Call for Papers: Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland
Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, in partnership with the Irish Heritage Trust at StrokestownPark, is hosting an international conference,
“Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland.” In any sustained period of food hunger and famine, children are one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of disease and mortality. The Great Hunger that occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852 is no exception. This conference will explore the impact of famine on children and young adults. While the focus will be on Ireland’s Great Hunger, a comparative approach is encouraged. It is anticipated that a selection of papers will be published.
Papers are welcomed from all disciplines and from both established scholars and new researchers. Abstracts of 250-300 words for 20-minute papers or proposals for roundtable sessions on specific themes, together with 100-word biographical statements, should be directed to:
Professor Christine Kinealy: email@example.com And Dr Jason King: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline for receipt of abstracts 31 January 2017
Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut
514 842-9411 (Ext 309)
Exhibition about the role of the Grey Nuns during the typhus epidemic in 1847 in Montreal.
Cette exposition temporaire relate l’histoire des Sœurs grises et des autres congrégations religieuses montréalaises qui ont porté secours aux immigrants irlandais lors de l’épidémie de typhus de 1847.
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This temporary exhibition tells the story of the Grey Nuns, and of the other religious orders in Montreal, who helped the Irish Famine Immigrants during the typhus epidemic of 1847.
The exhibit can also be visited in Dublin at the Glasnevin Museum:
Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, Dr. Jason King.
Photo L-R: John Green, Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Dr Jason King.
Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger
President Michael D. Higgins and Minister for Arts, Heritage, and Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys opened the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum for the National Famine Commemoration on September 11th 2016. The exhibit is curated by Professor Christine Kinealy, Founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, and Dr Jason King. It tells the story of the Grey Nuns who cared for typhus-stricken and dying Irish Famine emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal during the summer of 1847.
In paying tribute to the Grey Nuns, President Higgins declared:
During that bleak and terrible period of our history, an estimated one hundred thousand Irish people fled to Canada. It is impossible to imagine the pain, fear, despair, and suffering of these emigrants, many of whom lost beloved family members on their journey. As a country, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Grey Nuns, who cared for so many Irish widows and orphans who were left destitute, impoverished and alone in a strange country.
This exhibit is a very important project, which allows us to finally acknowledge the generosity and enormous humanity of those wonderful sisters whose kindness and compassion, during one of the worst moments in our Country’s history, must never be forgotten.
In her address at the National Famine Commemoration, Minister Humphreys stated:
Today we will also remember those such as the Grey Nuns of Montreal who are depicted in a new exhibition here in Glasnevin, and who chose to put themselves in harm’s way to treat and aid Famine vicitms. Such people remain the light of the human spirit confronting the darkness, and should not be forgotten.
The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit is open to the public FREE of charge from September 11, 2016.
Photo L-R: Minister Heather Humphreys, Dr Jason King, President Michael D. Higgins, and Professor Christine Kinealy.
Mseum Opening Times:
Monday to Sunday & Bank Holidays
Meanwhile, Fergus Keyes of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has announced:
GREY NUNS EXHIBITION OPENS AT THE GREY NUN’S MOTHERHOUSE IN MONTREAL
We are very pleased to note that the Grey Nuns exhibition called “Saving the Famine Irish: …The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” is now open for viewing at the Grey Nun’s Motherhouse at 138 rue Saint Pierre in Old Montreal.
Currently the exhibition can be visited any day between about 10am and 5pm – but an effort is being made to extend, or offer a few evening hours.
Even if you saw this exhibit during the few weeks that we had it at the Centaur Theatre, you might want to visit it again. Just the building itself dating back from the 1600”s is beautiful, and our exhibit is only a very small part of their permanent Grey Nuns museum – which, on its own, is fascinating.
The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” will be on display until about the end of November – and is running at the same time as one that is on display in Dublin, Ireland – “Grey Nuns Famine Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum in Dublin”. It involves very similar items as will be found at the Dublin one, with the exception that here in Montreal, the display is bilingual; and also includes some terrific paintings about the event by a local artist, Karen Bridgenaw – which were not available when we had it at the Centaur.
If you plan to attend with a small group, you might want to contact the Grey Nuns at (514) 842-9411 – and they may be able to arrange for a guide to give you a proper tour on their museum.
