Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Famine Walk

Irish Author and Ultra Runner Michael Collins on National Famine Walk

From Irish Times (March 31, 2017)

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/i-feel-an-obligation-to-re-engage-and-better-understand-what-it-is-to-be-irish-1.3032147

‘I feel an obligation to re-engage and better understand what it is to be Irish’

Author Michael Collins explains why as an emigrant, a father and a writer he feels drawn to explore his own sense of Irishness

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Irish Famine Folklore

Famine walk 2015 14Famine walker Cathal Póirtéir

Famine walk 2015 9.jpgCathal Póirtéir and Mick Blanch, Irish Famine Walk 2015.

On day three of the Famine walk, the walkers reached Ballynacarrigy, a village that was devastated by the Great Hunger as recalled in local folklore.

One of Ireland’s most renowned folklorists, Cathal Póirtéir, is the author of Famine Echoes (Gill & Macmillan, 1995), the leading work in the field.

Famine Echoes

In Famine Echoes, Póirtéir observes explains why folklore provides such a rich cultural resource for recovering the perspectives of the Famine Irish.  In his own words:

I feel that the echoes of those silenced voices which we have in folk memory are the nearest we can get to the experience of the poor in the 1840s and 1850s. Survivors, as well as victims, suffered hunger, lost loved ones and neighbours, suffered the ignominy of the poorhouses and the dangers of the fever. Many of those who lived to tell the tale had witnessed the dying days of individuals, families, and communities who would otherwise have lived and perished without mention in official records.

Some of the tradition bearers recorded by the expert collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission were people whose own families had been evicted, people who had buried the dead, received charity, worked on the relief schemes and existed on relief food. Others were those who benefitted from the Famine as their families increased their holdings by getting the land of those who died or emigrated.

Many of these survivors of the Great Irish Famine lived into [the twentieth] century with a store of personal and communal memories of the bad times. Not everyone had the same story to tell. The memories and the telling of them varied from person to person and from place to place, depending on individual circumstance and experience. Undoubtedly, many memories and stories of the horrors of the Famine were suppressed consciously and unconsciously for a variety of reasons. Other elements were simply forgotten or reshaped with the passage of time.

While we are not fortunate enough to have a written record from the ordinary people of the period, we are exceedingly fortunate in having a very rich and detailed source in the folk memory which was collected and preserved within one hundred years of the Famine (12-13).

A particularly rich and striking source of that folk memory was collected in Ballynacarrigy. It can be found here:

http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009099/4986529/5122096

Ballynacarrigy folklore.png

 

 

The Story of 1490 orphan James Flood

Enda Kenny Strokestown

On May 11, 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a glass wall memorial to the 1490 emigrants during the National Famine Commemoration at Strokestown.

James Flood Irish Famine Memorial Wall Strokestown.png

https://www.rte.ie/news/player/2014/0511/20576539-national-famine-commemoration-held-at-strokestown/

Colin McMahon has traced the 1490 orphan James Flood’s movements between Strokestown, Liverpool, Grosse Île and Montreal in an article entitled “Recrimination and Reconciliation: Great Famine Memory in Liverpool and Montreal at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Atlantic Studies: Global Currents 11.3 (2014): 344-64.

Colin McMahon.pngColin McMahon

In McMahon’s own words (347-348):

The Famine influx has long been an emotionally charged and politically potent memory for Irish groups in Liverpool and Montreal, not only because of the devastation wrought in their port cities in 1847, but also for its evocation of the calamitous condition of Ireland that led to the harried exit of the Famine Irish from their homeland. We can catch a glimpse of the horrors of this phase of Famine migration by tracing the route of one Roscommon family, the Floods, who, having lost their land and livelihood, fled Ireland in the spring of 1847. Mary and James Flood Sr. and their nine children were among the first contingent of 465 tenants that were evicted from the Strokestown estate and participated in a landlord-assisted emigration scheme that took them on a harrowing three-month journey through the Irish midlands, over the Irish Sea to Liverpool, and across the north Atlantic to Montreal. Their landlord, Major Denis Mahon, calculated that the expense of overseeing the large-scale clearance and transatlantic shipment of his smallholders who had neither food to eat nor money to pay rent would amount to less than half the cost of maintaining them in the workhouse for a single year.

The first stage of their journey out of Ireland began with a 150-kilometre trek from Strokestown to Dublin. After four days of trudging cross-country and sleeping rough, the Floods and their neighbours arrived on the outskirts of the Irish capital. From there, they were escorted by the estate’s bailiff to Eden Quay on the River Liffey, where Major Mahon’s land agent awaited to oversee their passage to Liverpool. The inexpensive cross-channel voyage took less than a day, but the rough currents of the Irish Sea would have made it a distressing experience for this already malnourished group of migrants who were packed together on deck and in the holds of a steam-driven ferry.

