Grosse Ile: Canada's Irish Famine Memorial

Article excerpt

Michael Quigley, "Grosse Ile: Canada's Irish Famine Memorial," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 195-214.

Children of the Gael

died in their thousands on this island

having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants

and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48.

God's blessing on them.

Let this monument be a token to their name and honour

from the Gaels of America.

God Save Ireland. (1)

ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY, 17 March 1996, Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced Canada's recognition of Grosse Ile as "the Irish Memorial." The National Historic Site will tell the story of the Irish tragedy in the quarantine station in 1847, focusing on the mass graves of the Irish famine victims, the tall Celtic Cross (which bears this inscription), and the only remaining hospital building from 1847, a long wooden shed called the Lazaretto. Equally important, it will "pay homage to the welcome, generosity and devotion of the local population" who comforted the afflicted. (2)

The minister's announcement was the culmination and vindication of a four-year-long campaign to prevent the Parks Service from turning it into a Canadian Ellis Island. In the longer view, it marks a full century of activity by Irish Canadians to assert the importance of Grosse Ile as the most important Great Famine mass grave site in North America.

Grosse Ile is a small island, less than 2 kilometres long by half a kilometre across, in the middle of the St. Lawrence 48 kilometres downstream from Quebec City. In the early 19th century, it was a favourite picnic spot for officers in the Quebec garrison. Robert Whyte, who arrived at Grosse Ile in July 1847, called it "a fairy scene," "the distant view of which was exceedingly beautiful," but "this scene of natural beauty was sadly deformed by the dismal display of human suffering that it presented." (3)

The landscape of Grosse Ile is scarred by the suffering of those for whom the island was not only their first footfall in the New World but also, for all too many, their last. At the western end of the island, between Cholera Bay and the Celtic Cross on Telegraph Hill, is a long meadow, corrugated by a regular series of ridges, which inevitably remind the visitor of lazy beds, the old Irish ridge-and-trench potato fields, labour-intensive but enormously productive. On Grosse Ile, too, the ridges are man-made, for they mark the mass graves where the Irish Famine victims of 1847 were buried, "stacked like cordwood." (4)

The Grosse Ile Quarantine Station

The Grosse Ile quarantine station opened in 1832, in response to well-founded Canadian fears of the cholera epidemic which swept westwards across Europe from 1826. It was intended to be "the centre of an outer defence to prevent the disease reaching Quebec City." (5) The island was chosen because it is isolated in mid-river but still close to Quebec City, which was then the second busiest port, after New York, in North America. In its first year of operation, and again in 1847, however, it failed to meet the challenge.

The rudimentary nature of the quarantine station in 1832 is best seen in the fact that when cholera reached Quebec City, on 8 June aboard the brig Carricks from Dublin, the Quebec Mercury ascribed the cause to "some unknown disease." (6) In 1832, the number of immigrants (51,000) was 50 per cent higher than usual, in large part because the previous year had seen a partial failure of the potato harvest in Ireland. Hunger and physical debilitation proved a fertile breeding ground for cholera, and most of the victims of the Canadian cholera epidemic of 1832 were Irish.

The doctors and attendants on Grosse Ile were over-worked and under-qualified to treat a disease many of them had never seen. The diagnosis, treatment, and epidemiology of cholera were all a mystery to them. The hospital facilities on the island, still incomplete, were overwhelmed as the number of sick immigrants exceeded all expectations. …