Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: moral obligation

The Orphan Who Saw the Light: A six-year old Thomas Quinn found a warm welcome waiting in Quebec (Irish Independent Feb. 17 2017)







“Saving the Famine Irish” Grey Nuns Exhibit now open in Dublin and Montreal


Photo L-R: John Green, Minister Heather Humphreys, President Michael D. Higgins, Professor Christine Kinealy, and Dr Jason King.



Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger


President Michael D. Higgins and Minister for Arts, Heritage, and Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys opened the “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum for the National Famine Commemoration on September 11th 2016. The exhibit is curated by Professor Christine Kinealy, Founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, and Dr Jason King. It tells the story of the Grey Nuns who cared for typhus-stricken and dying Irish Famine emigrants in the fever sheds of Montreal during the summer of 1847.

In paying tribute to the Grey Nuns, President Higgins declared:

During that bleak and terrible period of our history, an estimated one hundred thousand Irish people fled to Canada. It is impossible to imagine the pain, fear, despair, and suffering of these emigrants, many of whom lost beloved family members on their journey. As a country, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Grey Nuns, who cared for so many Irish widows and orphans who were left destitute, impoverished and alone in a strange country.

This exhibit is a very important project, which allows us to finally acknowledge the generosity and enormous humanity of those wonderful sisters whose kindness and compassion, during one of the worst moments in our Country’s history, must never be forgotten.

In her address at the National Famine Commemoration, Minister Humphreys stated:

Today we will also remember those such as the Grey Nuns of Montreal who are depicted in a new exhibition here in Glasnevin, and who chose to put themselves in harm’s way to treat and aid Famine vicitms. Such people remain the light of the human spirit confronting the darkness, and should not be forgotten.

The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” exhibit is open to the public FREE of charge from September 11, 2016.


Photo L-R: Minister Heather Humphreys, Dr Jason King, President Michael D. Higgins, and Professor Christine Kinealy.

Mseum Opening Times:

Monday to Sunday & Bank Holidays

Meanwhile, Fergus Keyes of the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has announced:


We are very pleased to note that the Grey Nuns exhibition called “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” is now open for viewing at the Grey Nun’s Motherhouse at 138 rue Saint Pierre in Old Montreal.

Currently the exhibition can be visited any day between about 10am and 5pm – but an effort is being made to extend, or offer a few evening hours.

Even if you saw this exhibit during the few weeks that we had it at the Centaur Theatre, you might want to visit it again. Just the building itself dating back from the 1600”s is beautiful, and our exhibit is only a very small part of their permanent Grey Nuns museum – which, on its own, is fascinating.

The “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger” will be on display until about the end of November – and is running at the same time as one that is on display in Dublin, Ireland – “Grey Nuns Famine Exhibit at Glasnevin Museum in Dublin”. It involves very similar items as will be found at the Dublin one, with the exception that here in Montreal, the display is bilingual; and also includes some terrific paintings about the event by a local artist, Karen Bridgenaw – which were not available when we had it at the Centaur.

If you plan to attend with a small group, you might want to contact the Grey Nuns at (514) 842-9411 – and they may be able to arrange for a guide to give you a proper tour on their museum.

So if you happen to be in Old Montreal, do take this opportunity to visit this beautiful building and great exhibition.

We will update you with any additional information concerning extended hours etc., as it becomes available.



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

Bravery of the Grey Nuns of Montreal during Great Famine honored

IrishCentral Staff Writers April 20,2016.


Montreal’s Grey Nuns are being honored, in a touring exhibition, for their charity in caring for and dying with the sick Great Hunger victims in the fever sheds by the St. Lawrence River.

In the exhibit entitled “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger,” which was on show at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal last week, examines the nuns’ heroism and that of other locals. At least seven nuns died and many became severely ill as they nursed the Irish and found homes for the 1,500 orphans. At least 6,000 Irish people lost their lives.