So if you happen to be in Old Montreal, do take this opportunity to visit this beautiful building and great exhibition.
We will update you with any additional information concerning extended hours etc., as it becomes available.
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:
From Irish Times:
Pole star: ultrarunner Michael Collins in the Arctic
Famine memorial: Toronto from Ireland Park. Photograph: David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty
My name is Michael Collins. I am an Irish emigrant, writer and ultrarunner. In 2000 my novel The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A decade later I captained the Irish team at the 100km World Championships. Although one might not connect writing with running, I have tapped the loneliness of the long-distance runner: psychological and physical dislocation inform my writing process.
I first experienced this dislocation as a young runner, leaving under cover of dark for early Sunday-morning runs into the remote Limerick hills. In so doing I ran to an observation point from which to view my town and its people.
My running earned me an athletic scholarship to the United States. To negotiate my daily training runs, which averaged 25km, I ran beyond a bucolic campus to a ghettoised landscape of abandoned factories in the rust-belt city of South Bend, Indiana. In the act of running, in crossing boundaries, I found that a preoccupation with all things political emerged.
I abandoned running after college, earned a doctorate, and ended up working at Microsoft in Redmond, in Washington state. In my subterranean cubicle I felt a deepening loss of the physical self against an advancing virtual age. In a conscious act of moral reorienting I returned to running. During 130km weekend runs, running to and from work, programming by day and writing by night, I tapped a voice within and captured the essence of the United States’ industrial past in writing The Keepers of Truth.
I became the keeper of certain truths that I accessed through running. Against the imminent loss of the physical world I read about Ernest Shackleton’s heroic journey of survival in the Antarctic, then entered and won the Last Marathon in Antarctica. A year later I stood atop the world, winning the Mount Everest Marathon. Dislocation became my way of processing life.
Recognising the service of returning military veterans of the post-9/11 campaigns, I left Microsoft and took a job at a community college. There I encountered soldiers coming to terms with psychological dislocation. I created task-oriented academic exercises that demanded a combination of physical activities and classroom analytics. The prevailing metaphor was combat readiness in anticipating, meeting and succeeding in civilian life.
Yet, for the bluster of coping strategies, there was a personal loss I had never fully reckoned with: my leaving Ireland. I was of the generation that left amid the economic doldrums of the early 1980s. In the years to come I would use running and a preoccupation with hunger, exhaustion and journey to inform a personal and cultural identity that connected to the Great Famine.
While I was at a literary festival in Canada an organiser asked if I had seen Toronto’s famine memorial. I hadn’t. Ireland Park is tucked away on a dockland pier. It is a lost history, fittingly out of place against the Toronto skyline. The human scale of the gathered sculptures, representing Irish migrants escaping the Great Famine, reconfigured my relationship with Irish history.
In the years since then I have returned on quiet pilgrimages to correspond with that immemorial gathering of souls. Their story begs telling.
The spectre of Irish emigration to Canada figured in the endgame years of the Great Famine. In 1847 the British parliament, in cutting off all famine aid, enacted the Irish Poor Laws, requiring absentee landlords to cover the cost of relief to their tenants.
With those laws came the great emigration of 1847. Facing the United States’ stiffening emigration regulations – the Passenger Act barred diseased ships from arriving in American ports – unscrupulous landlords looked farther north. Commissioning timber ships that would otherwise return empty to Canada, they loaded an emigrant ballast into hastily retrofitted hulls. These were the coffin ships.
The journey into the freezing reaches of the Canadian north and down the St Lawrence river would cause the most harrowing suffering. Immigrants arrived with a pestilence of typhus at a makeshift quarantine station at Grosse Île, 50km downriver from Quebec City, that was equipped with just 150 beds. By the summer of 1847, 40 vessels, carrying 14,000 immigrants, clogged the St Lawrence. Catastrophe ensued.
Michael Collins in Lazaretto on Gross Isle. Fergus Keyes Photograph.
Michael Collins on Grosse Isle. Fergus Keyes Photograph.
Those with fever were summarily quarantined on the island. Families were wrested apart. For years afterwards provincial newspapers would carry classifieds from immigrants seeking the whereabouts of relatives. Of the 100,000 Irish who sailed to Canada in 1847, 20,000 died.
