Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Irish Diaspora Run

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

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

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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.

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Michael Collins also stated:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreal Witness (26 July 1847):

Grasett Tribute in Montreal Transcript

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

Montreal Witness July 26 1847 Grasett

From Michael Collins’ Irish Diaspora Run 2016:

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

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

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Park is their story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Michael Collins Finds Stories of Famine Irish Orphans and Tradition of Welcoming Refugees in Ontario

From Irish Times:

Famine emigrant descendants have hunger to commemorate

Democratising power of social media allows them to contribute to interpretation of their ancestors’ history, Michael Collins finds on his Diaspora Run in Canada

Michael Collins Discovers Famine Irish Legacies in Ontario

From Irish Times:

In Famine’s footsteps: trail of death leads to Skeleton Park

Week 3 of Michael Collins’ 900km Diaspora Run in search of the lost stories of Canada’s Irish Famine migrants sees him cross from Catholic Quebec into loyalist Ontario

Michael Collins Pays Tribute to Grey Nuns and Famine Irish in Montreal on Celtic Trail of Tears

From the Irish Times:

Why are 6,000 Irish buried under a Montreal traffic island?

Michael Collins finds an unusual Famine memorial during his 900km run

Michael Collins Reaches Black Rock Famine Memorial in Montreal

Michael Collins interviewed  on CBC news: (8:50 — 11:00)

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Michael Collins interviewed on CJAD radio about Famine Run:

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Michael Collins arrives in Montreal

Author runs across Quebec & Ontario to honour Irish heritage

Michael Collins runs in the footsteps of the Canadian Famine Irish from Grosse Isle to Montreal

From the Irish Times:

Irish Diaspora Run: ‘All journeys begin with a single step’

Michael Collins begins his 900km run tracing steps of Irish Famine immigrants in Canada

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 first of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.

The saying goes that all journeys begin with a single step, and at the start of this 900km run the stark simplicity of the saying resonates. I am an ultra-runner, so distance alone should not be daunting, but this Diaspora Run holds a deep personal and historical significance. In the past I ran for my country chasing medals. Now I am running for a greater historical context – to raise awareness of the tragic year of Black ‘47.

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In that year, the convergence of British government policies dispossessed more Irish than in any other year of the Great Hunger. Under the directive of a newly elected prime minister, Lord Russell, the British parliament voted to end famine relief, mandating relief be carried out by absentee landlords. To shirk responsibility, landlords began a universal campaign of eviction, thus removing the obligation to feed their tenants.

Suddenly, the Irish hinterland, especially in the provinces of Munster and Connaught, swarmed with a starving army of skeletons. To make matters worse, in America, under the maritime Passenger Act, typhus stricken vessels and ships not adhering to the stricter sanitary rules were barred from entering America.

Under the growing crisis of the dispossessed, the eventual choice was to ship them to Canada, then under British control. In a cruel and desperate measure, emptied lumber-carrying ships returning to Canada were commissioned and hastily retrofitted to carry human ballasts. No regard was given to sanitary conditions or to feeding those who would make the 40-day transatlantic voyage to the eventual entry port at Grosse Île quarantine station, some 30km north of Quebec City.

I am beginning my run from this sobering quarantine station, or more specifically from a parking lot in sight of the island.

The evening before the run I was given a grand tour of Quebec by James Donovan of the Ancient Order of Hibernia, Joe Lonergan of the Irish Heritage Society of Quebec, Fergus Keyes of the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, and Peggie Hopkins, Fergus’s partner. Reminiscent of Irish weather, it rained cats and dogs as we shuttled from one site to another.

What I took from the tour was a history of Quebec, but perhaps more so, in quietly observing my hosts, an appreciation of the custodial mantle those associated with history bear in preserving our collective past. A beautiful Celtic cross is situated within the old walls of Quebec across from Saint Patrick’s church. We gathered and had photographs taken by it. The funds for the cross were raised through the dogged determination of those accompanying me that day. James Donovan also coordinates the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and the essence of all things Irish emanates from himself and the quietly dignified Joe Lonergan.

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Quebec City Celtic Cross. Gift from Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon.

The intersection of varying histories continued. We left the Celtic cross for a tour of the Plains of Abraham. On this site in 1759, the British claimed victory over the French in a battle that took a mere 20 minutes. Here again was the darkening influence and encroachment of British imperialism, but this time the advance of British forces on what was then New France.

I claim no extensive knowledge of the history, but what I gathered in questioning my hosts was that despite the imposition of British rule, somehow Quebec maintained its religion and language. From an Irish perspective, I thought this intriguing. I wanted to understand the political realities and rationale for how the conquest and life after continued without bloodshed. The history has obviously been covered, but it is an anomaly I would like to further explore at some point. The short answer given was that neither the French nor the English wanted control of a region so far north, so the victory and conquest by the British was more a psychological victory than an actual conquest.

