From Michael Collins:
At Irish memorial with the esteemed, Dr. Jason King. We are planning a run through rural Ireland along the wild Atlantic way in winter of 2017.
From Michael Collins:
At Irish memorial with the esteemed, Dr. Jason King. We are planning a run through rural Ireland along the wild Atlantic way in winter of 2017.
From Irish Central:
From Irish Times:
Michael Collins arrives at his final destination, Ireland Park in Toronto.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 diasporarun.org. I would ask people to consider sponsoring a symbolic 47 dollars in commemoration of 1847.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 (http://irelandparkfoundation.com/fami…/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: www.diasporarun.org
Montreal Witness (26 July 1847):
Full Page of Montreal Witness reporting death of Dr. 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:
🍀 PLEASE SHARE THIS POST AND LIKE THIS PAGE 🍀
From Irish Times:
From Irish Times:
From the Irish Times:
The second day’s run begins under dark skies for Michael Collins. Photograph: Anne Petersen
The Black Rock in Montreal marks the burial site of 6,000 Irish who died in 1848. Photograph: Kevin Wright/Bloomsday Montreal
The Irish Diaspora Run sees Michael Collins running 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 second of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.
The most striking fact that emerged from the research I conducted on the passage of some 100,000 who left Ireland aboard the infamous coffin ships in the spring of 1847 was how the municipal authorities, in tandem with the religious orders of Montreal, marshaled their collective resources to care and minister to the sick and dying Irish.
Simply put, the question was: What affinity did the native Québecois have toward this advance of typhus-stricken Irish?
The facts are sobering. Disease and death loomed with the advance of the Irish along the Saint Lawrence. By early June, a month after the official seasonal opening of the quarantine station at Grosse Île, forty ships, each carrying over 300 passengers, were lined back along the Saint Lawrence. The quarantine island medical facilities, which had been built to accommodate just 200 sick, was simply overrun. No true medical assessment of individual cases could be adequately determined.
Only the obviously dying were taken to the fever sheds. In effect, the île would become less a quarantine station and more a graveyard. In that season of death, upward of 5,000 souls would be hastily interred in trenched mass graves.
And so it went – as an apocalyptic, zombie-like advance of 75,000, typhus stricken Irish headed toward Montreal, then a city of 50,000. The heroics of those who met the advance of sickness bears testimony to one of the most harrowing stories of the Great Hunger.
Again, in assessing the massive influx of immigrants, one is left asking, what was the resolve of Montreal to bear and minister to such an alien-speaking flotsam of Irish?
In a slow advance toward Montreal, much that is asked in that question is becoming apparent. I chose Route 2 for the run, given that it languidly follows the meandering Saint Lawrence, but, in now running alongside this less-traveled road, I come upon religious shrines that harken to a penitent spectre of a more ancient, religious life. This is an ancient road of agrarian toil, a trail worn by a dutiful and faithful peasantry. Within two days of leaving Quebec City, I had run in the domain of a forgotten Catholicism in a rural foothold of former peasant lands.
Michael Collins at churches along the Saint Lawrence in Quebec. Photograph: Anne Petersen
The religious shrines are 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. You expect this of Ireland, but to come upon these roadside shrines in the rainy cold is a revelation.
Photograph: Anne Petersen
The agony of the cross proves to be the most enduring and arresting subjects out on the peninsula beyond Quebec City. Though peculiar to the French Canadians, the statuettes bear the mediaeval flourish of a golden painted adornment with the azure blue of Mary’s robes.
On the evening of the fifth day of the run – my fifth consecutive marathon – while fighting advancing dark, I came across a small acreage of a farm with a roadside glass enclosure of Joseph holding the infant Jesus. It might as well have been an apparition. We are so given to movement and flash, to the blare of sound, that coming upon this serenity, locking eyes on the paternal vigil of father and son, reawakened a religious supplication that I had not felt since being a boarder at Saint Munchin’s school in Limerick. Here was the quiet communion and intercession of a deep-felt religiosity made incarnate.
In the solitary pilgrimage of miles, I was connected with the beatitude of those saintly figures who heard God or Mary speak to them on hillsides. Nature and solitude are together a powerful elixir. In our apparent smallness, in apprehending the glory of the seasons, we instinctively submit to honouring a higher power.
Photograph: Anne Petersen
By a crude calculation of observation, I established that most of the shrines were some ten miles apart, and thus I had landed upon a measure of time and distance that was linked to an older mode of travel – walking. Here were shrines established at a natural respite between distances, shrines appointed along the protective bend in the river, altars recessed at an angle in a conjuring so they might refract light and divine some moment of revelation for the weary traveller.
I ran over 300km in the first six days after leaving Grosse Île, and, in so doing, in taking this less traveled passage along the Saint Lawrence, I began to answer the question regarding why so many of Montreal’s secular and religious community felt the compunction to risk their lives to save the Irish.
The most arresting early reading I did on the passage to Canada in 1847 centered on the role of the Grey Nuns, who ministered to the newly arrived immigrants. By the hand of providence – and I do believe that some projects are guided by divine intervention – I uncovered that the first-of-its-kind exhibition of the Grey Nuns was about to end its run at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
The exhibition was curated by one of Ireland’s great Irish Famine historians, Dr Christine Kinealy. After making contact with Dr Kinealy, she graciously agreed to keep the exhibition up for an extra day so I could come visit.
