story within Grosse Île’s long history, and yet the facts are stark. From June to November of 1847, of the 100,000 who emigrated, 7,000 died during the 40 to 50-day Atlantic crossing while, on Grosse Île, a further 5,000 succumbed to typhus and were buried in trenched graves.

As early as May 1847, Dr Douglas, chief medical officer at Grosse Île, wrote letters imploring assistance to offset impending disaster. The British government wilfully disregarded such requests. The coffin ships kept sailing.

By mid-June, due to the throng of the infirm in the fever sheds and a lack of medical staff, passengers languished for upwards of two weeks aboard an armada of 40 ships backed up two miles along the Saint Lawrence.

Without adequate water and food, infection spread.

The diarist and coffin ship passenger Robert Whyte recorded seeing “hundreds . . . literally flung on the beach, left amid the mud and stones to crawl on the dry land as they could”.

Of the 427 passengers who arrived aboard The Agnes, only 150 survived Grosse Île.

In my journey to the island, amidst a riot of children on a school excursion, there would be little regard for solemnity. On the cusp of beginning my month-long run, I felt the reflexive need to rationalise why I was compelled to make this pilgrimage in the name of so many nameless dead. There was no immediate answer.

In a quiet disengagement from the school children, I walked first to a Celtic cross that had been erected atop the island in 1909, some 60 years after the fateful events of 1847, then eventually wound my way to a commemorative glass memorial inaugurated in 1998.

Grosse Ile monument

Grosse Île glass memorial

Fronting a series of unmarked trenched graves amounting to 5,000 souls, an etched glass sail bears a roll call of the dead. In finding the name Collins, the historical context of why this happened and who was to blame was suddenly less important than simply bearing witness to the place where so many had died.


Early on, I’d understood that this run would be the salvage of a near lost history in the far-flung, French-speaking province of Quebec. What passed represented a single season of death.

Of those 6,000 emigrant orphans sent into the countryside, there has never been a great appeal among them to reconnect with their Irish roots. Perhaps the trauma was too great, or the succour of those who came to their aid did not bear compromise. There was the language barrier, too, and a spirited Francophile resistance to English rule.

The most striking fact that emerged in reading the transcribed documents from the time was how the municipal authorities, in tandem with the religious orders of Montreal, had marshalled their collective resources to care and minister to the sick and dying Irish.

Simply put, the question early on was: What affinity did the native Québécois have toward this advance of typhus-stricken Irish?

In a slow advance toward Montreal, much asked in that question became apparent.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

I chose Route 132, given its languid course along the Saint Lawrence. In running this less-travelled road, I came upon religious shrines that harkened to a penitent spectre of a more ancient, religious life, shrines eerily reminiscent of those that still exist along the coastal crag of the West of Ireland; weathered figures of Christ’s passion on a cross facing the eternal scour of the Atlantic gales.

This is expected of Ireland, but to come upon these roadside shrines in the rainy cold of Canada was a revelation.

1847 figured as a proxy war between Catholics and proselytizing ministers for the salvation of souls.

Through the recent work of historian Jason King, the historical record of the Grey Nuns has been recovered and translated. The diary entries capture the miasma of catastrophic sickness.

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Michael Collins and Jason King in Dublin.


In a Dante-esque apocalyptic vision, 75,000 emigrants descended on Montreal, which then had a population of 50,000. There are descriptions of sickness and effluence in the fever sheds that sickened veteran doctors, and yet the so-called Martyrs of Charity actively sought out the most distressing cases of disease.


Digital Irish Famine Archive with Grey Nuns annals:

What is transmitted is a faith eclipsed by an Enlightenment age of reason and science and, eventually, a jaded modernist cynicism.

In the breadth of some 600 miles, my run would eventually follow the ragged migration of survivors through a divided country: first the Francophile province of Quebec, then the Neo-English province of Ontario.

Their journey reveals a history of how the disparate Canadian populations dealt with the refugee crisis, and yet my initial sweep into the remote, uninhabited lands of Quebec proved the most physically and spiritually challenging. Here lay a lost history and the greatest loss of life.

