Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Dr. George Grasett

National Famine Walk: ‘Remember your soul and your liberty’


From Irish Times (25 May 2017):

National Famine Walk: ‘Remember your soul and your liberty’

Famine scholars are about to follow in the footsteps of the 1,490 tenants forcibly exiled to Canada from Denis Mahon’s Strokestown estate

One of Rowan Gillespie’s Famine statues in Dublin. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

One of Rowan Gillespie’s Famine statues in Dublin. Photograph: Kate Geraghty


Michael Collins and Jason King

The National Famine Walk will take place over six days from May 27th to June 1st as an international group of Famine scholars follow in the footsteps of the 1,490 tenants from Denis Mahon’s Strokestown Park House estate, who were escorted by a bailiff to Dublin to ensure they boarded ship and left Ireland in 1847.

(Shared here with kind permission of RTÉ News)


The tenants’ fate after they left Dublin is a harrowing one. They travelled on open deck packet steamers to Liverpool, where they waited in the cellars of quayside buildings at Liverpool docks to board ships to Canada. The four ships they boarded – Erin’s Queen, Naomi, The Virginius and The John Munn – were badly fitted out and poorly provisioned. Almost half of those who embarked died aboard ship or in the “fever sheds” at the Grosse Île quarantine station when they arrived in Quebec. Of course, this was not known to them as they walked along the Royal Canal to Dublin, away from hunger and hoping for a better life.

The National Famine Walk begins at one of the numerous points of origin for what has been an ongoing research initiative to document the passage of more than 100,000 tenants forcibly exiled to Canada in 1847. The transatlantic voyage and passage along the Saint Lawrence river from Quebec to Toronto resulted in the second greatest loss of life in the Victorian era, second only to the Crimean War. Of those who left, more than 20,000 perished at sea or along the Saint Lawrence River, marking Canada with the infamous distinction of having the largest Irish mass graves outside of Ireland.


The 1847 evictions, transfer and passage to Canada encapsulate a twice-told tale.

First, it’s a story of British government and Irish landlord neglect. Mahon evicted 3,006 tenants and paid just under £4,000 for the passage of almost 1,000 of those he assisted to emigrate. For his unfailing cruelty, on November 2nd, 1847, Mahon was shot to death as he travelled home to Strokestown House from a Board of Guardians meeting. Murder was not a deterrent for the landlords. Evictions continued until some 11,000 persons of the 12,000 tenants were removed from Mahon’s estate.

Denis Mahon

In exporting evicted tenants, passage to Canada proved the cheaper alternative to America, given that the American authorities, anticipating the influx of a starving flotsam of Irish, amended their maritime Passenger Acts. Imposing stricter regulations, the acts barred disease-ridden ships from arriving into American ports. In 1847, the most destitute Irish emigrants were sent to the British North American colonies in New Brunswick and Canada East and West (Quebec and Ontario) on retrofitted lumber vessels as human ballast. These coffin ships averaged over 300 persons per vessel, three times that allowed under the American Passenger Acts. Mortality rates approached 40 per cent.

The story of emigration to Canada is, secondly, a contrasting one of succour and sacrifice, as a predominantly Catholic, French Canadian province of Quebec braced for and ministered to a dispossessed, disease-ravaged people in one of the greatest unrecognised human refugee crises of the 19th century.

The immigrant numbers are extraordinary. Most of them arrived at Grosse Île in Quebec, which is now a National Historic Site with a glass wall memorial for the 5,000 Irish interred in mass graves on the island. Grosse Île is twinned with the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House, where Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a similar glass wall memorial to its missing 1,490 emigrants in 2014.

Enda Kenny StrokestownKevin Vickers at Strokestown 1490 memorial

Many of those 1,490 emigrants died on Grosse Île. It was there that James Quinn, a 45-year-old Irish emigrant from Lissonuffy, on the Strokestown Park estate, whispered his dying words to his two young sons, Patrick (12) and Thomas (6): “Remember your soul and your liberty”.

The orphaned Quinn brothers were adopted by a French-Canadian family who gave them a good education. They both entered the seminary and became priests with joint French and Irish congregations. In 1877, Patrick Quinn founded the still flourishing St. Patrick Society in Richmond, Quebec, where there is a theatre named after him. His younger brother, Thomas Quinn, became a champion for his French-Canadian parishioners.

image-thomas-quinnPatrick Quinn

At the First Congress of the French Language in Quebec City, on June 25th, 1912, Thomas Quinn thanked the French-Canadian people for their generosity. In a speech entitled “Une Voix d’Irlande” (A Voice of Ireland), he declared in French:

“It was in 1847. A famine, even worse than the one which had preceded it, threatened the Irish people with total extinction. The most astonishing part of the awful spectacle was, not to see the people die, but to see them live through such great distress. Like walking skeletons they went, in tears, seeking hospitality from more favoured lands. Stirred with compassion, French-Canadian priests, braving the epidemic, contended for the glory of rushing to their relief. I still remember one of these admirable clergymen who led us to the bedside of my dying father. As he saw us, my father with his failing voice repeated the old Irish adage, ‘Remember your soul and your liberty’.”

Like the Quinn brothers, Daniel and Catherine Tighe also sailed to Grosse Île where they were orphaned, adopted by a French-Canadian family, and allowed to keep their Irish surname. In 2000, Jim Callery, founder of the Irish National Famine Museum, visited Daniel’s son Léo Tye in rural Quebec and heard the story that inspired the search for the missing 1,490 Strokestown emigrants. He also unveiled a Celtic Cross Famine memorial in Quebec City that he had donated on behalf of the Famine Museum. In July 2013, Léo’s son Richard Tye made a return visit from Quebec to Strokestown, and was reunited with the Irish branch of the family. His Irish cousin Philip Tighe will be on the National Famine Walk.

Strokestown park house 1

The suffering of Famine emigrants was not confined to Grosse Île. With the arrival of 75,000 typhus-afflicted refugees, the city of Montreal, then a city of 50,000, hastily erected fever sheds to contain disease. The Annals of the Grey Nuns, a recently translated cache of diaries, details the convergence of municipal and religious groups involved in saving Irish lives, often at great personal cost. Notable casualties included the Protestant mayor of Montreal and myriad priests and nuns who worked the fever sheds of Pointe Sainte Charles.

John Easton Mills

In the wake of the emigrant passing through Montreal, over 3,000 Irish orphan children left in the care of religious orders were eventually adopted, like the Quinn and Tighe siblings, into French-Canadian families.

The journey onward into Ontario has its own history. Less a story of commonality and religious succour, the death toll is lower, given how most afflicted died at Grosse Île and Montreal. Also, a subtle sectionalism led to journalistic self-censorship in accurately chronicling the passage and burial of those who died along riverside towns throughout Ontario.

Such was the forgotten history of Canadian involvement with the fated year of 1847, simply because the crisis and sacrifice had happened so far away, within a single season. For the most part, accounts of the worst suffering were recorded in French, so the episode closed in the forgotten reaches of Quebec. That is, until recently.

In 2016, Irish author and ultra-runner Michael Collins ran a marathon-a-day for a month from Grosse Île to Toronto; he was inspired by his reading of the Grey Nuns’ annals. En route, along the Saint Lawrence, he met historical societies researching their town’s archives and recorded anecdotal stories passed down by descendants, which he documented on his Irish Diaspora Run 2016 Facebook page. More than 100,000 people visited the page during the run, and he has reactivated it for the National Famine Walk.


The project continues. At Grosse Île quarantine station, a memorial serves as a cautionary reminder of what can befall a dispossessed people, and at the terminus of the route in Toronto, Ireland Park has become a place of pilgrimage, memorialising the passage of 1847. Situated along Toronto’s docklands, a series of Rowan Gillespie Famine sculptures reach back across the ocean to Gillespie’s Famine sculptures on Dublin’s Custom House Quay Docklands. Without descriptive plaques detailing the history of 1847, the sculptures simultaneously encompass and transcend Irish history, evoking the universality of the immigrant experience, both past and present. In the furtherance of peace, Ireland Park Foundation has reconfigured a national tragedy, not as a source of differentiation, but of shared experience. In 2017, the foundation will unveil Dr George Robert Grasett Park, celebrating the efforts of the Canadian medical profession which so tirelessly worked to save both those who arrived and Toronto’s own citizens from disease.

Michael Collins Toronto 13

What remains yet to be memorialised is Montreal’s response to 1847. Specifically, The Black Rock memorial, a stone hastily erected by workmen who uncovered over 6,000 bodies during the 1859 construction of the Victoria Bridge, lies in the median of a major arterial in downtown Montreal and is in jeopardy of being summarily removed as the city plans a major overhaul of the area. The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation is locked in a tenuous battle with city, provincial and federal authorities to preserve and allocate what is currently an abandoned parking lot as the future site of a memorial grounds honoring both the 1847 emigrants and those who came to their aid.