Dr. Jason King, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Canadian Ambassador Kevin Vickers at launch of Digital Irish Famine Archive.
On a last-minute plane to Connecticut, I had read the annals of the Grey Nuns, collated by the esteemed scholar, Dr Jason King. The work is nothing short of genius, and, though I can’t attest to the power of the French text, the translation by Philip O’Gorman is one of those revelatory academic works that bridges facts with a tonal acuity that captures the essential psyche of the order:
Through the act of reading, I understood the motivation and sacrifice of the order of Grey Nuns. I was immediately and shamefully reminded of my own fallen state, of how I had a great-aunt, who, in the cloister of over 75 years as a nun, had served the poor and indigent as a member of the order of The Little Sisters of the Poor.
On the eve of St Patrick’s Day, and with the exodus of the student body for Spring Break, I arrived onto an eerily depopulated, bucolic campus. The encounter with Dr Kinealy figures as one of those deeply affecting preordained moments – firstly for the graciousness of Dr Kinealy in agreeing to host me, but also for the religious aura she captured in curating the exhibition. In a contained, single room, she brought the events of 1847 into a singular, spiritual experience. This was scholarship wedded to a deeply affecting understanding of the spirituality of the order of Grey Nuns.
The Grey Nuns, those so-called Martyrs of Charity, were the first to the hastily erected fever sheds on the outskirts of Montreal’s harbor at Pointe St Charles. In the translated texts there is a spirituality communicated that reveals, dare I say it, an ancient, seductive power of a sort of spiritual ecstasy that pits the temporality of earthly life against an eternal reward with Christ.
Maps of Montreal Fever Sheds.
In arriving at Quinnipiac University and then eventually standing outside the Grey Nuns’ Convent in Montreal, I better understood the redeeming power of salvation and the charged humanity of earthly acts performed while one’s heart is directed heavenward. This was the greater reality of life in the pre-enlightenment – harsh brutish and short.
There are descriptions of sickness and effluence referenced in the fever sheds that sickened veteran doctors, and yet the chronicles of the annals report that the Martyrs of Charity actively sought out the most distressing cases of disease. A seasoned doctor, a Protestant who worked in the fever sheds, reportedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, requesting that the sisters tend to him.
Theophile Hamel’s Le Typhus (1847-48) with Grey Nuns in the foreground.
In reading the annals, what is transmitted is an authenticity of reportage that is so deeply affecting that one feels as though one is bearing witness to a faith that was first eclipsed by an Enlightenment age of reason and science, which eventually gave way to jaded cynicism.
The first week is done now – the total distance is 300 kilometres, but, more significantly than the kilometres run, I have come across signaling markers and points of introspection that are leading me to a greater context of the relationship of the self to God.
The week ended with my arrival at the Black Rock, a memorial stone that sits in the middle of a traffic island in Montreal. Over 6,000 Irish are interred in a mass grave. All died in the fever sheds. The burial site was uncovered during construction in 1859 of the Victoria Bridge. The historical moment of the fever sheds and the associated burial of so many was almost lost. Stubbornly, the workers who unearthed the entombed erected, at their own cost, the stone that now commemorates those almost forgotten dead.
The Black Rock was my first point of historical significance after leaving Grosse Île. I took the memory of 6,000 souls with me. I linked their memory with those who eventually died further along the Saint Lawrence in the fever sheds at Montreal. This is our Celtic Trail of Tears.
As an Irish expatriate, I am removed from the day-to-day life of a modern Ireland, and yet at times it takes the voice of the pining diaspora to reckon with history. If we can be charged with an arrested sense of history, then so be it. What I can report to you is that in standing at the memorial service held on the occasion of my arrival into Montreal, I was cognizant that this was the end for so many Irish, but also the beginning of the Irish diaspora experience in Canada.
On the day of my arrival, we gathered to honour the dead, but also to celebrate the Canadian Irish experience. On hand were local and national media, as the distinguished parliamentarian Marc Miller, who graciously attended the ceremony, added his support to a plan to move the Black Rock to a proposed famine memorial park.
The memorial park is too long in the waiting. There are the cynics who will say to let the dead lie where they will. It is, of course, the easier of choices, but what I have experienced on this run is a cadre of historically minded, hard-headed 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.
I cannot end without acknowledging the head of the Ancient Order of Hibernia, Victor Boyle, along with Donovan King, brother of Dr Jason King. Their eloquence and commitment to our history is exemplary. Last but not least, I would like to thank Fergus Keyes and Peggie Hopkins for first greeting me in Quebec City, accompanying me out to Grosse Île and then coordinating the event at the Black Rock.
What I have come to understand is that the preservation of our history does not simply happen. For every monument and statue we casually pass by, there’s a Fergus Keyes who has tirelessly advocated for its place in the competing histories of each city and nation.
The route begins at Grosse Île quarantine island, on the St Lawrence river, and continues through Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston before reaching Ireland Park, in Toronto on July 10th.
The project is raising funds for Irish-Canadian organisations seeking to create parks and erect monuments and statues to commemorate 1847.
Others can participate by taking on runs where they live, and logging their distances on diasporarun.org, where they can also sponsor Collins.
This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund
Michael Collins interviewed on CBC news: (8:50 — 11:00)
Michael Collins interviewed on CJAD radio about Famine Run: