Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Irish Famine Summer School

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.

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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:










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.

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.

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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 ( 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:

Michael Collins at Grosse Ile

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

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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.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

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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.


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.


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.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

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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.

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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…

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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.


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.


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.


Digital Irish Famine Archive with Grey Nuns annals:

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.



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)






New Deadline for Abstracts March 17: Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland Conference, Quinnipiac University June 14-17 2017



CFP: Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland Conference


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.

  • Children and poor relief •Children and philanthropy •Abandonment and societal shame •Children’s literature and children in literature •Visual representations of children and young adults •Childhood diseases •Vagrancy and prostitution •Children and crime •Averted births and demography •Proselytizing the young •Children in print and material culture •Teaching the Great Hunger •The Earl Grey Scheme •The churches and children •Children in folklore •Sport and leisure •Famine and the family •Children of the Big House •Children and emigration •Memory and survivors’ accounts •Witness accounts •Memorializing the young

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: And Dr Jason King:

Deadline for receipt of abstracts 31 January 2017

NUI Galway launches digital Irish famine archive

From UTV Ireland:

NUI Galway launches digital Irish famine archive

Eyewitness accounts of the effect of the Irish famine on migration to Canada in 1847-1848 will be available to read online through a curation by NUI Galway.

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Theophile Hamel’s painting Le Typhus (1848) of Irish emigrants in a fever shed, which features prominently in the digital archive.

 Story by Marése O’Sullivan @Marese_UTV, Dublin

The Grey Nuns, who cared for Irish famine emigrants in Montreal’s fever sheds, kept annals and correspondence which have been translated from the original French and digitised.

The Digital Irish Famine Archive, which was launched by the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers, contains three sets of annals from the Grey Nuns: “Ancien Journal (Old Journal), Volume I” and “Le Typhus d’1847, Ancien Journal (The Typhus of 1847, Old Journal), Volume II”, both translated from French to English, and the nuns’ first-hand experiences of the Irish migration in “Récit de l’épidemie” (Tale of the epidemic), which is transcribed in French from the original.

The archive also reveals testimonies from Irish orphans were adopted by French-Canadian families, such as Daniel and Catherine Tighe from Roscommon, and Robert Walsh from Kilkenny.

In ‘The Irish in America’, quoted in the archive, John Francis Maguire wrote of Robert Walsh: “For two weeks the boy never uttered a word, never smiled, never appeared conscious of the presence of those around him, or of the attention lavished on him by his generous protectors, who had almost come to believe that they had adopted a little mute, or that he had momentarily lost the power of speech through fright or starvation.”

The archive is curated by Dr Jason King, a postdoctoral researcher who specialises in interculturalism and migration, in partnership with NUI Galway’s Moore Institute; the University of Limerick; the Irish National Famine Museum; Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut; the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation; the Ireland Park Foundation; the iNua Partnership; and the Irish Research Council.

Ambassador Kevin Vickers said: “It gives me great pleasure to launch the Digital Irish Famine Archive. The archive commemorates and pays tribute to the Grey Nuns of Montreal and people of French and English Canada, like Bishop Michael Power in Toronto and Dr John Vondy in Chatham, who gave their lives caring for Irish emigrants during the Famine exodus of 1847.

“It is especially fitting that we launch the digital archive after Montreal’s Irish community has just made its annual pilgrimage to the Black Stone monument, which marks the site of the city’s fever sheds and mass graves for 6,000 Irish dead, and before the Irish Famine Summer School begins at the Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon.”

“The stories contained within the digital archive attest to the selfless devotion of the Grey Nuns in tending to typhus-stricken emigrants and providing homes for Irish orphans. In an age of increasingly desperate acts of migration, their compassion provides a lesson for us all.”

Kevin Vickers, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland

President Michael D. Higgins, who is patron of the archive, said: “During that bleak and terrible period of our history, an estimated 100,000 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 virtual archive is a very important project, which allows us to finally acknowledge the generosity and enormous humanity of those wonderful sisters whose great kindness and compassion, during one of the worst tragedies in our country’s history, must never be forgotten.”