Disembarkation at Liverpool’s Clarence Dock offered little respite. The Flood family and the other Strokestown migrants represented a mere trickle in the deluge of over one million Irish into Liverpool during the Famine years, most of them in search of a cheap berth on a vessel bound for North America. Entering Europe’s busiest port, with “thousands of hungry and half naked wretches…wandering about, not knowing how to obtain a sufficiency of the commonest food nor shelter,” the destitute Irish were easy prey for sharpers and harpies, “the most unscrupulous set of scoundrels” notorious for bilking hapless newcomers to the city of the little they possessed. Even a brief stopover in this “City of Plague” exposed many Famine Irish to typhus, a disease that had reached epidemic proportions in the city by May 1847. Despite quarantine facilities at the Brownlow workhouse, on the waterfront, and aboard three government supplied quarantine ships docked on the River Mersey, the louse-borne bacterial infection stalked Irish migrants upon boarding vessels that had been hastily converted for the emigrant trade between Liverpool and British North America.

The Floods survived their week long stay in a north-end lodging house in Liverpool awaiting embarkation, but would suffer terribly on their voyage to Quebec, arranged for them by their landlord. Opting for the cheapest fare his land agent could find, Major Mahon sent his former tenants across the Atlantic on a vessel that would soon gain infamy as a ‘coffin ship’. During the two month passage the Flood family and their former neighbours struggled to survive on paltry provisions while lodged in the bowels of the Virginius—a dank, insanitary, suffocating space below the foredeck that was a breeding ground for dysentery and typhus. In conditions likened by The Times to “The Black Hole of Calcutta,” typhus spread rapidly among the Strokestown emigrants. Daily, corpses were hauled up from the holds, covered in old sails or meal-sacks stitched together, weighted down, and then “buried in the deep without the rites of the Church.” Three of the Flood children (Bridget, Edward, and Mary Jr.) who succumbed to typhus en route were dropped overboard. By the time the Virginius laid anchor in the St. Lawrence River next to the Grosse-Île quarantine station on July 28th, one third of its passengers had met the same fate.

Those who survived the voyage faced further adversity on disembarkation in Quebec. Dr. George Douglas, medical superintendent of Grosse-Île, described the Strokestown emigrants as “ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and, without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” Five-year-old James Flood Jr. was among the few who emerged from the hold of the Virginius in relatively good health, but the fate of the remaining members of his family is unclear. At some point between their inspection at Grosse-Île and James’ arrival at Montreal’s waterfront several days later, the boy was separated from his family, possibly during the chaotic sorting process at the quarantine station or at some stage in the 50 kilometre voyage upriver aboard one of the crowded steamers, which carried 70,000 Irish migrants along with a typhus epidemic to Montreal, turning the city “into a virtual Quarantine Station.” It is equally plausible that members of the Flood family were afflicted with typhus upon their arrival in Montreal and were among the 13,189 Irish emigrants who were hospitalized in the twenty-two fever sheds of Pointe Saint-Charles in the southwest of the city, and possibly among the roughly 6,000 who died there and were “buried like dogs in the Hospital pit.” Whatever the circumstances that led to him losing his family, we know that James found himself alone in Montreal, a city under siege by disease. Like many of Montreal’s Famine orphans, James found refuge in the Catholic Church, in his case with the Grey Nuns in the Hôpital Général des Soeurs-Grises. He remained in Montreal’s waterfront neighbourhood very near the dock on which he was deposited in 1847, working as a labourer until 1875, at which point his name disappears from the public record.

To read Colin McMahon’s full article, follow the link (pay wall):

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14788810.2014.921097

Colin McMahon’s article has also been reproduced in full in Marguérite Corporaal and Jason King, Irish Global Migration and Memory: Transatlantic Perspectives of Ireland’s Famine Exodus (Routledge, 2016).

Irish Global Migration and Memory Cover

https://www.routledge.com/Irish-Global-Migration-and-Memory-Transatlantic-Perspectives-of-Irelands/Corporaal-King/p/book/9781138693388

 

 

A Short History of Strokestown Park and the Irish National Famine Museum

Strokestown park house jim caroilinCaroilin and Jim Callery, Strokestown Park House

Strokestown Park was the family seat of the Mahon family from 1653 until 1981 and is infamous due to the events of 1847, when Denis Mahon was the first landlord to be assassinated during the Famine period with repercussions as far as the Vatican, Rome and The British Parliament, London. The gun used to shoot Major Mahon is on display in the Famine Museum.

