Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Kingston

Michael Collins named Irish Times Book Club Author in March 2017. He reflects on 20,000 Irish Famine Refugees who died in 1847.

Michael Collins and Jason King

Irish Times Book Club Author March 2017 Michael Collins with Jason King at Rowan Gillespie Famine sculptures in Dublin, Custom House Quay.

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

Michael Collins has been named as the Irish Times Book Club Author in March 2017. His novel The Keepers of the Truth was shortlisted for the 2000 Man Booker Prize and the Impac Award and won Irish Novel of the Year. He is the author of 10 works of fiction including most recently The Death of All Things Seen (2016).

In the summer of 2016 Michael Collins also completed his epic 550-mile run from Grosse Ile quarantine station in Quebec to Ireland Park Famine Memorial in Toronto to raise funds to commemorate the route Famine refugees took across Canada and the locals who helped them.

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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 (http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/) which he describes as “nothing short of genius”.

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit, curated by Dr. Jason King and Professor Christine Kinealy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, is coming to Dublin for the Irish National Famine Commemoration in September, and then will travel around the country. Next year marks the 170th anniversary of the Irish Famine migration and the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada. It is only fitting that we pay tribute to these Canadian caregivers of the Famine Irish who express our values and the enduring ties between our two countries.

In a recent Irish Times article (November 26, 2016) entitled “Remembering 20,000 Famine refugees who died in 1847,” Michael Collins recalled his epic Irish Diaspora Run and how was inspired by his visit to the “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibit:

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

Michael Collins at Grosse Ile

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

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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.

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Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Dr. Jason King at launch of “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit, Glasnevin Museum, September 11, 2016.

Typhus-stricken

She was then curating a Famine-related exhibit on the Montreal order of Grey Nuns, who had not only ministered to the typhus-stricken Irish in 1847, but also undertook the care and eventual adoption of over 6,000 Irish orphans into a French-speaking Quebecois community…

In my own youth, the Famine was not discussed, partly out of a reflexive sense of shame that we had been so subjugated under British rule, but also in our pragmatic rush throughout the early 1980s toward a new Ireland of so-called young Europeans.

In the instinct to outrun history, there was an underlying economic indeterminacy tied to the protracted Troubles and with it, a spike in emigration.

So, too, a nationalist movement, in calculatedly drawing upon the famine, had stoked an impassioned Irish-American community further complicated our self-determinism. We were at once a people united and divided by our own history – by those who remained and the descendants of those who had left.

Upon emigrating to America, I wrote my first collection of short stories, The Meat Eaters, an ode to country inspired by loss and displacement.

Soon after, swayed by legions of emigrant descendants who configured their history around the historical displacement of the Famine, I began a Famine novel.

I would spend a year researching the historical record and in the end wither from the burden of inhabiting the psyche of either the Irish peasantry or the landed aristocracy.

It lives as a singular literary failure that has dogged me, given I would eventually transfer a sociological acuity to all things American, specifically the collapse of American industrialism, as captured in my Booker shortlisted novel, The Keepers of Truth.

Keepers of the Truth

The question plagued me – how could I stand as outsider, impartial witness, and documentarian to another history whilst my own eluded me?

Deconstruction of the American Dream

In the intervening years, as an ultrarunner, I would captain the Irish 100K Senior Team. In so doing, I vicariously drew upon the Famine, inhabiting the underlying perseverance of a repressed and starved people in the sublimation of distances covered.

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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.

Trauma

Early on, I’d understood that this run would be the salvage of a near lost history in the far-flung, French-speaking province of Quebec. What passed represented a single season of death.

Of those 6,000 emigrant orphans sent into the countryside, there has never been a great appeal among them to reconnect with their Irish roots. Perhaps the trauma was too great, or the succour of those who came to their aid did not bear compromise. There was the language barrier, too, and a spirited Francophile resistance to English rule.

The most striking fact that emerged in reading the transcribed documents from the time was how the municipal authorities, in tandem with the religious orders of Montreal, had marshalled their collective resources to care and minister to the sick and dying Irish.

Simply put, the question early on was: What affinity did the native Québécois have toward this advance of typhus-stricken Irish?