Collective amnesia

Early in planning the run, there was a singular destination I’d settled on that I felt defined our unsatisfactory collective response to the tragic events of 1847 – Montreal’s Black Rock.

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Michael Collins at Montreal Black Rock Famine memorial.

Set in a road median in downtown Montreal, the rock commemorates 6,000 Irish interred in a mass grave. The burial site had been all but forgotten until it was uncovered during construction in 1859 of the Victoria Bridge. Such was the collective amnesia of a traumatized city. The workers who unearthed the entombed erected, at their own expense, the stone that now commemorates those almost forgotten dead.

In so reading about the Black Rock, I discovered that, at some point, it will most probably be removed given the sprawl of the city. I contacted the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, a non-profit preemptively seeking to avert the eventual unceremonious mass exhumation of corpses with a proposed famine memorial park across from a derelict parking lot in an industrial wasteland under federal management.

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Victor Boyle, Marc Miller MP, Fergus Keyes, Michael Collins, and Ronan Corbett.

The director, Fergus Keyes, was frank in his general assessment of the dim prospects of negotiating the provincial and federal bureaucratic red tape to acquire the land.

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Fergus Keyes welcomes Michael Collins to Black Rock.

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Michael Collins and Fergus Keyes at Black Rock.

Yet, his organization has persisted with an annual commemorative gathering that includes the absurd spectacle of having to dart across a major thoroughfare to an island median memorial to honour 6,000 famine victims.

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Donovan King and Michael Collins at Black Rock.

In viewing an online video, in witnessing the ragged assembly of the faithful, I took it as a smouldering indictment of our slowness in demanding recognition of the undisputable horrors which befell our ancestors.

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Media scrum greets Michael Collins at Black Rock.

On a Facebook page Irish Diaspora Run 2016, set up to provide historical information regarding the famine and to chart my progress, a sub-group quickly spawned around the Irish housing crash. Members likened the modern spate of foreclosure evictions to what happened during the famine.

There was the sense that the famine was relevant and yet distantly remote from the pressures facing people in the collapse of the housing market.

I sympathised with the understated indictment in dwelling on a remote past, and yet there are times when it takes the voice of the pining diaspora to reckon with history.

If we are to be charged with an arrested sense of history, then so be it.

I was cognizant that Canada was the end for so many Irish, but also the beginning of the Canadian Irish diaspora experience.

Psychological reckoning

In the first week I ran over 300km and arrived, shivering, into the Montreal suburbs late at night. Faltering during the afternoon run, I had all but collapsed. This was the beginning of the summer scorch and drenching humidity. In ultra-running, the body succumbs and recovers in a realignment of metabolic adjustment.

It was partly that, but perhaps more so a psychological reckoning in anticipating my arrival at the Black Rock the following day.

My hotel room that night was 90 miles behind. Eschewing backtracking, myself, my daughter and driver waited out the coming dawn sequestered in an industrial parking lot, the grotto of the car light intermittently lit in our exit and return. This was our small vigil in the greater throng of Montreal. We were penitents and refugees for a night.

The next day, I resumed the run toward the Black Rock with a keener sense of purpose. On hand were local and national media. Also present was Canadian parliamentarian Marc Miller who added his support to creating a famine memorial park.

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Michael Collins and Marc Miller MP at Black Rock.

I heard, too, that President Michael D Higgins had agreed to open the Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger exhibit at Glasnevin Cemetery, thus bringing to light the untold story of Montreal’s valorous efforts that averted even greater loss of life in that fateful year of 1847.



President Michael D. Higgins launches “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibit at Glasnevin Museum.

The Montreal memorial park is too long in the waiting. This is not solely a French-Canadian burden, nor should it be. Our descendants died under the most appalling circumstances. There are the cynics who will say, “Let the dead lie where they will.”

Such sentiments encapsulate the spectre of “famine fatigue”. It is, of course, the easier choice. Yet, at the Black Rock, and then onward into Cornwall, Ontario, where I met a lone school teacher, who erected a Celtic cross in the honour of over 52 famine victims, to my talk on the Syrian refugee crisis at Skeleton Park’s famine cemetery in Kingston, Ontario, I came across a cadre of historically minded citizens who believe remembrance is not connected with advancing animosities, but simply preserving the historical reality of a year so many would prefer to forget.