Montreal Famine Walk 7

Michael Collins Black Stone 1

The National Famine Walk complements these projects to ensure that Famine emigrants like Strokestown’s missing 1,490 are commemorated on both sides of the Atlantic. In following in their footsteps, the walkers are not only honouring their legacy. They are embarking on a journey to trace the descendants of the 1,490 emigrants in Canada and the United States, especially from Irish Famine orphans adopted in Quebec. They are also laying the foundation for a permanent walking trail along the Royal Canal between Strokestown and Dublin, the National Famine Way. With its advent, hitherto inaccessible paths are providing opportunities to walk in the footsteps of the dispossessed.

Prof. Christine Kinealy (and founding director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University) talks to ADAPT about the cultural impact of the great famine and how it influenced Ireland in years to come.


Author Cathal Poirteir tells about the particular character from the 1,490 who left Strokestown, one John O’Connor. His story is a tragic one as he died during the famine, but not from hunger!


The Famine walkers’ journey from May 27th to June 1st can be followed in real time at

Famine Way Walkers Re-enact the arrival of the 1,490 at Spencer Dock, Dublin.

Having waked from Strokestown, Co Roscommon, Famine Way Walkers 2018 re-enact the final steps journey of 1490 migrant tenants from Strokestown as they made their way towards the replica famine ship, the Jeanie Johnston. This is a playlist of three short but separate videos.

The National Famine Way is being developed by Strokestown Park House, the Irish National Famine Museum, and the Irish Heritage Trust in partnership with Waterways Ireland, the ADAPT Centre for Digital Content Technology, Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, Ireland Park Foundation, the University of Toronto, Royal Canal Amenity Group, Roscommon and Longford County Councils, and Strokestown Community Town Team.

 National Famine Walk.png


Famine Irish Migrants in Ontario: The Story of Stephen De Vere and Toronto’s Irish Orphans


Ireland Park Foundation/Celtic Studies – Annual Lecture

Ireland Park Foundation/Celtic Studies – Annual Lecture

November 29 at 6:00 pm8:00 pm

Ireland Park Foundation and Celtic Studies at Univeristy of St. Michael’s College, in the University of Toronto, are delighted to host Dr. Jason King. Dr. King is Head of the Irish Famine Archive and Researcher for the National University of Ireland, Galway. He will deliver the annual Ireland Park Foundation Lecture, on the lives of Stephen De Vere and Robert Walsh. 

In 1847, Stephen De Vere risked his life sailing with former tenants from his Irish estate in the steerage of a coffin ship. In Toronto, he wrote such an influential description of the Irish Famine migration that it shocked British Parliamentarians into reforming the Passengers Acts to protect emigrants at sea. Yet the fact that he kept extensive, unpublished diaries of his voyage to Canada in 1847 and 1848 remains largely unknown. This lecture takes the audience on a tour of famine era Toronto and Ontario as seen through the eyes of Stephen De Vere and his unpublished journals.

It also tells the stories of Irish Famine orphans in Toronto, like Robert Walsh, who studied at the University of St. Michael’s College. As an Irish orphan in Canada, Robert Walsh dreamed of returning to his homeland and becoming reunited with his baby sister, who was left behind with relatives in 1847. “My sister, my dear sister, if she exists, when she would learn that she has a brother and sisters in Canada who are thinking of her she would write to them,” he hoped. “We will see then we are not alone in the world, and it is this thought that will give us courage to endure our separation here.” And yet, when Robert Walsh finally returned to Ireland in 1872 he was distraught to discover no trace of her, and died soon thereafter at the age of 33. The lecture recounts the search for his sister and reveals how she was finally found.

After this lecture, there will be a round table discussion between Dr. King, Dr. Mark McGowan and Robert G. Kearns. 

Dr. Jason King has recently become Historical Advisor to the Board of Ireland Park Foundation.

Free admission – no registration required

With the support of the Embassy of Ireland, Ottawa

Michael Collins Reflects on Irish Diaspora Run 2016 Tracing Route of Famine Irish in Canada

From Irish Central:

Michael Collins runs 600 miles, retracing path of Irish Canadian Famine immigrants

Michael Collins: Lessons of Migrant Accommodation from Famine Irish in Canada

From Irish Times:

What I learned tracing the steps of Irish Famine migrants

Michael Collins reaches the end of his 885km Irish Diaspora Run in Canada

The Irish Diaspora Run saw Michael Collins run almost 900km between June 10th and July 10th, from Grosse Île to Toronto, tracing the steps taken by thousands of Irish immigrants who fled the Famine in 1847. This is the last of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.

