Canadian reminders of Kildare’s famine emigrants
From the Leinster Leader
Published Date: 03 March 2010
The 18th century saw the erection of many of Kildare’s great houses and the building of the Grand Canal in 1756 and the Royal Canal in 1789 allowing for the transportation of goods between Dublin and the rest of the country. Despite this wealth and prosperity Kildare did not escape the scourge of the Great Hunger, but was spared its most severe effects due to a relatively low population density, and having the least arable land devoted to the mainstay of the Irish peasant, the potato. Instead it had developed pasture economies centred around cattle rearing that was less labour involved.
Cholera the killer disease of that era first appeared in Athy in 1834 and returned again in 1849 when it reached epidemic proportion. 141 cases occurred in Maynooth with 47 deaths reported, however, Naas and Kilcock remained free of the killer disease. Population losses in urban areas due to emigration and disease was greatest in Castledermot which lost 53 per cent of its community, while Naas had the smallest loss at 15.71 per cent.
North Kildare towns had a level of small industry in the form of mills, ironworks and distilleries, which provided a further source of income. Maynooth College was a major benefit to the area as well as the railway and canal trade that helped maintain a level of economic service and helped deflect the full impact of the famine from the district.
Nonetheless, there was call on the workhouse with one in Naas, Athy and Celbridge, all of which exist in one way or another to the present day. There are few more enduring images in Irish history than that of the workhouse, it conjured up impressions of famine, suffering, humiliation and desperation, and was a point of no return for many. Workhouse authorities in Celbridge provided a cemetery that became the resting place for many unknown souls, and in modern times their memory has been honoured in the most appropriate way by the creation of a memorial park by that community.
The famine brought about major changes in Kildare society, the most significant being its decline in population. This decline continued for almost a century and an increase in population in the county was not recorded until 1946. The only parts where this trend did not manifest itself were the larger towns of Naas and Newbridge, but for many their last port of call was the emigration ship to far flung places such as Australia and North America, and this is the story of emigration and quarantine to one such destination.
On the Island of Grosse Île, downstream from Quebec City in Canada, is one of the most sombre graveyards in the history of our Irish Ancestry, as well as stark reminders of extreme suffering and hardship endured by those fleeing a famine stricken country to a place of exile and quarantine in North America.
From the early 19th century Grosse Île was the quarantine station for the Port of Quebec and for many years the principal gateway to Canada for immigrants. Off shore on this island, in mass graves, marked with white wooden crosses, lies the mortal remains of thousands of Irish victims of the Great Famine, whose intention it was to make it to what they called the ‘New World’.
When visiting Grosse Île you can somehow capture the spirit of the island. Remnants from the past historic buildings, monuments and burial grounds create a unique atmosphere, and remind us of moments in time and personalities on their passage to the quarantine station. It is like stepping back in history and retracing the forgotten footsteps of our ancestors. Today’s luxurious boat trip across the St. Lawrence bears no resemblance of the appalling conditions and never ending trek across the Atlantic for thousands of Irish in primitive times. The devastation and terror endured on insanitary, contaminated sailing ships, is unimaginable. ‘Floating coffins’ as they were often referred to, were unfit for human transportation.
Between 1845 -1849 over one million people in Ireland died of starvation and disease, and one million more chose to leave hoping for a new life. For those who decided to go, a perilous voyage lay ahead, and many ships bound for North America were lost at sea. It is difficult to realise that in less than a decade the population then eight million was reduced by a quarter. Even today the population is well below what was recorded in the 1840’s. These are considered to be among the most decisive and also the most traumatic years in Ireland’s history.
To prevent serious illness and plague from entering Canada via the St. Lawrence River, the first steps in a foreign land for newcomers began with an assessment to determine if they were disease free. The Great Famine that peaked in 1847 is linked to the tragic events on Grosse Ile, when a flood of immigrants with contagious typhus created a crisis situation. Those not affected who had come in contact with the sick during the long voyage had to be kept under observation on the island. There were inadequate bed facilities, coupled with a shortage of medical and nursing staff. The arrival of additional staff and hundreds of army tents did little to alleviate conditions. With over 12,000 people on the island, the situation was on the point of anarchy. It is estimated that 100,000 immigrants mostly Irish, set sail for Quebec in 1847. In previous years that number averaged 25,000 – 30,000. An intensive project for the building of more hospitals and shelters gradually brought the situation under control.
The last of the shelters to be built during the 1847 epidemic was the lazaretto (smallpox hospital). From the outside, it looks more like a row of housing than a hospital. It has four entrances facing the water, this was the first building immigrants saw when they arrived. Rather than be alarmed by the surroundings, it was hoped they could take advantage of the view, even if they were sick. The end room in the building the ‘red room’ has red painted walls and ceiling and red tinted glass in the windows. This was to prevent sufferers of smallpox being disfigured by exposure to sunlight. It is said to be one of the most interesting medical artefacts in Canada.
The Quarantine Station opened in 1832 in response to well-founded Canadian fears of the cholera epidemic that swept across Europe from 1826. This site was chosen because of its isolation in the river, but still close enough to Quebec City, the then busiest port after New York. However, in its first year of operation and again in 1847, it failed to meet the challenge. Medical personnel were overworked and under qualified to diagnose and treat a disease many of them had never seen.