President Michael D. Higgins

The archive can be seen at

Walk to recall Famine victims offered flight or starvation

From Irish Times

Walk from Roscommon to Dublin honours the ‘missing 1,490’ Strokestown tenants

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Frank Hanly and Caroilin Callery at Strokestown Park prepare for Walking in the Footsteps of the Missing 1,490 – A Famine Emigrant’s Walk. Photograph: Brian Farr

Marese McDonagh

Sat, Apr 18, 2015

When Caroilin Callery was a teenager, her father Jim bought the 300-acre Strokestown estate in Co Roscommon from Olive Hales Pakenham.

“It was as if the family had just walked out the door. All their belongings were around; even the family portraits were hanging on the walls. I used to love wandering through the house,” Callery says.

The house was full of history: Pakenham’s ancestor Major Denis Mahon was a landlord who was murdered during the Famine in 1847.

But Jim Callery was less interested in Strokestown House or its history than he was in the lands around it. Indeed, he had only been in the drawingroom of the house at the time he did the deal in 1979. But he needed a few acres to expand his business, and the entire estate was what was on offer. So he took it.

He was somewhat taken aback a few years later when he discovered more than 55,000 musty documents, many relating to the Famine, in the house. For better or worse the family had been entrusted with safeguarding part of the legacy of the Famine, and the National Famine Museum is just one manifestation of that responsibility.

On Saturday, when she and a group of neighbours walk 155km from Strokestown to the Dublin docks, Caroilin Callery will be retracing the steps of the “missing 1,490”, the starving tenants who set out on foot from the estate in May 1847. Major Mahon had offered them the choice of emigration through “assisted passage”, starvation on their blighted potato patch farms or a place in the terrifying local workhouse.

Coffin ships

After walking for days along the tow paths of the Royal Canal to Dublin, the weary men, women and children were put on boats to Liverpool, and from there to Quebec aboard four notorious “coffin ships”.

Caroilin Callery says the Royal Canal was “the N4 of that time” and was the most likely route for Mahon’s tenants.

It was one of the largest “assisted emigration” schemes of the Famine era, a mass movement of people with impossible choices.

While initially dubious about the scheme, the landlord notoriously booked passage for his tenants on cargo ships, rather than passenger ones, and according to some estimates, as many as 50 per cent did not survive the journey to Canada.

“Another very sad and ironic fact is that these people initially travelled to Liverpool on boats loaded with grain from Ireland. They were lying under tarpaulin on deck, on top of this wheat,” says Callery.

She is director of the inaugural Irish Famine Summer School which takes place in Strokestown House from June 17th to 21st . It will be launched by Minister for the Arts Heather Humphreys when she greets the walkers on the Jeanie Johnston on their arrival in Dublin on Wednesday.

Callery says she will be thinking of the tenants as she follows in their footsteps today.

“I will be thinking of the children walking barefoot, the hungry mothers carrying babies, the corpses they must have seen along the canal.

“ I will be thinking about Mary Tighe who is often in my mind, who left with her brother and her five children after her husband Bernard died.”


Mary Tighe and three of her children died before their ship docked at Grosse Île. Her son Daniel (12) and daughter Catherine (9) survived, and two years ago Daniel’s great-grandson Richard Tye visited Strokestown in one of the more moving visits of the Gathering.

Callery and her neighbours will spend five days walking, overnighting in Abbeyshrule, Mullingar, Enfield and Maynooth. They are hoping that hundreds will join them along the route.

The scale of the exodus from Strokestown was discovered by Dr Ciarán Reilly from Maynooth University, author of Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine. He says estate bailiff John Robinson, who was paid two shillings to escort the tenants to Liverpool, was “given strict instructions that none were ever to return to Roscommon”.

In November 1847 Major Mahon became the first landlord to be murdered during the Famine.

“Word got back about the condition of the ships. There was a lot of anger,” says Callery

New York Times on Famine Irish in Montreal

Christine Kinealy

 “Saving the Famine Irish: the Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger.” April 1 2015 through March 18 2016. Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Arnold Bernhard Library, 275 Mount Carmel Avenue;

19th-century Toronto Irish immigrants a lesson in upward mobility

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Famine Irish in Toronto

Toronto Star,

By: Staff Reporter, Published on Sat Mar 14 2015

In the 19th century, Toronto was overwhelmingly British and Protestant, a bastion of WASP burghers for whom Queen and Empire were watchwords and ethnic uniformity was a given.

And then there were the Irish.