On July 10th, I ended my month-long solo 550-mile (885km) run from the Grosse Île quarantine station to the Famine Memorial at Ireland Park, Toronto. In so doing, I passed through the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, hugging the Saint Lawrence in a solitary pilgrimage, retracing the fated journey of some 100,000 Irish who, when faced with eviction and starvation, boarded what would become the infamous coffin ships of the 1847 passage to Canada.

Of those who left, one-fifth – some 20,000 – died. Thousands found a watery grave in the stormy Atlantic, whilst the aggregate death toll on Canadian soil would rise as piles of corpses were buried in mass graves along the Saint Lawrence. Over 5,000 souls perished at the quarantine station of Grosse Île, while about 75,000 immigrants who survived quarantine eventually advanced on Montréal, with a then population of 50,000. In the fever sheds at Pointe Saint Charles, another 6,000 died and were interred in a mass grave that went unmarked until workers uncovered the site in 1859 during construction of the Victoria Bridge and erected at their own cost The Black Rock to memorialise those who died there.

Michael Collins Black Stone 1

Black Stone 3

After covering over 310km the first week, I stopped at The Black Rock where I was greeted by the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Canadian parliamentarian, Marc Miller. Both the foundation and Miller are committed to advancing the Foundation’s proposed memorial park which will include a museum, monument, and GAA pitch.

Michael Collins Black Stone 5

Michael Collins Black Stone 2

Indeed, the heroism of both secular and religious groups who tended to the sick in the hastily erected fever sheds bears testimony to one of the most harrowing stories of The Great Hunger. Undoubtedly, the most vulnerable surviving victims were the orphans of those who had perished. Numbering in the thousands, these unfortunates would eventually swarm the fever sheds from Québec City, through Montréal and Kingston, and down into Toronto.

In the province of Québec alone, over 3,000 Irish orphans were cared for by charitable organisations, including the Grey Nuns. Priests who ministered to the sick and witnessed firsthand the tragedy of so many dispossessed orphans delivered powerful sermons, beseeching their congregations to adopt these orphans. Exemplary of a Catholic rhetoric of compassion and religious injunction to charity, stories survive anecdotally of church doors being bolted until those less inclined to adopt an orphan were eventually persuaded. Such were the times – and the need so great – that the dutiful obeyed.

Irish Famine Archive Home Page

The subsequent decision by the French-speaking Québécois to allow the orphans to keep their Irish surnames would become an integral part of the Canadian immigration narrative, exemplifying what historian Jason King describes as a narrative “of accommodation rather than assimilation…” which would come to define “the process by which immigrants and cultural minorities become integrated into Canadian society”.

Michael Collins Dublin 4

Michael Collins and Jason King at Rowan Gillespie Famine Monument in Custom House Quay, Dublin.

Throughout my journey in the province of Québec, this notion of accommodation over assimilation best characterises the province’s history. The survival of the French language, French culture, and Catholicism, post the British conquest at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 are prime examples of accommodation over assimilation.

As a general observation, the French Québécois response to the plight of the Irish was borne of a religious commonality, and, though orphans were adopted in unprecedented numbers and allowed to preserve their heritage, most Irish who passed through Montréal were intent on eventually reaching America, via Toronto.

The lasting effect of Irish immigration into Canada is more evident in Ontario. Through the 1820s and 30s, in what was then called Upper Canada, waves of immigrant Irish were transported from Protestant-held estates in Ireland, in a conscious attempt at instituting a sort of act of enclosure aimed at depopulating the Irish countryside to advance large-scale agriculture. In the economic doldrums of the post-Napoleonic Wars era and following the Act of Union, Protestant agents such as the inimitable Peter Robinson were commissioned to transport the Irish to settle and cultivate the Ottawa Valley in what would become a frontline force against the incursion and creeping influence of the French Québécois in Ontario.

So, too, Irish workers were transported to construct the Rideau Canal in Ontario. Built during 1826-1832, the 202 km-long canal was carved out of virgin forest and built using nitroglycerine and primitive hand-held tools. The estimated death toll along the mosquito-infested marshlands between Ottawa and Kingston was over 1,000 Irish. Tragically, most who died did so needlessly. Quinine would have cured them, but the sectarian split between the Irish Catholic workers and their Protestant overseers – Royal Sappers (i.e. British army engineers) – meant Catholics’ wages were kept unduly low.