When the coffin ships from Ireland began arriving in 1847 there were 50,000 people in Montreal. Over 100,000 Irish, emaciated and often diseased with typhus and other deadly infections, were on their way to Quebec and understandably many Montrealers were afraid. Many wanted the new arrivals pushed into the St. Lawrence River and at one-point Mayor John Mills was forced to deter a mob from doing so.

The immigration depot on Grosse Île near Quebec City was unable to handle the deluge of Irish refugees and as many as 5,000 died there. Another 5,000 – at least – died during the crossing from Ireland. Those Irish who survived were quarantined in the 22 fever sheds, built near where Victoria Bridge now stands.

Bridget O'Donnel, a victim of Ireland's Great Hunger, was interviewed by The Illustrated London News in 1949.

Bridget O’Donnel, a victim of Ireland’s Great Hunger, was interviewed by The Illustrated London News in 1849.

The Grey Nuns, also known as the Sisters of Charity, were the first order to be called to help the Irish. There were just 40 nuns in the group and most of them became infected with typhus. They carried the sick Irish from the ships to the sheds where they cared for them. At least even Grey Nuns died, but those who recovered from the disease came back and continued to care for those who needed it.

There were 1,500 orphans left after the massive number of deaths. The Nuns found them homes either with other Irish families or French Canadians.

Also among those caring for the Irish were Catholic and Anglican clergymen, and several priests also lost their lives. There are also tales of British soldiers on security detail at the sheds giving up their rations to feed the Irish.

The Nuns’ own writings on the disaster are the “most detailed eye-witness accounts of the suffering,” according to the National University of Ireland, Galway, Famine Archives. Their annals have been digitized, transcribed and translated and can now be read online.

The nuns amazing work was also described by John Francis Maguire in “The Irish in America,” in 1868. He wrote:

“First came the Grey Nuns, strong in love and faith; but so malignant was the disease that thirty of their number were stricken down, and thirteen died the death of martyrs. There was no faltering, no holding back; no sooner were the ranks thinned by death than the gaps were quickly filled; and when the Grey Nuns were driven to the last extremity, the Sisters of Providence came to their assistance, and took their place by the side of the dying strangers. But when even their aid did not suffice to meet the emergency, the Sisters of St. Joseph, though cloistered nuns, received the permission of the Bishop to share with their sister religious the hardships and dangers of labor by day and night.”

Jason King, from the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, and Christine Kinealy, director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, put together a portrait of these incredible caregivers for the new exhibition. The exhibit has been on show at the Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT for a year will and now tour for a short time, beginning with Montreal.

“The story of the Grey Nuns, and of the other religious orders who helped the dying Irish immigrants, is one of kindness, compassion and true charity,” Kinealy said.

“Nonetheless, almost 6,000 Irish immigrants perished in the fever sheds of Montreal. They had fled from famine in Ireland only to die of fever in Canada. This is a remarkable story that deserves to be better known.”

Fergus Keyes, the Director of the Irish Monument Park Foundation, told the Montreal Gazette, “The exhibit is to concentrate on the people who went to help them, and in many cases gave up their life.

“That included John Mills, the mayor of Montreal at the time, who wasn’t Irish, wasn’t Catholic, but he set up the sheds and went and nursed the Irish and it cost him his life. Sometimes he’s called the Martyr Mayor of Montreal.”

It’s hoped that the presence of the exhibition in Montreal will help highlight the campaign to create a park honoring those who lost their lives. Currently the only monument is the “Black Rock” monument, an engraved boulder under Victoria Bridge.



Boulder under Victoria Bridge to commemorate those who died during the Great Hunger and construction of the bridge.


No More Coffin Ships

No more coffin ships

Maryam Filaih from Dublin at a welcome refugee rally on O’Connell Street Credit: David Conachy

The escalation of the European migration crisis has led to frequent comparisons in media coverage, political opinion, and public debate between the Irish Famine Migration of 1847 and the perils refugees face today.  The Rowan Gillespie Famine monuments in Dublin and in Ireland Park, Toronto, have become focal points for demonstrations of solidarity with refugees through the prism of Famine Irish memory.