In a slow advance toward Montreal, much asked in that question became apparent.

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Michael Collins on Irish Diaspora Run in Quebec.

I chose Route 132, given its languid course along the Saint Lawrence. In running this less-travelled road, I came upon religious shrines that harkened to a penitent spectre of a more ancient, religious life, shrines eerily reminiscent of those that still exist along the coastal crag of the West of Ireland; weathered figures of Christ’s passion on a cross facing the eternal scour of the Atlantic gales.

This is expected of Ireland, but to come upon these roadside shrines in the rainy cold of Canada was a revelation.

1847 figured as a proxy war between Catholics and proselytizing ministers for the salvation of souls.

Through the recent work of historian Jason King, the historical record of the Grey Nuns has been recovered and translated. The diary entries capture the miasma of catastrophic sickness.

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Michael Collins and Jason King in Dublin.

Apocalyptic

In a Dante-esque apocalyptic vision, 75,000 emigrants descended on Montreal, which then had a population of 50,000. There are descriptions of sickness and effluence in the fever sheds that sickened veteran doctors, and yet the so-called Martyrs of Charity actively sought out the most distressing cases of disease.

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Digital Irish Famine Archive with Grey Nuns annals:

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/

What is transmitted is a faith eclipsed by an Enlightenment age of reason and science and, eventually, a jaded modernist cynicism.

In the breadth of some 600 miles, my run would eventually follow the ragged migration of survivors through a divided country: first the Francophile province of Quebec, then the Neo-English province of Ontario.

Their journey reveals a history of how the disparate Canadian populations dealt with the refugee crisis, and yet my initial sweep into the remote, uninhabited lands of Quebec proved the most physically and spiritually challenging. Here lay a lost history and the greatest loss of life.

Collective amnesia

Early in planning the run, there was a singular destination I’d settled on that I felt defined our unsatisfactory collective response to the tragic events of 1847 – Montreal’s Black Rock.

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Michael Collins at Montreal Black Rock Famine memorial.

Set in a road median in downtown Montreal, the rock commemorates 6,000 Irish interred in a mass grave. The burial site had been all but forgotten until it was uncovered during construction in 1859 of the Victoria Bridge. Such was the collective amnesia of a traumatized city. The workers who unearthed the entombed erected, at their own expense, the stone that now commemorates those almost forgotten dead.

In so reading about the Black Rock, I discovered that, at some point, it will most probably be removed given the sprawl of the city. I contacted the Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation, a non-profit preemptively seeking to avert the eventual unceremonious mass exhumation of corpses with a proposed famine memorial park across from a derelict parking lot in an industrial wasteland under federal management.

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Victor Boyle, Marc Miller MP, Fergus Keyes, Michael Collins, and Ronan Corbett.

The director, Fergus Keyes, was frank in his general assessment of the dim prospects of negotiating the provincial and federal bureaucratic red tape to acquire the land.

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Fergus Keyes welcomes Michael Collins to Black Rock.

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Michael Collins and Fergus Keyes at Black Rock.

Yet, his organization has persisted with an annual commemorative gathering that includes the absurd spectacle of having to dart across a major thoroughfare to an island median memorial to honour 6,000 famine victims.

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Donovan King and Michael Collins at Black Rock.

In viewing an online video, in witnessing the ragged assembly of the faithful, I took it as a smouldering indictment of our slowness in demanding recognition of the undisputable horrors which befell our ancestors.

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Media scrum greets Michael Collins at Black Rock.

On a Facebook page Irish Diaspora Run 2016, set up to provide historical information regarding the famine and to chart my progress, a sub-group quickly spawned around the Irish housing crash. Members likened the modern spate of foreclosure evictions to what happened during the famine.

There was the sense that the famine was relevant and yet distantly remote from the pressures facing people in the collapse of the housing market.

I sympathised with the understated indictment in dwelling on a remote past, and yet there are times when it takes the voice of the pining diaspora to reckon with history.

If we are to be charged with an arrested sense of history, then so be it.

I was cognizant that Canada was the end for so many Irish, but also the beginning of the Canadian Irish diaspora experience.