Rideau Canal monument

This historical legacy of sectarianism in Ontario would again rear during the passage of the immigrant Irish of 1847. In Protestant stronghold towns like Cornwall, Prescott, Brockville, Kingston, and Cobourg, the influence of the Orange Order meant that the passage of immigrant barges through the summer heat of 1847 was not well-documented. The spectre of a mass grave at Cornwall was only recently discovered in archival records. Throughout my journey, I met with and interviewed local historians and commemorative memorial committees that have recently erected Celtic crosses to mark that fateful year.

Michael Collins Cornwall 5

Michael Collins Cornwall 3


For many, the rediscovery of a historical event some 150 years past has opened deep psychological scars. In an associated Facebook page I set up for the run, over 100,000 visitors, many availing of online genealogical resources, have added to the collective story of the passage and eventual settlement of those immigrants who crossed in 1847. The fated story of families separated through quarantine is a recurring motif. For a decade after the passage of 1847, notices appeared throughout Ontario with relatives inquiring after their loved ones.

Indeed, for many of the diaspora Irish I met along the run, the ancestral passage to Canada and America, especially during the Hunger years, is still perceived as a form of exile connected to draconian British rule. In total, the Great Hunger accounted for the emigration of over a million and the death of another million. Even contemporary descendants far removed from the tragic departure of the Hunger years, when asked to reflect on their ancestors’ arrival to Canada, were more apt to characterise it as an exile rather than an opportunity.

This theme of exile over opportunity accounts for a fierceness of national pride and an attendant encyclopedic knowledge of Irish history in those vested in preserving the legacy of that perceived exile. Over pints in snug Irish bars, I was versed on more occasions about a litany of Irish dates, from the 1691 flight of the Wild Geese to France following the end of the Williamite War, to the influence of the French Enlightenment on Wolfe Tone’s 1798 Rebellion. It was, more often than not, a dirge history of heroic struggle, defeat, and eventual exile.

In these oft spellbinding oratory accounts of our collective history, time seemed arrested, and the historical grievances, yet again enlivened with a dramatic immediacy and flashpoint sectarian hostilities. The question surfaced with each encounter – what to do with such a history?

What I can say of so many I met along the way on the run was that, for them, their Irishness was connected with an existential sense of self. Psychologically, their life in Canada directly relates to a traumatic ancestral leave-taking that many of them believe constitutes genocide. I was corrected repeatedly for using the word famine, and to deny them their right to tell that story as they see it would be to shamefully and consciously suppress their perceived historical reality.

I felt at a quiet remove from this theme of exile, or I thought it constituted an older generational motif, but this recurrent theme would again be poignantly highlighted with my arrival at Ireland Park. My 12-year-old son Eoin wanted to sing to celebrate my arrival. Without prompt, he chose the haunting emigrant ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’ from his repertoire of Irish songs.

Somehow, the notion of exile had registered at a subconscious level within him. What I heard in his voice was an eerie, plaintive ancestral lament for all that was lost or would soon be lost in a parting. It was as though the dead were speaking through him. He had a lilting tonal quality, which he must have heard voiced in the late great Irish singer Tomás Mac Eoin, whose rendition of ‘The Stolen Child’ was a staple song played in our house.

Eoin Collins sings ‘The Parting Glass’ at Ireland Park, Toronto.

Eoin Collins sings ‘The Parting Glass’ at Ireland Park, Toronto.

Leave-taking and loss

After the ceremony, I quietly talked with Eoin. He could not articulate why he chose ‘The Parting Glass’. What I eventually gathered was that, for him, the story of Irish migration was not about arrival, but about leave-taking. He was caught reflexively looking back without having the insight or full measure of Irish history. Loss was the central motif of his Irishness. He talked about the sculptures at Ireland Park, interpreting the outreach of hands as reaching back toward Ireland, when they might have been equally interpreted as a beseeching, forward-looking gesture toward a welcoming Toronto.

Where did this sense of loss emanate from? My son is no scholar of Irish history, and yet the undercurrent of great loss registered, not through a received history of the dates of rebellions and uprisings, but in the plaintive strain of a narrative carried on the warble of a tin whistle or the uilleann pipes.

I realised just then that Irish history is mediated first and foremost through our music, through haunting airs of loss, and that, perhaps uniquely in this, our history is tied to a meta-narrative of loss that is transmitted pre-language. I had channeled this history of leave-taking as wake in my subconscious choice of an Irish soundtrack of ballads that played in our home. The subtle motif of loss was the essential theme conveyed.