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Michael Collins at Cornwall Famine memorial.

This article was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund



“Saving the Famine Irish” Grey Nuns Exhibit now open in Dublin and Montreal


Photo L-R: John Green, Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Dr Jason King.



Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger


President Michael D. Higgins and Minister for Arts, Heritage, and Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys opened the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum for the National Famine Commemoration on September 11th 2016. The exhibit is curated by Professor Christine Kinealy, Founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, and Dr Jason King. It tells the story of the Grey Nuns who cared for typhus-stricken and dying Irish Famine emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal during the summer of 1847.

In paying tribute to the Grey Nuns, President Higgins declared:

During that bleak and terrible period of our history, an estimated one hundred thousand Irish people fled to Canada. It is impossible to imagine the pain, fear, despair, and suffering of these emigrants, many of whom lost beloved family members on their journey. As a country, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Grey Nuns, who cared for so many Irish widows and orphans who were left destitute, impoverished and alone in a strange country.

This exhibit is a very important project, which allows us to finally acknowledge the generosity and enormous humanity of those wonderful sisters whose kindness and compassion, during one of the worst moments in our Country’s history, must never be forgotten.

In her address at the National Famine Commemoration, Minister Humphreys stated:

Today we will also remember those such as the Grey Nuns of Montreal who are depicted in a new exhibition here in Glasnevin, and who chose to put themselves in harm’s way to treat and aid Famine vicitms. Such people remain the light of the human spirit confronting the darkness, and should not be forgotten.

The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit is open to the public FREE of charge from September 11, 2016.


Photo L-R: Minister Heather Humphreys, Dr Jason King, President Michael D. Higgins, and Professor Christine Kinealy.

Mseum Opening Times:

Monday to Sunday & Bank Holidays

Meanwhile, Fergus Keyes of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has announced:


We are very pleased to note that the Grey Nuns exhibition called “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” is now open for viewing at the Grey Nun’s Motherhouse at 138 rue Saint Pierre in Old Montreal.

Currently the exhibition can be visited any day between about 10am and 5pm – but an effort is being made to extend, or offer a few evening hours.

Even if you saw this exhibit during the few weeks that we had it at the Centaur Theatre, you might want to visit it again. Just the building itself dating back from the 1600”s is beautiful, and our exhibit is only a very small part of their permanent Grey Nuns museum – which, on its own, is fascinating.

The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” will be on display until about the end of November – and is running at the same time as one that is on display in Dublin, Ireland – “Grey Nuns Famine Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum in Dublin”. It involves very similar items as will be found at the Dublin one, with the exception that here in Montreal, the display is bilingual; and also includes some terrific paintings about the event by a local artist, Karen Bridgenaw – which were not available when we had it at the Centaur.

If you plan to attend with a small group, you might want to contact the Grey Nuns at (514) 842-9411 – and they may be able to arrange for a guide to give you a proper tour on their museum.

So if you happen to be in Old Montreal, do take this opportunity to visit this beautiful building and great exhibition.

We will update you with any additional information concerning extended hours etc., as it becomes available.



Michael Collins Pays Tribute to Grey Nuns and Famine Irish in Montreal on Celtic Trail of Tears

From the Irish Times:

Why are 6,000 Irish buried under a Montreal traffic island?

Michael Collins finds an unusual Famine memorial during his 900km run

Michael Collins visits Famine Irish historical sites associated with Grey Nuns and views paintings inspired by their annals

From Fergus Keyes:

Here are some more pictures of Michael Collins in Montreal yesterday. After visiting the Vernissage, Michael met up with Donovan King who in addition to being a Director of our group, also gives tours of Haunted Montreal. So Michael got so see more of Montreal at night….

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Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Church at night, in which Theophile Hamel’s painting Le Typhus (1847-48) can be viewed:

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theophile-hamel-le-typhus 2Fergus Keyes: Michael Collins attended a Vernissage by a group of lady painters in Point St. Charles who call themselves, the Group of Sven.

Our group, The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation asked these ladies if they could paint their ideas of the Black Rock & the events of 1847.