Psychological reckoning

In the first week I ran over 300km and arrived, shivering, into the Montreal suburbs late at night. Faltering during the afternoon run, I had all but collapsed. This was the beginning of the summer scorch and drenching humidity. In ultra-running, the body succumbs and recovers in a realignment of metabolic adjustment.

It was partly that, but perhaps more so a psychological reckoning in anticipating my arrival at the Black Rock the following day.

My hotel room that night was 90 miles behind. Eschewing backtracking, myself, my daughter and driver waited out the coming dawn sequestered in an industrial parking lot, the grotto of the car light intermittently lit in our exit and return. This was our small vigil in the greater throng of Montreal. We were penitents and refugees for a night.

The next day, I resumed the run toward the Black Rock with a keener sense of purpose. On hand were local and national media. Also present was Canadian parliamentarian Marc Miller who added his support to creating a famine memorial park.

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Michael Collins and Marc Miller MP at Black Rock.

I heard, too, that President Michael D Higgins had agreed to open the Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger exhibit at Glasnevin Cemetery, thus bringing to light the untold story of Montreal’s valorous efforts that averted even greater loss of life in that fateful year of 1847.

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President Michael D. Higgins launches “Saving the Famine Irish” exhibit at Glasnevin Museum.

The Montreal memorial park is too long in the waiting. This is not solely a French-Canadian burden, nor should it be. Our descendants died under the most appalling circumstances. There are the cynics who will say, “Let the dead lie where they will.”

Such sentiments encapsulate the spectre of “famine fatigue”. It is, of course, the easier choice. Yet, at the Black Rock, and then onward into Cornwall, Ontario, where I met a lone school teacher, who erected a Celtic cross in the honour of over 52 famine victims, to my talk on the Syrian refugee crisis at Skeleton Park’s famine cemetery in Kingston, Ontario, I came across a cadre of historically minded citizens who believe remembrance is not connected with advancing animosities, but simply preserving the historical reality of a year so many would prefer to forget.

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Michael Collins at Cornwall Famine memorial.

This article was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund

 

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Famine Irish Migrants in Ontario: The Story of Stephen De Vere and Toronto’s Irish Orphans

ireland-fund-talk-image

Ireland Park Foundation/Celtic Studies – Annual Lecture

Ireland Park Foundation/Celtic Studies – Annual Lecture

November 29 at 6:00 pm8:00 pm

Ireland Park Foundation and Celtic Studies at Univeristy of St. Michael’s College, in the University of Toronto, are delighted to host Dr. Jason King. Dr. King is Head of the Irish Famine Archive and Researcher for the National University of Ireland, Galway. He will deliver the annual Ireland Park Foundation Lecture, on the lives of Stephen De Vere and Robert Walsh. 

In 1847, Stephen De Vere risked his life sailing with former tenants from his Irish estate in the steerage of a coffin ship. In Toronto, he wrote such an influential description of the Irish Famine migration that it shocked British Parliamentarians into reforming the Passengers Acts to protect emigrants at sea. Yet the fact that he kept extensive, unpublished diaries of his voyage to Canada in 1847 and 1848 remains largely unknown. This lecture takes the audience on a tour of famine era Toronto and Ontario as seen through the eyes of Stephen De Vere and his unpublished journals.

It also tells the stories of Irish Famine orphans in Toronto, like Robert Walsh, who studied at the University of St. Michael’s College. As an Irish orphan in Canada, Robert Walsh dreamed of returning to his homeland and becoming reunited with his baby sister, who was left behind with relatives in 1847. “My sister, my dear sister, if she exists, when she would learn that she has a brother and sisters in Canada who are thinking of her she would write to them,” he hoped. “We will see then we are not alone in the world, and it is this thought that will give us courage to endure our separation here.” And yet, when Robert Walsh finally returned to Ireland in 1872 he was distraught to discover no trace of her, and died soon thereafter at the age of 33. The lecture recounts the search for his sister and reveals how she was finally found.

After this lecture, there will be a round table discussion between Dr. King, Dr. Mark McGowan and Robert G. Kearns. 

Dr. Jason King has recently become Historical Advisor to the Board of Ireland Park Foundation.