In the days since the end of the run, I looked further into the codifying loss and fell upon the aisling or vision poem. A uniquely Irish poetic invention, the aisling personified Ireland as either a maiden of immense beauty, or an old woman lamenting the loss of her children. That the aisling arose in the 17th century powerfully reinforced the Irish experience as a history associated with defeat and subsequent emigration, defined not as opportunity, but as exile and banishment.


Indeed, even in the initial planning of the trip, I understood that a fundamental dilemma associated with retracing the path of the immigrants of 1847 would be balancing the commemorative emphasis of honouring the dead, while not reopening historical wounds. In reaching out to Irish diaspora groups via social media, I knew I was engaging in a sort of selective bias, and that, undoubtedly, the audience, in celebrating their ancestral Irishness, would most probably equally view their ancestors leave-taking as exile.

The Facebook site associated with the run – Irish Diaspora Run 2016 – preserves the oft-heated responses of followers to historical articles I posted of what were then contemporary accounts and observations that reached back as far as the Reformation and the sectarian split between Ireland and England. In the course of a month, through posts and dialogue, I believe that those who most fully engaged with the historical evidence arrived at a greater understanding of the historical, sociological, and psychological, paradigm shifts in Economic Theory and Religion that tragically isolated and marginalised Ireland.

In planning the trip in February, I had visited with Toronto-based Irish immigrant, Robert Kearns. With a degree in Archaeology and Greek and Roman civilization, Kearns has the authoritative grace and charm of a post-modern denizen committed to inclusion and multiculturalism. His Irishness encompassed Irish history, but he also offered a way forward beyond sectarianism and an arrested sense of an aggrieved and bloody history.

Michael Collilns Toronto 5

Michael Collins Toronto 8

As a leading figure in the Irish-Canadian business community, in the early 1980s, Kearns served on the volunteer committee of the Ireland Fund of Canada, which actively sought to raise money to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland. Then, in 1997, Kearns turned his focus to the historical tides of the immigrant waves that had arrived in Canada. In establishing the charitable non-profit Ireland Park Foundation, he began lobbying Toronto for a quayside park which would eventually contain replicas of Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculptures on Dublin’s Custom House Quay Docklands. Kearns’ goal was to complete symbolically the voyage of coffin-ship migrants.

Michael Collins Toronto 7

Indeed, Ireland Park had been inspiration for my own Diaspora Run, and it was why I had asked to meet with Kearns. A decade earlier, while on a book tour in Toronto, I had been taken late at night to the park. The indelible image of the sculptures and their remote placement in the small parcel of Ireland Park suggested an accommodation of history within the bustle of urban sprawl. Without descriptive plaques detailing the history of Ireland, the sculptures simultaneously encompass and transcend Irish history. The sculptures speak to the universality of an immigrant experience that defines the settlement of the New World.

Michael Collins Toronto 17

Michael Collins Toronto 20

Michael Collins Toronto 13

In meeting with Robert on a snowy February day, I had felt that, perhaps, in his cosmopolitan vision, he was anticipating and engendering a reconfiguration of a national history, not as a source of differentiation, but as a source of shared experience.

Ireland Park 2

A day after the run, in revisiting the park with my son, the theme of exile was again on my mind. I had unduly influenced or seeded historical animosities within him. I sought to make amends, or reorient him. Prophetically, Kearns’ forward-thinking vision of history was on my mind.

I explained that Ireland Park Foundation, in its logical extension of a broadening of history and commitment to encompassing a universality of shared values, was creating another park – Dr George Robert Grasett Park. To be unveiled in 2017, the park celebrates the Canadian response to the mass migration of Irish migrants in 1847, and specifically its medical profession. In addition to Dr Grasett, significantly the roster of those memorialised includes another male triage officer, Mr Edward McElderry, but also two women, head nurse Susan Bailey and nurse Sarah Duggan. All played an important role in the medical history of the city and furthered the foundation of the modern Canadian healthcare system.

Grasett Tribute in Montreal Transcript

Death of Dr. George Grasett Reported in Montreal Transcript

In thus explaining the new park, I think my son caught the essential and subtle re-orientating genius of a universalist like Kearns, who is advancing the totality of our collective experience, seeking to steel our resolve to rise in defense of justice, promoting tolerance and universal acceptance.