Famine Museum Pistol 1

Famine Museum 1

In the 1970s houses such as Strokestown Park faced a precarious future and their value lay mostly in the adjoining land. In 1979 the house and estate were purchased by the Westward Garage Group and a chance discovery of boxes containing documents secured the fate of Strokestown Park.

Denis Mahon

Jim Callery, the founder of the Westward Group, was exploring the house and uncovered letters and documents relating to the estate, most notably a letter from tenants in the townland of Cloonahee. Dated 1846, the letter was a plea to Denis Mahon to provide them with some form of relief as their potato crop had failed and their situation was desperate. The digitzed Cloonahee petition can be found on the Great Famine Voices website:

Great Famine Voices

http://www.greatfaminevoices.ie/?q=documents/cloonahee-petition

Realising the significance of the material, Jim had the foresight to recognise that Strokestown Park was a unique resource that spanned almost 350 years of Irish history. His company, the Westward Group, have supported this initiative since that day through a continuous programme of restoration work. This has included restoring the house and gardens and establishing the first Famine museum in Ireland in order to preserve and share this important part of our heritage.

The Irish Heritage Trust has been working with Strokestown Park and the Westward Group since 2010 to help secure the future of this special place.  On 1st August 2015 the Trust became responsible for the property, team and the archive. The Trust will continue the work to restore and care for this place, supported by the Directors of the Westward Group, to create a sustainable operation for future generations.

http://www.irishheritagetrust.ie/

 

 

 

The 1490, the Grey Nuns, and the Fever Sheds of Montreal

grey-nuns-exhibit-glasneving-opening-4

Minister Heather Humphries, President Higgins, Famine walkers and exhibit curators Christine Kinealy and Jason King.

On this first day of the Famine walk, Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins greeted the walkers and joined them as they set off from Clondra and the commemorative ceremony for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Canal.

A few months earlier, in September 2016, he launched the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit along with Arts and Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys at the Glasnevin Museum during the National Famine Commemoration in Dublin. The exhibit is curated by Christine Kinealy and Jason King, both of whom are on the National Famine Walk.

grey-nuns-exhibit-glasnevin-opening-3

The eyewitness accounts of the Grey Nuns, who cared for Irish emigrant typhus victims in Montreal’s fever sheds during the summer of 1847, can be found in a digital archive curated by Jason King:

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/

Irish Famine Archive Home Page

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/eyewitness-accounts/grey-nuns

One of the 1490 Strokestown Famine orphans who was cared for by the Grey Nuns was five year old James Flood, whose story will be told in another post.

Famine walker Michael Collins, the Booker-prized nominated acclaimed novelist, is walking in the footsteps of James Flood.

Michael Collins Dublin 2

Strokestown Quebec Youth Connection

RTE’s Nationwide featured an episode on the “Strokestown-Quebec Youth Connection”

On this first day of the Famine walk, Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins greeted the walkers and joined them as they set off from Clondra and the commemorative ceremony for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Canal.

President Higgins is the patron of the Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown and very supportive of its activities, such as the National Famine Walk.

President Higgins Strokestown 1

President Higgins Strokestown 2

President Higgins Strokestown 3

The walk was inspired by the museum’s founder Jim Callery’s meeting in the year 2000 with Léo Tye, the grandson of Strokestown Famine orphan Daniel Tighe who was forced to emigrate on the Naomi in 1847.

It was also inspired by Jim’s daughter, Caroilin Callery and Maggie Gallagher’s Strokestown-Quebec Youth Connection project that established an arts based cultural exchange between Strokestown and communities in Quebec where orphans from the area had been adopted. Between 2010 and 2012, the project encouraged young people in Ireland and Quebec to learn more about the traumatic historical experiences of their ancestors by teaching them how to research and trace cultural and familial associations between County Roscommon and places in Canada where the descendants of Irish Famine migrants are still living today.  It brought together young people from the Strokestown area with students from Laval Liberty High School in Montreal through a variety of multimedia workshops in areas such as film, cinematography, theatre, movement, writing, art, music and historical research techniques.  RTE’s Nationwide featured an episode on the “Strokestown-Quebec Youth Connection” project that can be viewed above.

The Strokestown youth then travelled to Grosse Île and Irish Memorial National Historic Site in Quebec in 2013, and that same year Richard Tye, Léo Tye’s son, made a return visit to Strokestown as part of the “The Gathering”.

RTE’s Nationwide also featured an episode on Richard Tye’s return visit to Strokestown for “The Gathering” in 2013 that can be viewed here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Saving the Famine Irish” Grey Nuns Exhibit Opens at EPIC Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin

Epic Grey Nuns launch 6.jpg

Dr Jason King (Irish Heritage Trust) and Professor Christine Kinealy (Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, Quinnipiac University), curators of the “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibition at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.