Free admission – no registration required

With the support of the Embassy of Ireland, Ottawa

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/eyewitness-accounts/famine-orphans/robert-walsh

Michael Collins Reflects on Irish Diaspora Run 2016 Tracing Route of Famine Irish in Canada

From Irish Central:

http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Michael-Collins-runs-600-miles-retracing-path-of-Irish-Canadian-Famine-Immigrants.html?utm_source=Mailjet&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Best+of+IrishCentral+-+2016-Jul-22

Michael Collins runs 600 miles, retracing path of Irish Canadian Famine immigrants

Michael Collins: Lessons of Migrant Accommodation from Famine Irish in Canada

From Irish Times:

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/generation-emigration/what-i-learned-tracing-the-steps-of-irish-famine-migrants-1.2727399

What I learned tracing the steps of Irish Famine migrants

Michael Collins reaches the end of his 885km Irish Diaspora Run in Canada

The Irish Diaspora Run saw Michael Collins run 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 last of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.

On July 10th, I ended my month-long solo 550-mile (885km) run from the Grosse Île quarantine station to the Famine Memorial at Ireland Park, Toronto. In so doing, I passed through the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, hugging the Saint Lawrence in a solitary pilgrimage, retracing the fated journey of some 100,000 Irish who, when faced with eviction and starvation, boarded what would become the infamous coffin ships of the 1847 passage to Canada.

Of those who left, one-fifth – some 20,000 – died. Thousands found a watery grave in the stormy Atlantic, whilst the aggregate death toll on Canadian soil would rise as piles of corpses were buried in mass graves along the Saint Lawrence. Over 5,000 souls perished at the quarantine station of Grosse Île, while about 75,000 immigrants who survived quarantine eventually advanced on Montréal, with a then population of 50,000. In the fever sheds at Pointe Saint Charles, another 6,000 died and were interred in a mass grave that went unmarked until workers uncovered the site in 1859 during construction of the Victoria Bridge and erected at their own cost The Black Rock to memorialise those who died there.

Michael Collins Black Stone 1

Black Stone 3

After covering over 310km the first week, I stopped at The Black Rock where I was greeted by the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Canadian parliamentarian, Marc Miller. Both the foundation and Miller are committed to advancing the Foundation’s proposed memorial park which will include a museum, monument, and GAA pitch.

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Michael Collins Black Stone 2

Indeed, the heroism of both secular and religious groups who tended to the sick in the hastily erected fever sheds bears testimony to one of the most harrowing stories of The Great Hunger. Undoubtedly, the most vulnerable surviving victims were the orphans of those who had perished. Numbering in the thousands, these unfortunates would eventually swarm the fever sheds from Québec City, through Montréal and Kingston, and down into Toronto.

In the province of Québec alone, over 3,000 Irish orphans were cared for by charitable organisations, including the Grey Nuns. Priests who ministered to the sick and witnessed firsthand the tragedy of so many dispossessed orphans delivered powerful sermons, beseeching their congregations to adopt these orphans. Exemplary of a Catholic rhetoric of compassion and religious injunction to charity, stories survive anecdotally of church doors being bolted until those less inclined to adopt an orphan were eventually persuaded. Such were the times – and the need so great – that the dutiful obeyed.

http://faminearchive.nuigalway.ie/

Irish Famine Archive Home Page

The subsequent decision by the French-speaking Québécois to allow the orphans to keep their Irish surnames would become an integral part of the Canadian immigration narrative, exemplifying what historian Jason King describes as a narrative “of accommodation rather than assimilation…” which would come to define “the process by which immigrants and cultural minorities become integrated into Canadian society”.

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Michael Collins and Jason King at Rowan Gillespie Famine Monument in Custom House Quay, Dublin.

Throughout my journey in the province of Québec, this notion of accommodation over assimilation best characterises the province’s history. The survival of the French language, French culture, and Catholicism, post the British conquest at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 are prime examples of accommodation over assimilation.

As a general observation, the French Québécois response to the plight of the Irish was borne of a religious commonality, and, though orphans were adopted in unprecedented numbers and allowed to preserve their heritage, most Irish who passed through Montréal were intent on eventually reaching America, via Toronto.