In the strangest of coincidences, hours after revisiting Ireland Park, I got a Facebook message of congratulatory thanks for sharing the Irish plight of 1847 from a First Nations’ clan leader of the Hotinoshonni Confederacy Council of the Iroquois Nation. The clan’s point of connection was tied to their fellow Choctaw, who had suffered their own near-genocide in 1831, when over 21,000 of their people were made trek 500 miles to Oklahoma on what became known as the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1847, the Choctaw, upon hearing of The Great Hunger, raised and sent funds to Ireland. Ironically, the man who had forced them off their lands was Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants.

Of course, my son was enthralled that the Iroquois Nation had thought to contact me. He wanted to know about the Trail of Tears, and, in the subtle connection of one kindness bestowed on one people so long ago, an emerging history opened to him.

In researching the connection, I came upon a plaque on Dublin’s Mansion House honouring the Choctaw contribution. It reads:

“Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.”

Mansion House Choctaw Tribute

A recognition and preservation of national histories is important, but equally so is our willingness to use our histories as a point of reconciliation, as we collectively advance a greater universality of understanding and compassion. In so doing, we find accommodation and assimilation, losing nothing, while gaining everything.

In the week since ending the run, I have felt the quieting distancing of all those who followed me for the month. I miss all of you. The run was first envisioned as a solitary act of pilgrimage, but in having the support of The Irish Times and a grant from the Irish Government, along with the reach of social media, some 100,000 of us connected, and we are the better for it.

For those who didn’t join us, the legacy of what was said is still preserved on Facebook at Irish Diaspora Run 2016. My intention is to continue updating the site. I’m currently in discussion to run the length of Ireland and possibly continuing with a Diaspora Run in Australia. In so doing I would visit historical sites associated with Irish migration, while collating a digital repository of historical documents and continuing to invite followers to share their family stories.

If anybody is so inclined, donations are still being accepted for the two non-profits I designated to help – The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Ireland Park Foundation. Both are independent, non-affiliated organisations.

Donations can be made at I would ask people to consider sponsoring a symbolic 47 dollars in commemoration of 1847.

Michael Collins Dublin 2

Michael Collins Dublin 1

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Michael Collins at Rowan Gillespie Famine Monument in Dublin after Irish Diaspora Run 2016.

Until we meet again, thank you for all your support.

This project was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Global Irish Media Fund.


Michael Collins Finishes Irish Diaspora Run to Raise Awareness and Funds to Commemorate Famine Irish at Ireland Park in Toronto

Michael Collins Toronto 21

Michael Collins Toronto 22

Michael Collins Toronto 1

Robert G. Kearns, the Chairman of Ireland Park Foundation and founder of Ireland Park, welcomed Michael Collins at the end of his run, along with members of Michael’s family, William Peat, Executive Director of Ireland Park Foundation, Fergus Keyes and Victor Boyle who are directors of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation, and members of the public.Michael Collilns Toronto 5

Michael Collins Toronto 7

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Michael Collins Toronto 8

Shortly after his arrival at Ireland Park, Michael Collins addressed the crowd:

Thank you very much for coming out. I could not have done this without the support of my family. It was around January that I decided to do this run. Last year in October I took my daughter to learn French in Quebec and I learnt about the horrors of 1847. In Irish culture and Irish society we have a hard time managing what happened in those terrible years. So when I went to school it was glossed over.

It was really the Quebecois, the Canadian people in general, who brought it to my attention. I called the Irish Times and told them that I really felt we hadn’t done enough in our own country.  But then also when I read about what the Canadians did for the Irish – you often hear about what the Americans do for the Irish, but the Canadians are kind of quieter, they just do things without compliment – so I felt that it was also a run to thank the Canadians what they did over the years for us.

It started June 10th.  It has been a very emotional journey going out to Grosse Isle. I would like to thank the parties that helped organize that for me: Victor, Fergus, James Donovan, Joe Lonergan, and of course Robert Kearns and William Peat. I think every Irish person should go to Grosse Isle. It should be a pilgrimage.

With Robert, Victor, and Fergus, we have worked to gain financial support for the projects they want to initiate and continue to celebrate the Irish and Canadian experience.

Michael Collins Toronto 13

Michael Collins Toronto 15

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Michael Collins also stated:

Many thanks to all who have accompanied me on this journey!

I was joined on foot by my daughter, Tess, as I reached Ireland Park Famine Memorial.

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The Ireland Park Famine Memorial was dedicated by Irish president Mary McAleese in June 2007.