I remained dutifully attentive to what I was being shown, but simultaneously my mind was on the visit to Grosse Île but so, too, to the ill-conceived plan to actually begin the first marathon after visiting the island. Sometimes misery and ill-planning have their own merits. I felt, in quietly submitting to a day walking and then socially drinking for much of the night before leaving at the crack of dawn to visit Grosse Île, that I was behaving like an amiable soul mindful of what this committee had so carefully planned in my honour.

So, to the isle of Grosse Île. How strange it was to come upon a Celtic cross looming over the Saint Lawrence against the shimmer of the river. It grew in proportion, occupying the highest point on the island. I had anticipated it, but the starkness and grandeur of the cross harkened to an ancient Celtic spirit. This was home, but re-appropriated in a foreign land. I was mindful that, though we are modern Irish, we are descendants of a Christian and pagan Celtic past. Somehow both histories converged in this cross and I felt it better represented the nativism of a Gaelic peasant experience that was then steeped in both traditions.

When we arrived and climbed to the cross, we then followed a narrow path that served as a gateway to the mass interment of over 5,000 Irish who died of typhus and the results of starvation due to a 40-day passage aboard coffin ships between May and October of 1847.

The glass memorial wall of names figures as one of those indelible moments that brought the stark reality of political policy and systematic tyranny into a roll call of the dead. Here were the victims of whatever history will eventually decide to call the policies of the British during the famine.

Each in our party found a family name and so went the reach of our heart across a span of years to those who were our forebears. If there was reproach and anger in my heart at the catalog of injustices perpetrated on those unfortunates, in standing on Grosse Île, the anger left me. After all the historical research done, nothing prepared me for the actual witnessing of the memorial and the acreage of land that held 5,000 Irish. At that moment, I felt a prayer to the departed was the most dignified and necessary of acts.

Our guide told us that there were no crosses set on the graves until the late 20th century. The history was not forgotten, but lost. Grosse Île is not simply an Irish memorial site, but was the quarantine station and point of entry for all emigrants to Canada. The municipal authorities were mandated to simply care for the sick and the dying, not to memorialize them.

Again, in walking with the associated members of the Irish party accompanying me, I realised how the Celtic Cross and graveyard crosses were erected through the dogged persistence of so many Irish who would not allow their history to go undocumented.

I also saw in observing my hosts, that they shared a psychological point of origin, and perhaps this is what differentiates the diaspora from those who stayed at home. They are more sentimental and fierce in remembering the history of how they ended up in Canada. They cannot recall the past, without contextualizing a history that, again, may seem too far removed for a modern Irish person.

What I can vouch for is their sincerity and perseverance in maintaining their history, not out of a collective anger, but in recognition that this history preceded them and defines their remove from Ireland. They are more exiles than immigrants. This is the tragic sadness and legacy of the Irish immigrant experience. Who can blame them, really? Not I.

We ended our tour of the island at the lazaretto fever sheds where so many of those who had survived the initial passage died from typhus. At the height of emigration in 1947, some 40 ships, carrying over 300 people in each, overwhelmed the medical resources at Grosse Île. The British were aware of the advancing disaster and despite the appeal of administrators on the Canadian side to stave the tide of approaching disease which threatened Quebec and Montreal, the ships kept sailing.

Stark and unpainted, the sheds seemed to capture an 18th century primitivism. One asks – how did anybody survive the Atlantic Crossing, or even these lazaretto fever sheds?

We happened to be shadowing a group of Canadian school children throughout the day on the island, either arriving before or after them at various points of historical interest. They were not Irish. The trip was more related to the history of Grosse Île as a quarantine that processed all immigrants for close to a century.

At the end of the trip we converged with the children. The guide was speaking in French and I approached to listen. The children’s attention was given to a single historical artifact that seemed to capture the tragic loss of life. It was the small shoe of a four-year-old child. The child almost certainly perished, and in scavenging to survive, all clothes on a dead person were taken and worn by survivors. Such was the extremity of poverty and necessity.

The guide conveyed that experts had examined the shoe and determined that it had been re-cobbled and worn by at least three generations of children.

It is strange how a single artifact can somehow endow a greater understanding of a life and time. In the riot of noise that accompanied the Canadian school children, there was a sudden and deferential silence and I understood that our history had been channelled and preserved.

Not long after, I laced up my own running shoes and left unceremoniously from a parking lot in sight of the island. I had the gift of new friends to see me off, and so began the run under threat of advancing rain and gathering clouds. It was how I envisioned it. It was an Irish leave-taking with the urgency of miles ahead and the quiet trepidation of what the journey would hold!

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How to join the Irish Diaspora Run

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 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, where they can also sponsor Collins.

This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund

In the Footsteps of the Canadian Famine Irish

From Irish Times:

Michael Collins: my marathon a day, for a month, to honour Irish emigrants

The Irish author, emigrant and ultrarunner is running in memory of the 100,000 Irish immigrants who fled to Canada in the Great Famine