The lasting effect of Irish immigration into Canada is more evident in Ontario. Through the 1820s and 30s, in what was then called Upper Canada, waves of immigrant Irish were transported from Protestant-held estates in Ireland, in a conscious attempt at instituting a sort of act of enclosure aimed at depopulating the Irish countryside to advance large-scale agriculture. In the economic doldrums of the post-Napoleonic Wars era and following the Act of Union, Protestant agents such as the inimitable Peter Robinson were commissioned to transport the Irish to settle and cultivate the Ottawa Valley in what would become a frontline force against the incursion and creeping influence of the French Québécois in Ontario.

So, too, Irish workers were transported to construct the Rideau Canal in Ontario. Built during 1826-1832, the 202 km-long canal was carved out of virgin forest and built using nitroglycerine and primitive hand-held tools. The estimated death toll along the mosquito-infested marshlands between Ottawa and Kingston was over 1,000 Irish. Tragically, most who died did so needlessly. Quinine would have cured them, but the sectarian split between the Irish Catholic workers and their Protestant overseers – Royal Sappers (i.e. British army engineers) – meant Catholics’ wages were kept unduly low.

Rideau Canal monument

This historical legacy of sectarianism in Ontario would again rear during the passage of the immigrant Irish of 1847. In Protestant stronghold towns like Cornwall, Prescott, Brockville, Kingston, and Cobourg, the influence of the Orange Order meant that the passage of immigrant barges through the summer heat of 1847 was not well-documented. The spectre of a mass grave at Cornwall was only recently discovered in archival records. Throughout my journey, I met with and interviewed local historians and commemorative memorial committees that have recently erected Celtic crosses to mark that fateful year.

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Michael Collins Cornwall 3

Exile

For many, the rediscovery of a historical event some 150 years past has opened deep psychological scars. In an associated Facebook page I set up for the run, over 100,000 visitors, many availing of online genealogical resources, have added to the collective story of the passage and eventual settlement of those immigrants who crossed in 1847. The fated story of families separated through quarantine is a recurring motif. For a decade after the passage of 1847, notices appeared throughout Ontario with relatives inquiring after their loved ones.

Indeed, for many of the diaspora Irish I met along the run, the ancestral passage to Canada and America, especially during the Hunger years, is still perceived as a form of exile connected to draconian British rule. In total, the Great Hunger accounted for the emigration of over a million and the death of another million. Even contemporary descendants far removed from the tragic departure of the Hunger years, when asked to reflect on their ancestors’ arrival to Canada, were more apt to characterise it as an exile rather than an opportunity.

This theme of exile over opportunity accounts for a fierceness of national pride and an attendant encyclopedic knowledge of Irish history in those vested in preserving the legacy of that perceived exile. Over pints in snug Irish bars, I was versed on more occasions about a litany of Irish dates, from the 1691 flight of the Wild Geese to France following the end of the Williamite War, to the influence of the French Enlightenment on Wolfe Tone’s 1798 Rebellion. It was, more often than not, a dirge history of heroic struggle, defeat, and eventual exile.

In these oft spellbinding oratory accounts of our collective history, time seemed arrested, and the historical grievances, yet again enlivened with a dramatic immediacy and flashpoint sectarian hostilities. The question surfaced with each encounter – what to do with such a history?

What I can say of so many I met along the way on the run was that, for them, their Irishness was connected with an existential sense of self. Psychologically, their life in Canada directly relates to a traumatic ancestral leave-taking that many of them believe constitutes genocide. I was corrected repeatedly for using the word famine, and to deny them their right to tell that story as they see it would be to shamefully and consciously suppress their perceived historical reality.

I felt at a quiet remove from this theme of exile, or I thought it constituted an older generational motif, but this recurrent theme would again be poignantly highlighted with my arrival at Ireland Park. My 12-year-old son Eoin wanted to sing to celebrate my arrival. Without prompt, he chose the haunting emigrant ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’ from his repertoire of Irish songs.