Irish people who visit the Island today feel a great sense of sadness, but also relief to have the opportunity to witness something of what their ancestors suffered on this arduous journey thousands of miles from their homeland.
1847 was a black year – this dark period in immigration history produced over 5,000 deaths at sea, and thousands of deaths in Quebec and Montreal. The quarantine stopover lasted an average of six days, but many ships were anchored for weeks. Of the 441 registered in Quebec in 1847, 398 were inspected at the quarantine station, including 77 carrying in excess of 400 passengers each. They came mainly from the large British port of Liverpool, but also Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Sligo and Belfast.
The Irish cemetery, the largest of three on the island, is located in what is called the western section, and was in use from 1832 – 1847. As well as those who died in the hospitals many died on the ships awaiting quarantine. Over 7,000 people are buried on Grosse Île, most of them victims of the typhus epidemic, when 40 – 50 burials a day took place.
After the 1847 tragedy, more stringent measures were put into operation. The island was divided into three sectors, the sick confined to one section, the healthy to another and the administration in the centre. Today, guard towers stand as testament to the harsh reality of quarantine life for immigrants. Control points marked boundaries and restricted communication. Inspection and disinfection of ships, passengers and baggage were its main function, as well as detentions.
The advent of steam ships in the mid-19th century revolutionised the immigration process and reduced transatlantic crossings from sixty days to twelve days. This new era in sea travel pressurised the Canadian Authorities to update reception and accommodation structures on the island in line with new standards of passenger comfort on ships. At the same time Medical Superintendent Frederick Montizambert re-organised the station to reflect the latest discoveries in the field of bacteriology. Having successfully met the major challenges of his career at the turn of the century, these diseases no longer required quarantine measures, and the station closed in 1937.
Today visitors can travel through the centre of the island by means of a tourist trolley, similar to a tram, accompanied by a Guide who explains the layout of the island. The tour passes some of the archaeological vestiges, including those of the brick hospital built in 1881, a lab, bakery and post office as well as chapels, school, and houses formerly occupied by staff during the navigation season. The disinfection station with huge metal furnaces, large wire clothing cages and tiny shower cubicles with multiple showerheads, is somehow a reminder of the European concentration camp.
Following the trolley tour, there is a short walk to the Irish Memorial erected in 1997 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine. Inaugurated by President McAleese in 1998, it resembles an ancient Irish burial mound, supposedly with one stone for every person buried in the cemetery. A string of large metal sculptures shaped like ship sails red from rust along the pathway, is similar to those of the fountain in Galway’s Eyre Square. Smaller ones, in tiny alcoves, commemorate the orphaned children and the helping hands who gave them hope. Glass panels, circle one half of the Memorial listing the Irish names of the dead and the year of immigration from 1832 onwards. Each unnamed who perished on the island is commemorated with a ship symbol etched on the glass.
The Celtic Cross unveiled in 1909, on the feast of the Assumption, by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, stands at the highest point on the island, commemorating 5,424 Irish Immigrants who died during the 1847 epidemic, as well as those who died caring for them. Thousands of pilgrims including survivors of 1847 were invited to attend the memorial. The 14 metre high granite Cross overlooks the St. Lawrence River and the docks where the immigrants disembarked, and bears inscriptions in English, Gaelic and French. The difference in text between the English and Gaelic illustrates the debate surrounding the causes of the Famine, a turning point in Irish history. Each August, a traditional pilgrimage to Grosse Île is organised by the Irish National Society.
In 1956, facilities on the island were taken over by the Department of Agriculture, when its Animal Pathology Division was established, and in 1965 the Department’s Contagious Diseases Division selected it as a quarantine station for imported animals.
In 1984, The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended the creation of a national historic site – that same year the island that was shrouded in mystery and access denied was opened to the public. In 1989, in a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the unveiling of the Cross, Ireland’s Ambassador to Canada, Dr. E. J. Brennan recalled the Famine in words that encapsulate both contemporary and modern Ireland’s understanding of the Great Hunger.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1996, Canadian Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps, announced Canada’s recognition of the site. The Minister’s announcement was the vindication and culmination of a four years long campaign to prevent the Parks Service from turning it into a Canadian Ellis Island. It now marks a century of activity by Irish Canadians who asserted its significance as the most important Great Famine Mass Grave Site in North America.
Grosse Île, is a small island in a group of islands less than 2 kilometres long by half a kilometre wide, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, 48 kilometres downstream from Quebec City. Only part of the island is developed along the passage once used by immigrant ships. For nature lovers who wish to admire the diversity of plant life, the island today is home to some 600 species. The forest trail offers the opportunity to discover some of Quebec’s rare plants and trees. In the early 19th century it was a favourite picnic area for Officers in the Quebec Garrison. One Officer referred to it as a “fairy scene”. This scene of natural beauty was sadly deformed by the dismal display of human suffering that it later presented. A landscape scarred by tragedy that for so many was their first foothold on the New World and sadly their last.
Ironically, visiting the island today one can draw a comparison between the labour intensive old ridge famine fields back in Ireland, and a long strip of meadow corrugated by a series of man-made ridges that mark the mass graves where the Irish Famine victims are buried on Canadian soil.