“Ireland Park is the principal memorial to the Irish Famine experience in Toronto. It is a bridge from the past to the future. It is a bridge that will link two nations and two cities. It is the story of a destitute people overcoming unimaginable hardship and suffering. It speaks to the kindness and generosity of Canadians—traits which are as consistent now as in 1847.” — Ireland Park Foundation

Toronto’s Ireland Park Foundation’s mission is to support the Irish presence in Canada and the relationship with Ireland, including Ireland Park Foundation’s integral involvement in the construction of a commemorative park in honour of Dr. George Robert Grasett and others who gave their lives helping Irish Famine migrants in 1847 (…/ireland-park-tomorrow).

Limerick, Ireland native Michael Collins seeks to highlight the historical circumstances that forced the Irish emigrants of 1847 to board the infamous coffin ships to Canada, whilst also paying tribute to those Canadians who cared for the typhus-stricken Irish, and connecting those who are a part of a greater Irish Emigrant History or who simply take interest in Irish History and Culture. Read more about the ~550 mile Irish Diaspora Run 2016 honoring the events of 1847:

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Tribute Paid to Dr. George Robert Grasett who Fell a “Martyr to his Duties” Caring for Famine Irish in Toronto

Montreal Witness (26 July 1847):

Grasett Tribute in Montreal Transcript

Full Page of Montreal Witness reporting death of Dr. Grasett:

Montreal Witness July 26 1847 Grasett

From Michael Collins’ Irish Diaspora Run 2016:

Ireland Park Foundation is proud to present Dr. George Robert Grasett Park

In the summer of 1847, at a time when the City of Toronto had a population of no more than 20,000 inhabitants, 38,560 Irish migrants landed on the city’s waterfront. The administrative powers of Toronto mounted what would have been a gargantuan task to assess, process, and filter this number of people through the city and onwards to their destinations. At the center of this effort was the City’s medical profession, which had to attend to the those afflicted with Typhus, an incurable and often fatal illness which was rampant amongst the migrants.

Dr. George Robert Grasett
Park is their story

Dr. George Robert Grasett was a medical professional with a drive to help those less fortunate than himself. In addition to his own practice, he was active with the city’s House of Industry, and a founding member of the Toronto General Dispensary, which provided “medical and surgical advice and medicines to the indigent sick.” In June 1847, he secured the appointment of Chief Attending Surgeon at the newly opened Emigrant Hospital. The Emigrant Hospital had been established to serve the thousands of typhus-ridden Irish who had fled famine in Ireland and arrived in Toronto in desperate need of medical attention. Less than a month after his appointment on the 18th of June, Grasett succumbed to the very illness he had dedicated himself to treating on July 16th. Grasett’s obituary praised him for his unceasing devotion to the “amelioration of the sufferings of his fellow men, irrespective of hire or reward.”

Grasett was not the only medical officer to die in the discharge of his or her duty.

Nurse Susan Bailey, only 32, died in August 1847 of the ‘fever’. Though we have much yet to learn about Bailey she is nevertheless representative of those medical workers who put themselves in harm’s way in the treatment of the sick and dying in the summer of 1847.

The third person to be commemorated is the emigrant agent Edward McElderry. McElderry was responsible for coordinating the initial reception of the destitute and often gravely ill Irish migrants who arrived each day by the hundreds in Toronto on Dr. Rees’ Wharf. Like Grasett and Bailey, McElderry succumbed to ‘fever’ on the 29th October 1847.

These three notable individuals played a pivotal role in a period of great transition in Toronto and in Canada. The essential medical and humanitarian service they provided to the newly arrived and desperate Irish migrants laid the foundation for the Canada we know today. These three people not only aided the influx of Irish migrants who became the ancestors of modern day Canadians, but also established a heritage of kindness to those less fortunate than themselves that carries on to this very day. It is with this in mind that Ireland Park Foundation wishes to remind those who pass this park that the sacrifice of these three individuals is not just the legacy of the past, but a legacy that enriches our present and inspires our future.

The Irish Diaspora Run 2016 seeks to highlight the historical circumstances that forced Irish emigrants of 1847 to board the infamous coffin ships to Canada, whilst also paying tribute to those Canadians who cared for the typhus-stricken Irish, and connecting those who are a part of Irish Emigrant History or who simply take interest in Irish History and Culture.

Read more about the ~550 mile Irish Diaspora Run 2016 honoring the events of 1847 and SIGN UP to sponsor:


Ireland Park Foundation seeks the ideas of professionals and students of architecture, landscape design, and environmental design who would like to share in the creation of Dr. George Robert Grasett Park.