Somehow, the notion of exile had registered at a subconscious level within him. What I heard in his voice was an eerie, plaintive ancestral lament for all that was lost or would soon be lost in a parting. It was as though the dead were speaking through him. He had a lilting tonal quality, which he must have heard voiced in the late great Irish singer Tomás Mac Eoin, whose rendition of ‘The Stolen Child’ was a staple song played in our house.

Eoin Collins sings ‘The Parting Glass’ at Ireland Park, Toronto.

Eoin Collins sings ‘The Parting Glass’ at Ireland Park, Toronto.

Leave-taking and loss

After the ceremony, I quietly talked with Eoin. He could not articulate why he chose ‘The Parting Glass’. What I eventually gathered was that, for him, the story of Irish migration was not about arrival, but about leave-taking. He was caught reflexively looking back without having the insight or full measure of Irish history. Loss was the central motif of his Irishness. He talked about the sculptures at Ireland Park, interpreting the outreach of hands as reaching back toward Ireland, when they might have been equally interpreted as a beseeching, forward-looking gesture toward a welcoming Toronto.

Where did this sense of loss emanate from? My son is no scholar of Irish history, and yet the undercurrent of great loss registered, not through a received history of the dates of rebellions and uprisings, but in the plaintive strain of a narrative carried on the warble of a tin whistle or the uilleann pipes.

I realised just then that Irish history is mediated first and foremost through our music, through haunting airs of loss, and that, perhaps uniquely in this, our history is tied to a meta-narrative of loss that is transmitted pre-language. I had channeled this history of leave-taking as wake in my subconscious choice of an Irish soundtrack of ballads that played in our home. The subtle motif of loss was the essential theme conveyed.

In the days since the end of the run, I looked further into the codifying loss and fell upon the aisling or vision poem. A uniquely Irish poetic invention, the aisling personified Ireland as either a maiden of immense beauty, or an old woman lamenting the loss of her children. That the aisling arose in the 17th century powerfully reinforced the Irish experience as a history associated with defeat and subsequent emigration, defined not as opportunity, but as exile and banishment.

Engagement

Indeed, even in the initial planning of the trip, I understood that a fundamental dilemma associated with retracing the path of the immigrants of 1847 would be balancing the commemorative emphasis of honouring the dead, while not reopening historical wounds. In reaching out to Irish diaspora groups via social media, I knew I was engaging in a sort of selective bias, and that, undoubtedly, the audience, in celebrating their ancestral Irishness, would most probably equally view their ancestors leave-taking as exile.

The Facebook site associated with the run – Irish Diaspora Run 2016 – preserves the oft-heated responses of followers to historical articles I posted of what were then contemporary accounts and observations that reached back as far as the Reformation and the sectarian split between Ireland and England. In the course of a month, through posts and dialogue, I believe that those who most fully engaged with the historical evidence arrived at a greater understanding of the historical, sociological, and psychological, paradigm shifts in Economic Theory and Religion that tragically isolated and marginalised Ireland.

In planning the trip in February, I had visited with Toronto-based Irish immigrant, Robert Kearns. With a degree in Archaeology and Greek and Roman civilization, Kearns has the authoritative grace and charm of a post-modern denizen committed to inclusion and multiculturalism. His Irishness encompassed Irish history, but he also offered a way forward beyond sectarianism and an arrested sense of an aggrieved and bloody history.

Michael Collilns Toronto 5

Michael Collins Toronto 8

As a leading figure in the Irish-Canadian business community, in the early 1980s, Kearns served on the volunteer committee of the Ireland Fund of Canada, which actively sought to raise money to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland. Then, in 1997, Kearns turned his focus to the historical tides of the immigrant waves that had arrived in Canada. In establishing the charitable non-profit Ireland Park Foundation, he began lobbying Toronto for a quayside park which would eventually contain replicas of Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculptures on Dublin’s Custom House Quay Docklands. Kearns’ goal was to complete symbolically the voyage of coffin-ship migrants.

Michael Collins Toronto 7

Indeed, Ireland Park had been inspiration for my own Diaspora Run, and it was why I had asked to meet with Kearns. A decade earlier, while on a book tour in Toronto, I had been taken late at night to the park. The indelible image of the sculptures and their remote placement in the small parcel of Ireland Park suggested an accommodation of history within the bustle of urban sprawl. Without descriptive plaques detailing the history of Ireland, the sculptures simultaneously encompass and transcend Irish history. The sculptures speak to the universality of an immigrant experience that defines the settlement of the New World.

