Irish Canadian Famine Research

Irish Canadian Famine Research

Category: Walk to the Stone

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

From the Irish Times:

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

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


Michael Collins visits Famine Irish historical sites associated with Grey Nuns and views paintings inspired by their annals

From Fergus Keyes:

Here are some more pictures of Michael Collins in Montreal yesterday. After visiting the Vernissage, Michael met up with Donovan King who in addition to being a Director of our group, also gives tours of Haunted Montreal. So Michael got so see more of Montreal at night….

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Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Church at night, in which Theophile Hamel’s painting Le Typhus (1847-48) can be viewed:

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theophile-hamel-le-typhus 2Fergus Keyes: Michael Collins attended a Vernissage by a group of lady painters in Point St. Charles who call themselves, the Group of Sven.

Our group, The Montreal Irish Monument Park Foundation asked these ladies if they could paint their ideas of the Black Rock & the events of 1847.

Then we asked one of the group, Karen Birdgenaw, if she could take some specific stories about the event of Black 47 and translate these stories into paintings (which we plan to include in our Grey Nun’s Exhibition: “Saving the Famine Irish: The Grey Nuns and the Great Hunger”):

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The original Grey Nuns’ accounts of the Famine Irish can be found at:

Irish Famine Archive Home Page


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

From the Irish Times:

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

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

The Irish Diaspora Run sees Michael Collins running almost 900km between June 10th and July 10th, from Grosse Île to Toronto, tracing the steps taken by thousands of Irish immigrants who fled the Famine in 1847. This is the first of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to join the Irish Diaspora Run

The route begins at Grosse Île quarantine island, on the St Lawrence river, and continues through Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston before reaching Ireland Park, in Toronto.

The project is raising funds for Irish-Canadian organisations seeking to create parks and erect monuments and statues to commemorate 1847.

Others can participate by taking on runs where they live, and logging their distances on, where they can also sponsor Collins.

This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund

In the Footsteps of the Canadian Famine Irish

From Irish Times:

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

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

Montreal Gazette Endorses Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation’s Campaign

Editorial: Forget granite stumps. What about the Black Rock?

Editorial: Forget granite stumps. What about the Black Rock?

Montreal Gazette Editorial Board

Published on: June 1, 2016 | Last Updated: June 1, 2016 5:19 PM EDT

A wreath sits at the base of the black rock in Point Saint Charles, Montreal, Sunday, May 31, 2009, after a ceremony to commemorate the Irish immigrants who died of typhus in Montreal after fleeing the potato famine in 1847. photo  THE GAZETTE/Graham Hughes.
The Black Rock commemorates immigrants who died of typhus in Montreal after fleeing famine in Ireland in 1847-48. Graham Hughes / Montreal Gazette

On the subject of stones, there is a more obvious initiative that deserves the attention of 375th anniversary organizers, and that is the Black Rock memorial on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge.

Last Sunday, members of the Irish community took part in an annual walk to honour the 6,000 immigrants who died of typhus in 1847-48 after fleeing famine in Ireland, and to press for improvements to the site.

A proper memorial is long overdue. The 10-foot engraved stone, blackened by exhaust fumes on a median between traffic lanes, is difficult for pedestrians to reach and easily overlooked by motorists who may be oblivious to the mass graves that lie beneath.

A group calling itself the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation has been pushing for the site and adjacent parking lot to be transformed into a green space that would honour not only the Irish victims, but local residents who got sick and died trying to help them.

Coderre has expressed support for the proposal, but it will take effort and co-ordination to turn the vision into reality given that the site sits on federal land. There’s no time to waste. It would be wonderful if the park were ready in time for the city’s 2017 birthday celebrations — a city the Irish helped build.


Irish Montrealers push for memorial to 6,000 immigrants who died of typhus

From Montreal Gazette

Irish Montrealers want memorial to immigrants who died of typhus

Published on: May 30, 2016 | Last Updated: May 30, 2016 2:11 PM EDT

Francis Braddeley of the Erin Sports Association sings the Irish national anthem during the annual walk to the Black Rock at the foot of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, on Sunday.
Francis Braddeley of the Erin Sports Association sings the Irish national anthem during the annual walk to the Black Rock at the foot of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, on Sunday. Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette

Montreal Famine Irish annual walk to the Black Stone Memorial

Montreal Irish honour the past with annual ‘Walk to the Stone’

Montreal Irish honour the past with annual ‘Walk to the Stone’

WATCH ABOVE: Irish Montrealers made their annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock Sunday. The stone is a tribute to the immigrants who died of typhus when they landed on the shores of Montreal starting in 1847.

MONTREAL – Montrealers gathered in Pointe-Saint-Charles Sunday for a mass followed by a two-kilometre walk to the Irish Commemorative Stone.

Victor Boyle, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, said the walk  is a tradition that dates back more than 150 years.

The stone, known as the Black Rock, is a tribute to the immigrants who landed on the shores of Montreal starting in 1847.

Most were Irish immigrants who fled hunger and poverty in Ireland only to die of typhus contracted on their overseas voyage.

An estimated 6,000 dead are believed to be buried under the stone and include not only Irish immigrants but also those who cared for the sick.

”Remembering how much they suffered to get here pays homage to our own heritage,” Boyle said.

The annual event isn’t only about honouring the dead, it’s also about recognizing the contributions of the Irish to Quebec society.

“The Irish came here in 1847 under the worst possible conditions,” Boyle said. “But they were still able to survive and influence the city of Montreal, the people of Montreal, the people of Quebec in general. We’re part of the fabric of this society.”

The monument stands near the Victoria Bridge between two stretches of  Highway 112.

Members of Montreal’s Irish community have been pushing to have the area surrounding the Black Rock turned into a green space, arguing that a memorial park would be a more fitting tribute.

But that is a fight for another day. Participants in Sunday’s march were heading back to Pointe-Saint-Charles for a reception in the church basement.

“After the ceremony, we come back and have some food and drink,” Boyle said. “Which is a typical Irish tradition.”