Surviving Irish immigrants, continuing their journey by land, ventured first through the francophone province of Quebec and then down into the neo-English province of Ontario.
An estimated 75,000 Irish descended on Montreal, then a city of some 50,000 people. The francophone hubs of Quebec City and Montreal met a bereft, alien-speaking population of Irish with extraordinary religious ardour.
The story of the Grey Nuns, who erected fever sheds and brokered the adoption of thousands of Irish orphans in the cities, was all but lost to French texts that, until recently, had never been translated into English:
So, too, some 6,000 Irish souls were lost to history until workers building a bridge in Montreal unearthed a mass grave. Such was the amnesia of a city so traumatised. The union whose workers had uncovered the grave erected a monument, the Black Rock. Montreal’s Irish community would like to relocate the Black Rock to a permanent memorial park.
Those who survived Grosse Île and Montreal headed southwest, and the anglophone city of Toronto braced as 38,000 emigrants descended on a population of 20,000.
Ireland Park’s historical committee has researched Toronto’s response to 1847. In establishing an emigrant hospital, a convalescent hospital, and a widows’ and orphans’ refuge, Toronto’s medical community set a gold standard for the containment of disease.
The heroic efforts of the hospital’s lead surgeon, Dr George Grasett, who was of Protestant-Irish lineage, and the staff who died in the service of the Irish are being recognised with the construction of Dr George Robert Grasett Park:
on Adelaide and Widmer Streets, as distinct from Ireland Park, on Toronto’s waterfront. To be unveiled in 2017, it includes a glass installation etched with billowing sheets, to represent fever sheds.
Between Grosse Île and the cities of Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto lies an emptiness of almost 1,000km that I will trace one step at a time. Into that limitless horizon I will run some 65km a day, starting at Grosse Île. This is what I seek as a runner: acts of dislocation in kilometres run that facilitate a collapse of time, to vicariously access distant histories.
The run will end at the Ireland Park famine memorial in Toronto. My goal is to foster historical awareness while raising money to memorialise that fateful year: 1847.
Along the way I will meet Irish societies who have uncovered the historical records of 1847. The death toll is sobering. Interred in a mixture of mass and individual graves are 5,000 souls at Grosse Île; 6,000 at Pointe St Charles, in Montreal; 1,400 in Kingston, on the north shore of Lake Ontario; and a further 1,200 in Toronto. Canada is home to the greatest group of mass burials of Irish immigrants in the world. All died in 1847.
People can participate in the month-long event by walking or running within their own communities. (Registration for this is at diasporarun.org.)
Individual names, with distances completed, will be displayed on the site, along with the combined distance run by all of the participants. An associated blog will facilitate a virtual cultural experience. Everyone who registers and participates will receive a commemorative medal.
In the centenary year of the Easter Rising my experience as an emigrant is less Irish than it once was, although what I have learned from the scholars I have visited in preparation for the run is how dynamic our history is.
If this project started as a personal run, it is now dedicated to highlighting the efforts of the custodians of our history who continue to uncover the voices of the past that encompass the totality of the Irish diaspora.
If I can add to that narrative it is perhaps fitting that I do so in tapping the legacy of our indomitable Irish endurance, in committing to an act of journey and distances covered. It is, after all, how we populated North America, one step at a time. I invite you to join me.
Scheduled to begin on June 10th and end on July 10th, it will see Michael Collins cover almost 900km.
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.
The project will raise 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.
Collins will chronicle his project in a blog, giving updates and historical background, on irishtimes.com and on diasporarun.org.
This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund
Editorial: Forget granite stumps. What about the Black Rock?
Montreal Gazette Editorial Board
Published on: June 1, 2016 | Last Updated: June 1, 2016 5:19 PM EDT
On the subject of stones, there is a more obvious initiative that deserves the attention of 375th anniversary organizers, and that is the Black Rock memorial on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge.
Last Sunday, members of the Irish community took part in an annual walk to honour the 6,000 immigrants who died of typhus in 1847-48 after fleeing famine in Ireland, and to press for improvements to the site.