Then we asked one of the group, Karen Birdgenaw, if she could take some specific stories about the event of Black 47 and translate these stories into paintings (which we plan to include in our Grey Nun’s Exhibition: “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger”):

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Grey Nuns Painting 1

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The original Grey Nuns’ accounts of the Famine Irish can be found at:

Irish Famine Archive Home Page


Michael Collins Reaches Black Rock Famine Memorial in Montreal

Michael Collins interviewed  on CBC news: (8:50 — 11:00)

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Michael Collins interviewed on CJAD radio about Famine Run:

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Montreal Gazette Endorses Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation’s Campaign

Editorial: Forget granite stumps. What about the Black Rock?

Editorial: Forget granite stumps. What about the Black Rock?

Montreal Gazette Editorial Board

Published on: June 1, 2016 | Last Updated: June 1, 2016 5:19 PM EDT

A wreath sits at the base of the black rock in Point Saint Charles, Montreal, Sunday, May 31, 2009, after a ceremony to commemorate the Irish immigrants who died of typhus in Montreal after fleeing the potato famine in 1847. photo  THE GAZETTE/Graham Hughes.
The Black Rock commemorates immigrants who died of typhus in Montreal after fleeing famine in Ireland in 1847-48. Graham Hughes / Montreal Gazette

On the subject of stones, there is a more obvious initiative that deserves the attention of 375th anniversary organizers, and that is the Black Rock memorial on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge.

Last Sunday, members of the Irish community took part in an annual walk to honour the 6,000 immigrants who died of typhus in 1847-48 after fleeing famine in Ireland, and to press for improvements to the site.

A proper memorial is long overdue. The 10-foot engraved stone, blackened by exhaust fumes on a median between traffic lanes, is difficult for pedestrians to reach and easily overlooked by motorists who may be oblivious to the mass graves that lie beneath.

A group calling itself the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has been pushing for the site and adjacent parking lot to be transformed into a green space that would honour not only the Irish victims, but local residents who got sick and died trying to help them.

Coderre has expressed support for the proposal, but it will take effort and co-ordination to turn the vision into reality given that the site sits on federal land. There’s no time to waste. It would be wonderful if the park were ready in time for the city’s 2017 birthday celebrations — a city the Irish helped build.


Irish Montrealers push for memorial to 6,000 immigrants who died of typhus

From Montreal Gazette

Irish Montrealers want memorial to immigrants who died of typhus

Published on: May 30, 2016 | Last Updated: May 30, 2016 2:11 PM EDT

Francis Braddeley of the Erin Sports Association sings the Irish national anthem during the annual walk to the Black Rock at the foot of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, on Sunday.
Francis Braddeley of the Erin Sports Association sings the Irish national anthem during the annual walk to the Black Rock at the foot of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, on Sunday. Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette

Bravery of the Grey Nuns of Montreal during Great Famine honored

IrishCentral Staff Writers April 20,2016.


Montreal’s Grey Nuns are being honored, in a touring exhibition, for their charity in caring for and dying with the sick Great Hunger victims in the fever sheds by the St. Lawrence River.

In the exhibit entitled “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger,” which was on show at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal last week, examines the nuns’ heroism and that of other locals. At least seven nuns died and many became severely ill as they nursed the Irish and found homes for the 1,500 orphans. At least 6,000 Irish people lost their lives.

When the coffin ships from Ireland began arriving in 1847 there were 50,000 people in Montreal. Over 100,000 Irish, emaciated and often diseased with typhus and other deadly infections, were on their way to Quebec and understandably many Montrealers were afraid. Many wanted the new arrivals pushed into the St. Lawrence River and at one-point Mayor John Mills was forced to deter a mob from doing so.

The immigration depot on Grosse Île near Quebec City was unable to handle the deluge of Irish refugees and as many as 5,000 died there. Another 5,000 – at least – died during the crossing from Ireland. Those Irish who survived were quarantined in the 22 fever sheds, built near where Victoria Bridge now stands.

Bridget O'Donnel, a victim of Ireland's Great Hunger, was interviewed by The Illustrated London News in 1949.