Dublin Famine monument refugees

Image of three asylum seekers imposed on a photograph of the famine memorial on Custom House Quay in Dublin.

Famine Memorial protest

A section of the crowd gathered at the Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay in solidarity with people seeking refuge in Europe. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

“Let Then In”, Michael Enright. (CBC The Sunday Edition, September 13, 2015).


Ireland Park, Toronto, Ontario (Credit: Kearns Mancini)

On a sun-blasted morning last week, I biked down to the lake’s edge and sat for a long time in a small, almost hidden parkette called Ireland Park. Out on Lake Ontario, small boats, kayaks, yachts, ferries competed for space on the broad calm waters. No dinghies over-jammed with children and mothers and old men. At the Toronto Island Airport, planes took off and landed, their passengers not stateless, not homeless, no doubt all suitably credentialed.

Five bronze sculptures of figures in rags stand in a corner of the park. Their eyes are raised to the great spires and comforting money towers of the downtown. One of the figures lies dead or dying on the ground. The female figure clutches her pregnant belly. The figures are beyond gaunt; they are skeletal. The park was designed by Toronto Architect Jonathan Kearns, himself an Irish immigrant. It memorializes the coming to Toronto in 1847 of Irish refugees escaping from the horrific devastation caused country-wide by the potato famine.

At the time, Toronto had a population of around 20,000. In one year, some 38,000 Irish refugees landed in the city. Hundreds died of typhus in the so-called coffin sheds not far from this building. And still more came, over the next decades. At the other end of the park are 14 very tall towers made of black Kilkenny limestone. On this morning the limestone was warm to the touch. Carved into the interstices between the towers, are the names of some of those who came: Rose Cassady, Luke McCue, James Murphy, Mary O’Brien, Martin Carlow, Biddy Clary, Mary Ryan.

Canada has a long and storied history of taking in those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Irish, Vietnamese, Hungarians, Tamils, Bengalis Guatemalans, Turks, even thousands of political refugees from the United States. It’s what we do. It’s not a bad record but not without some failures, some historical blemishes. We failed huge numbers of Jewish refugees in the days prior to World War Two, by shutting our doors to them. Our policy was none is too many. We turned away a boatload of Sikhs in the early 1900s and we excluded Chinese except as stoop labourers. Nevertheless, in number and behaviour, the refugees we have admitted have never been anything other than assets to this country.

The vision of thousands of refugees coming to Canada may upset many people, but that’s all right. Change and the challenge of change take awhile to reach a comfort level. There will be that small minority of xenophobes who can’t abide the notion of strangers in their midst. That’s all right  too. Yes there are haters in this country as there are in any other place, in any other time.  Does it do any good  assigning blame for what we haven’t done? Perhaps. Perhaps the election next month will be a punishment yard.

The important thing is to do something generous and effective, and to do it now. Why not a pledge to bring in 50,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees by Christmas, as retired general Rick Hillier has suggested? And another 50,000 by next Canada Day? Not impossible.

A few hours after I left the park, I watched a family in midtown laughing and shouting and taking pictures of each other. They were Chinese, grandmother, grandfather, young couple, two young children a boy and a girl, maybe the age of Aylan Kurdi. They were chattering away to each other in Chinese, having a grand time. They were probably not refugees, perhaps immigrants. Or maybe they were even born here. It didn’t matter. Written on the left arm of the grandfather’s sweat shirt was one word: “Canada.”

History tells us we could be doing more for refugees: Keenan

(Edward Keenan, Toronto Star, September 3, 2015)

In 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland, Toronto was a city of 20,000, and in a period of six months, more than 38,000 refugees fleeing the famine arrived and Toronto mobilized to house them and to treat the sick.



Woman On Ground, one of several sculptures at Ireland Park in Toronto, is dedicated to remind people of the devastation of hunger. In 1847, more than 38,000 Irish Famine refugees landed on the shores of Toronto, causing a major strain of resources.