Catholics from the Emerald Isle were the city’s original immigrant underclass, and faced frank, bitter discrimination for decades. Sectarian tension once ran so high that Toronto came to be known as “the Belfast of Canada.”

Yet by the time of the First World War, the Irish had largely blended in to the city’s mainstream.

In a Toronto where marginalization of ethnic minorities remains a live issue, the integration of its Irish population in the 19th century may provide lessons, and some hope, for healing the city’s divides.

Interviews with historians, contemporary newspaper accounts, and the academic literature on the period paint a dire portrait of Victorian Toronto’s intolerance and inequality.

While the city had long been home to a smattering of Irish immigrants, the summer of 1847 saw a deluge: 38,000 between June and October, driven across the Atlantic by a potato blight that was starving the country.

The city was “absolutely overwhelmed,” said Mark McGowan, a professor of Irish Canadian history at the University of Toronto.

Just about 2,000 of those “faminities” wound up staying in the city — the rest spread across southern Ontario and farther afield — but in a city of about 30,000, the Irish influx was huge.  By 1851, a quarter of the city’s population was Irish Catholic.

The virulent anti-Catholicism of many Protestant Torontonians compounded the difficulties of accommodating so many newcomers.  Long a feature of British nationalism, hostility toward Roman Catholics was accentuated in the 1850s and 1860s by Irish republicanism and Fenian unrest in the British Isles and North America.
Some malnourished Irish died of typhus and other diseases on the way to Toronto. Those who survived often found themselves unwelcome and discriminated against, despised for their poverty but refused when they sought jobs.

Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

Some malnourished Irish died of typhus and other diseases on the way to Toronto. Those who survived often found themselves unwelcome and discriminated against, despised for their poverty but refused when they sought jobs.

In Toronto, the anti-Catholic mood was deepened by lingering resentment over the grafting together of Anglo-Protestant Upper Canada and French Catholic Lower Canada in 1840.

George Brown, a leading Grit politician and founder of the Globe newspaper, channeled this sentiment in frequent broadsides against the city’s Irish immigrants.

“Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor,” read one particularly notorious column from the time. “They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”

Brown’s vitriol contained a disquieting kernel of fact: many of the Irish who came to Toronto were desperately poor, especially as the famine dragged on.

A Globe report from the early 1860s portrayed the new immigrant sections of town as filthy warrens, full of “miserable hovels which in themselves are better fitted for pig-styes and cow-pens than residences for human beings.”

The city was soon dotted with Irish Catholic enclaves. Corktown, named after Ireland’s County Cork, was one such neighbourhood. Nearby Cabbagetown held a higher concentration of Irish Protestants, sparking occasional turf skirmishes.

Writing of his Toronto childhood, Cabbagetown native and Globe and Mail columnist John McAree remembered the animosity that bristled between the rival territories.

“Though the distance from our store to Corktown was less than half a mile, we had no contact with it,” he wrote in his 1953 memoir, Cabbagetown Store, “except on such special occasions as the 12th of July, or a rehearsal for when our Orange Lodge would march into enemy territory, looking for the trouble it generally provoked.”

The Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization founded in Northern Ireland at the end of the 18th century, held inordinate political power in Victorian Toronto. Between 1845 and 1900, all but three of the city’s mayors were members of the Order.

July 12 marked the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne, a crucial 1690 military victory for William of Orange over the Catholic James II, which ensured Protestant supremacy in Ireland.

It was one of Toronto’s sectarian holidays that periodically turned violent. By one count, Orangemen and Irish Catholics did battle 22 times between 1867 and 1892, often on July 12 or St. Patrick’s Day.

But occasional outbursts of communal violence may not have been as harmful as the steady day-to-day onslaught of discrimination the Irish faced. Access to government jobs in the police and fire services was often controlled by Orangemen, foreclosing the route to middle-class prosperity taken by so many Irish Catholics in Boston and New York.

Private companies were known to maintain informal anti-Irish hiring practices, too. Having a southern Irish accent would have been an impediment to landing a job on the Eaton’s shop floor, McGowan said.

The statues in Ireland Park hidden away at the foot of Bathurst and Queens Quay represent the struggles of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine around 1847.

Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

The statues in Ireland Park hidden away at the foot of Bathurst and Queens Quay represent the struggles of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine around 1847.