Bridget O’Donnel, a victim of Ireland’s Great Hunger, was interviewed by The Illustrated London News in 1849.

The Grey Nuns, also known as the Sisters of Charity, were the first order to be called to help the Irish. There were just 40 nuns in the group and most of them became infected with typhus. They carried the sick Irish from the ships to the sheds where they cared for them. At least even Grey Nuns died, but those who recovered from the disease came back and continued to care for those who needed it.

There were 1,500 orphans left after the massive number of deaths. The Nuns found them homes either with other Irish families or French Canadians.

Also among those caring for the Irish were Catholic and Anglican clergymen, and several priests also lost their lives. There are also tales of British soldiers on security detail at the sheds giving up their rations to feed the Irish.

The Nuns’ own writings on the disaster are the “most detailed eye-witness accounts of the suffering,” according to the National University of Ireland, Galway, Famine Archives. Their annals have been digitized, transcribed and translated and can now be read online.

The nuns amazing work was also described by John Francis Maguire in “The Irish in America,” in 1868. He wrote:

“First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs. There was no faltering, no holding back; no sooner were the ranks thinned by death than the gaps were quickly filled; and when the Grey Nuns were driven to the last extremity, the Sisters of Providence came to their assistance, and took their place by the side of the dying strangers. But when even their aid did not suffice to meet the emergency, the Sisters of St. Joseph, though cloistered nuns, received the permission of the Bishop to share with their sister religious the hardships and dangers of labor by day and night.”

Jason King, from the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, and Christine Kinealy, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, put together a portrait of these incredible caregivers for the new exhibition. The exhibit has been on show at the Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT for a year will and now tour for a short time, beginning with Montreal.

“The story of the Grey Nuns, and of the other religious orders who helped the dying Irish immigrants, is one of kindness, compassion and true charity,” Kinealy said.

“Nonetheless, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants perished in the fever sheds of Montreal. They had fled from famine in Ireland only to die of fever in Canada. This is a remarkable story that deserves to be better known.”

Fergus Keyes, the Director of the Irish Monument Park Foundation, told the Montreal Gazette, “The exhibit is to concentrate on the people who went to help them, and in many cases gave up their life.

“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.”

It’s hoped that the presence of the exhibition in Montreal will help highlight the campaign to create a park honoring those who lost their lives. Currently the only monument is the “Black Rock” monument, an engraved boulder under Victoria Bridge.



Boulder under Victoria Bridge to commemorate those who died during the Great Hunger and construction of the bridge.


Montreal Famine Irish Walk Featured in Irish Times

Montreal’s Irish story gets a new chapter

Irish writers played a prominent role in Blue Metropolis festival, telling new Irish stories in a Francophone city rediscovering its Irish roots dating to the Famine and beyond

Jeff Heinrich,  Apr 19, 2016

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Donovan King leads walking tour to Black Stone of Famine Irish sites in Montreal.

The Blue Met’s Irish events included a walking tour of Old Montreal, the Lachine Canal and neighbouring Griffintown (now undergoing heavy gentrification) and Pointe-Saint-Charles, both once heavily Irish.

There’s enough local lore there to – fittingly – fill a book.

Participants followed the annual pilgrimage route of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, culminating in the Black Rock by the Victoria Bridge that marks the burial site of 6,000 mostly Irish immigrants who died of ship fever in 1847-’48.

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Proceeds of the tour went to the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, which wants the area redeveloped into a commemorative park that does justice to the memory of the dead, some of whom died building the original railroad.

“There’s an expression here that goes: there’s an Irishman under every railway tie,” said tour guide Donovan King, himself of Irish descent. “They were seen as expendable labour.”

That gritty reality is also something that Montreal’s Irish look for when they read Irish writers – harsh modern times that for some reflect their own upbringing in Canada.

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Behind the Scenes: Montreal Launch of the “Saving the Famine Irish” Exhibit

From Donovan King:

I had a great day setting up this exhibition, curated by Dr. Jason King and Dr. Christine Kinealy, with my fellow directors at the Irish Monument Park Foundation. Exhibit Launch Montreal 14Exhibit Launch Montreal 2

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