Michael Collins Toronto 17

Michael Collins Toronto 20

Michael Collins Toronto 13

In meeting with Robert on a snowy February day, I had felt that, perhaps, in his cosmopolitan vision, he was anticipating and engendering a reconfiguration of a national history, not as a source of differentiation, but as a source of shared experience.

Ireland Park 2

A day after the run, in revisiting the park with my son, the theme of exile was again on my mind. I had unduly influenced or seeded historical animosities within him. I sought to make amends, or reorient him. Prophetically, Kearns’ forward-thinking vision of history was on my mind.

I explained that Ireland Park Foundation, in its logical extension of a broadening of history and commitment to encompassing a universality of shared values, was creating another park – Dr George Robert Grasett Park. To be unveiled in 2017, the park celebrates the Canadian response to the mass migration of Irish migrants in 1847, and specifically its medical profession. In addition to Dr Grasett, significantly the roster of those memorialised includes another male triage officer, Mr Edward McElderry, but also two women, head nurse Susan Bailey and nurse Sarah Duggan. All played an important role in the medical history of the city and furthered the foundation of the modern Canadian healthcare system.

Grasett Tribute in Montreal Transcript

Death of Dr. George Grasett Reported in Montreal Transcript

In thus explaining the new park, I think my son caught the essential and subtle re-orientating genius of a universalist like Kearns, who is advancing the totality of our collective experience, seeking to steel our resolve to rise in defense of justice, promoting tolerance and universal acceptance.

In the strangest of coincidences, hours after revisiting Ireland Park, I got a Facebook message of congratulatory thanks for sharing the Irish plight of 1847 from a First Nations’ clan leader of the Hotinoshonni Confederacy Council of the Iroquois Nation. The clan’s point of connection was tied to their fellow Choctaw, who had suffered their own near-genocide in 1831, when over 21,000 of their people were made trek 500 miles to Oklahoma on what became known as the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1847, the Choctaw, upon hearing of The Great Hunger, raised and sent funds to Ireland. Ironically, the man who had forced them off their lands was Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants.

Of course, my son was enthralled that the Iroquois Nation had thought to contact me. He wanted to know about the Trail of Tears, and, in the subtle connection of one kindness bestowed on one people so long ago, an emerging history opened to him.

In researching the connection, I came upon a plaque on Dublin’s Mansion House honouring the Choctaw contribution. It reads:

“Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.”

Mansion House Choctaw Tribute

A recognition and preservation of national histories is important, but equally so is our willingness to use our histories as a point of reconciliation, as we collectively advance a greater universality of understanding and compassion. In so doing, we find accommodation and assimilation, losing nothing, while gaining everything.

In the week since ending the run, I have felt the quieting distancing of all those who followed me for the month. I miss all of you. The run was first envisioned as a solitary act of pilgrimage, but in having the support of The Irish Times and a grant from the Irish Government, along with the reach of social media, some 100,000 of us connected, and we are the better for it.

For those who didn’t join us, the legacy of what was said is still preserved on Facebook at Irish Diaspora Run 2016. My intention is to continue updating the site. I’m currently in discussion to run the length of Ireland and possibly continuing with a Diaspora Run in Australia. In so doing I would visit historical sites associated with Irish migration, while collating a digital repository of historical documents and continuing to invite followers to share their family stories.

If anybody is so inclined, donations are still being accepted for the two non-profits I designated to help – The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Ireland Park Foundation. Both are independent, non-affiliated organisations.

Donations can be made at diasporarun.org. I would ask people to consider sponsoring a symbolic 47 dollars in commemoration of 1847.

Michael Collins Dublin 2

Michael Collins Dublin 1

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Michael Collins at Rowan Gillespie Famine Monument in Dublin after Irish Diaspora Run 2016.

Until we meet again, thank you for all your support.

This project was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Global Irish Media Fund.

 

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

From Irish Times:

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/generation-emigration/famine-emigrant-descendants-have-hunger-to-commemorate-1.2713718

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