So how did the Irish emerge from a climate of poverty, hostility and violence that too often defined their lives in Toronto? A range of factors contributed, of course, some hard to replicate in modern-day Toronto, but others more readily at hand.

It surely helped that the Irish spoke English, allowing them to sidestep the language barrier that would slow the integration of later generations of newcomers.

Physical mobility was another Irish advantage. Corktown and neighbourhoods like it may have served as landing pads for the new immigrants, but they rarely stayed in one place for long.

“By the 1890s, they’re everywhere,” said McGowan, himself descended from famine refugees. “If you went to an American city, there would be these long-standing Irish enclaves. You don’t have that here.” This geographic dispersal helped bring Catholics and Protestants into closer contact, driving mutual understanding and even encouraging intermarriage. “Cupid was probably more important than denomination at a certain point,” McGowan said.

At the same time, immigrants from other parts of the world began trickling into Toronto, loosening the Irish monopoly on the fears and resentments of the WASP majority.

“From the 1880s, Toronto started getting immigrants who were even more scary from the majority perspective,” said Allan Levine, author of Toronto: Biography of a City.

“Number one, Catholic Irish immigration peters out, so there are fewer paddies with cloth caps and accents in the downtown area,” said William Jenkins, a professor of North American Irish history at York University, and himself the proud owner of a lilting Irish accent. “People basically just forget about the Irish.”

In the meantime, the community was working doggedly to improve its lot. Mutual aid societies, church parishes, sports teams, card parties, and temperance leagues created a thick support net for Catholics trying to climb the social ladder or simply to avoid destitution.

“They created their own infrastructure,” said Levine. “They looked after themselves.”

This network could be surprisingly thorough, covering expenses that even the modern welfare state neglects; the Bona Mors Society, for example, helped defray the costs of Irish Catholic funerals in Toronto.

The most important of the civil society institutions was Catholic schooling. Since the 1840s, the Upper Canada government had extended funding to separate Catholic schools, an arrangement enshrined in the British North America Act of 1867.

Meanwhile, Catholic kids could get excellent post-secondary instruction at St. Michael’s College, which only formally federated with the University of Toronto in 1910.

All that education led gradually to professional, middle-class jobs. “The generation of maids gives way to a generation of lower-level clerks, firemen, skilled tradesmen,” said Jenkins.

Eventually those clerks became barristers and bureaucrats. As McGowan pointed out, James J. Foy, a Catholic lawyer and alumnus of St. Michael’s College, became a leading Tory politician and right-hand man to premier James Whitney at the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1910s, McGowan notes, the Orange Order and the Catholic Holy Name Society were able to hold marches through Toronto without incident.

Of course, that was six decades after the first significant wave of Irish immigration to Toronto. One of the sharpest weapons against Irish marginalization was time itself.

“If you’re looking at the famine Irish, by the 1890s, you’re looking at a community that’s been here for 40 years,” McGowan said.

Through the accumulation of hard, impoverished decades, the Irish not only made themselves part of Toronto’s social fabric, they expanded the idea of what that society could be.

The Irish conception of their place in Toronto “wasn’t the imperial nationalism of WASP Canadian identity,” said Jenkins — it was more liberal, more ecumenical, less British.

“These Irish Catholics formulated their own idea of what it meant to be Canadian.”

19th c. Irish Toronto by the numbers


The number of Irish famine refugees who arrived in Toronto during the summer of 1847


Irish immigrants who died of typhus in the “fever sheds” at King and John Sts. that year

25 per cent

Proportion of Toronto’s population that was Irish Catholic by 1851


Times the Protestant Orange Order and the city’s Irish Catholics fought in the streets between 1867 and 1892, by one count

Irish Famine Summer School in Strokestown officially launched


The Irish Famine Summer School in Strokestown has been officially launched during the recent Roses of Tralee visit to the town.

The summer school to be held in June 2015 follows the success of the International Famine Conference and the National Famine Commemoration held in May.

The summer school is a joint initiative between the Irish Famine Museum, Strokestown Community Development Association, Roscommon County Council and the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at NUI Maynooth.

It will also be supported by Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University and St Michael’s College, University of Toronto.

A former student of the University, the Toronto Rose Katie Blundell officially launched the school this week with Roscommon Cathaoirleach John Cummins.

The school will run next year from June 17th to June 21st and will include lectures, workshops, drama, music and excursions of the historic sites in Roscommon.