March 12th and 13th: 50 artists will take the stage at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City to sing the story of Grosse-Île quarantine station, summer 1847. Projections depict the island and relics of that summer; lighting and period costumes set the mood; first person narrative brings memory to life. Supported by a musical trio of piano, guitar and flute, the voice of each singer will echo across the sea of time calling to us in the 21st century. Employing four languages, French, English, Gaelic and Latin, John Halpin’s lyrics capture a complex cultural mosaic. Crisp vocal rhythms and rich four-part harmonization support lyrical solo performances, speaking of starvation, hope, desperation, sharing, illness, comforting, death, loss, and the will to carry on.
On the island we meet an elderly couple, Sean and Brigid, the story narrators, remembering their childhood experience in the summer of 1847; Eileen, a suffering Irish immigrant; Darah and Donal, a young Irish couple struggling to heal and restore their people; Skews, an English ship mate stricken by typhus; Doctor d’Amour, searching desperately for a ‘cure’; Father Charles, struggling to be the hand of God amidst a sea of pain and misery. Over 5000 Irish immigrants died and were buried on Grosse-Île that fateful summer. The authenticity of Sean and Brigid’s first hand experience of the quarantine station is tempered by the filter of time, the joy of the years won with their own survival and the courage and strength they attribute to the remarkable people they encountered on Grosse-Île. In the end, it is the heart felt appeal of Father Charles to the faithful parishioners of Montmagny that opens the doors of the Québecois to the stranded Irish orphans. This is the message of hope at the heart of Grosse-Île: a story as much for our time as any; a story of anguish relieved by welcome… A story that must be told!
Grosse-Île: A Choral Story/ Une Histoire Chorale is a 2 hour narrative musical performance, written by three Quebeckers, Margaret Forrest, John Halpin and Hubert Radoux, and produced by Les Productions Cibles. The 40 voice choir, Dal Segno, under the direction of Guillaume St. Gelais is joined by 7 soloists.
Grosse Île musical commemorates Quebec’s Irish heritage
The bilingual production of Grosse Île: Une Histoire Chorale, which was shown last Saturday and Sunday at the Palais Montcalm, pulls at the heart strings.
“I hope that people feel the pain,” said co-author Margaret Forrest.
In 1847, immigrants traveled across the ocean from Ireland to get away from famine.
“They have to hope and come to Quebec, but then the landlords and the people on the boats are not necessarily nice to them and they get sick,” explained Marie-Maude Potvin, a singer and actress in the musical.
Suffering from cholera and typhoid fever, when the Irish finally arrived in Quebec, they were quarantined on Grosse Île.
“I was surprised that I didn’t know about the story,” said Katee Julien, another singer and actress.
“I think it’s important for us people from Quebec City to know about that because it’s about us. You don’t know why some streets have Irish names.”
This original play – and original score – commemorates the over 5,000 Irish immigrants buried on the island.
Greg Halpin plays two characters, both of whom die from disease.
“Throughout the play, there’s just constantly this chorus that keeps echoing back, of hope and how you get through these kinds of tragedies,” said Halpin.
The story takes place almost 170 years ago, but the imagery is all too reminiscent of Syrian refugees who have died in similar journeys by boat.
“People who were actually dying on the shoreline and they had no place for these people. They had no place to bury them,” said Radoux.
“It is so timely,” said Forrest.
“We’re so estranged to this notion of people having a right or a need to change the place they live. We tend to say ‘pull up your boot straps and change your own place’…but this is the time to open our arms.”
Forrest insisted Quebecers should welcome newcomers, who so quickly become part of our heritage.