EPIC will be hosting a temporary exhibition charting the experiences Irish Famine refugees in Canada. “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” tells the story of the religious orders in Montreal whose members gave selflessly to Irish immigrants during the summer of 1847 – their time of greatest need. The exhibition runs in Unit 5-6 of CHQ from 30/03/2017 until 22/04/2017.

Epic Grey Nuns launch 1.jpg

From left: Caroilin Callery (Irish National Famine Museum), Christine Kinealy (Quinnipiac University), Jason King (Irish Heritage Trust), Fiona Ross (Epic), Robert Kearns (Ireland Park Foundation).

Many thousands of people fled from Ireland during the Great Hunger and immigrated to Canada. Famine immigrants to Montreal were not only among the poorest of the poor, but many of them arrived already sick with typhus fever. Despite this, a number of people in the English and French Canadian communities provided the ailing and the dying with shelter and support. In the forefront of this compassionate movement were the Sisters of Charity, also known as the Grey Nuns. The exhibition is co-presented by EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. It is currently on display to mark the 170th anniversary of ‘Black 47’, the high point of the Great Irish Famine.

Epic Grey Nuns launch 3.jpg

Jason King, Christine Kinealy, Michael Blanch, Fiona Ross.

http://epicchq.com/event/saving-famine-irish-grey-nuns-great-hunger/

 

 

 

 

 

EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2017 for Founder of the Irish National Famine Museum, Jim Callery

Mr. Jim Callery*, founder of the Irish National Famine Museum & Archive and owner of Strokestown Park, Co. Roscommon, is among this year’s winners in the category dedicated service to heritage and the only winner from Ireland. Independent expert juries examined a total of 202 applications, submitted by organisations and individuals from 39 countries across Europe, and chose the winners.

The winners of the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards 2017 will be celebrated during a high-profile event co-hosted by EU Commissioner Navracsics and Maestro Plácido Domingo commencing in the late afternoon on 15 May at St. Michael’s Church in Turku. The European Heritage Awards Ceremony will assemble some 1,200 people, including heritage professionals, volunteers and supporters from all over Europe as well as top-level representatives from EU institutions, the host country and other Member States.

In 1959, the year in which Mr. Jim Callery established his motor garage at the gates of Strokestown Park in County Roscommon, he never envisaged that he would come to own and restore the estate on which his ancestors had once been tenants. At its height, the private country estate of Strokestown Park with its extensive Palladian residence was the second largest in Ireland with over 27,000 acres of land being rented out and worked by Irish tenant farmers.

By the time Mr. Callery came to buy the estate in 1979 however, it had shrunk to just 300 acres with the house, ancillary buildings and gardens in a state of complete and advancing decay. The entirety of the contents of the house were later purchased resulting in over 300 years of the family’s history being preserved in the house along with thousands of estate documents which provide an extraordinary perspective on Irish history.

Nearly 40 years on, Mr. Callery has spent millions of his own money, along with help from European Union funds, to restore the house, the gardens, to create a museum to the Irish Famine and an archive of the estate documents which number over 55,000 items.

The restoration and establishment of the world renowned Irish National Famine Museum & Archive by Mr. Callery has been the largest act of private philanthropy for cultural heritage in the history of modern Ireland. The Strokestown estate is now a flourishing hive of activity which provides education, employment and enjoyment for the surrounding region. The Jury greatly appreciated this personal dedication, stating:

“Through his small business, Mr. Callery has saved a vital historic country estate for Ireland and has created an important museum and archive dealing with this pivotal moment in the country’s history. He has ensured an expert restoration of the house, opened it to the Irish public and preserved the legacy of this important memorial”.

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.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/michael-collins-is-this-month-s-irish-times-book-club-author-1.2995112

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.

Kevin Vickers and Jason King 1

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 (http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/) 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:

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/remembering-20-000-famine-refugees-who-died-in-1847-1.2870773

Michael Collins at Grosse Ile

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

Michael Collins Diaspora Run 1

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.

Michael Collins Diaspora Run 6

Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

Michael Collins Ontario 1

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.

grey-nuns-exhibit-glasneving-opening-4

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.

Typhus-stricken

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.

Michael Collins Diaspora Run 2

Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

Michael Collins Ontario 2

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.

Michael Collins Diaspora Run 8

Michael Collins Diaspora Run 3

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…

Michael Collins Ontario 12

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.

Michael Collins in Lazareeto

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.

Trauma

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.

Apocalyptic

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.

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Digital Irish Famine Archive with Grey Nuns annals:

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/

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.

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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

 

The Orphan Who Saw the Light: A six-year old Thomas Quinn found a warm welcome waiting in Quebec (Irish Independent Feb. 17 2017)

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http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/eyewitness-accounts/famine-orphans/quinn-tighe