A proper memorial is long overdue. The 10-foot engraved stone, blackened by exhaust fumes on a median between traffic lanes, is difficult for pedestrians to reach and easily overlooked by motorists who may be oblivious to the mass graves that lie beneath.
A group calling itself the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has been pushing for the site and adjacent parking lot to be transformed into a green space that would honour not only the Irish victims, but local residents who got sick and died trying to help them.
Coderre has expressed support for the proposal, but it will take effort and co-ordination to turn the vision into reality given that the site sits on federal land. There’s no time to waste. It would be wonderful if the park were ready in time for the city’s 2017 birthday celebrations — a city the Irish helped build.
IrishCentral Staff WritersApril 20,2016.
Montreal’s Grey Nuns are being honored, in a touring exhibition, for their charity in caring for and dying with the sick Great Hunger victims in the fever sheds by the St. Lawrence River.
In the exhibit entitled “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger,” which was on show at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal last week, examines the nuns’ heroism and that of other locals. At least seven nuns died and many became severely ill as they nursed the Irish and found homes for the 1,500 orphans. At least 6,000 Irish people lost their lives.
When the coffin ships from Ireland began arriving in 1847 there were 50,000 people in Montreal. Over 100,000 Irish, emaciated and often diseased with typhus and other deadly infections, were on their way to Quebec and understandably many Montrealers were afraid. Many wanted the new arrivals pushed into the St. Lawrence River and at one-point Mayor John Mills was forced to deter a mob from doing so.
The immigration depot on Grosse Île near Quebec City was unable to handle the deluge of Irish refugees and as many as 5,000 died there. Another 5,000 – at least – died during the crossing from Ireland. Those Irish who survived were quarantined in the 22 fever sheds, built near where Victoria Bridge now stands.
The Grey Nuns, also known as the Sisters of Charity, were the first order to be called to help the Irish. There were just 40 nuns in the group and most of them became infected with typhus. They carried the sick Irish from the ships to the sheds where they cared for them. At least even Grey Nuns died, but those who recovered from the disease came back and continued to care for those who needed it.
There were 1,500 orphans left after the massive number of deaths. The Nuns found them homes either with other Irish families or French Canadians.
Also among those caring for the Irish were Catholic and Anglican clergymen, and several priests also lost their lives. There are also tales of British soldiers on security detail at the sheds giving up their rations to feed the Irish.
The Nuns’ own writings on the disaster are the “most detailed eye-witness accounts of the suffering,” according to the National University of Ireland, Galway, Famine Archives. Their annals have been digitized, transcribed and translated and can now be read online.
The nuns amazing work was also described by John Francis Maguire in “The Irish in America,” in 1868. He wrote:
“First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs. There was no faltering, no holding back; no sooner were the ranks thinned by death than the gaps were quickly filled; and when the Grey Nuns were driven to the last extremity, the Sisters of Providence came to their assistance, and took their place by the side of the dying strangers. But when even their aid did not suffice to meet the emergency, the Sisters of St. Joseph, though cloistered nuns, received the permission of the Bishop to share with their sister religious the hardships and dangers of labor by day and night.”
Jason King, from the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, and Christine Kinealy, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, put together a portrait of these incredible caregivers for the new exhibition. The exhibit has been on show at the Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT for a year will and now tour for a short time, beginning with Montreal.
“The story of the Grey Nuns, and of the other religious orders who helped the dying Irish immigrants, is one of kindness, compassion and true charity,” Kinealy said.
“Nonetheless, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants perished in the fever sheds of Montreal. They had fled from famine in Ireland only to die of fever in Canada. This is a remarkable story that deserves to be better known.”
Fergus Keyes, the Director of the Irish Monument Park Foundation, told the Montreal Gazette, “The exhibit is to concentrate on the people who went to help them, and in many cases gave up their life.
“That included John Mills, the mayor of Montreal at the time, who wasn’t Irish, wasn’t Catholic, but he set up the sheds and went and nursed the Irish and it cost him his life. Sometimes he’s called the Martyr Mayor of Montreal.”
It’s hoped that the presence of the exhibition in Montreal will help highlight the campaign to create a park honoring those who lost their lives. Currently the only monument is the “Black Rock” monument, an engraved boulder under Victoria Bridge.