Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from, the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-1848. God’s loyal blessing upon them.
—Gaelic inscription on the Celtic cross at Grosse Ile
The cruise boat carrying sightseers chugs towards the imposing 14-m cross that stands atop a rocky cliff on Grosse Ile. The passengers are mostly energetic Grade 6 students from Neuville, Que., on the cusp of summer freedom. Several stand on the exposed deck as rain pelts down on the grey-blue waters of the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. Their buoyancy is surely poles apart from the spirits of Irish passengers who arrived at the island quarantine station 150 years ago. The Irish emerged— if at all—from dreadfully dank and disease-ridden ships. In 1847 alone, more than 5,000 immigrants fleeing famine in their native land went no farther than a mass grave on Grosse Ile. The francophone children on board the boat last week have studied that sad chapter of the island’s history. One girl stands ready on deck to snap a picture of the cliff-top monument that commemorates the famine. “What always strikes them is the dimensions of the cross,” says their teacher, Louis Bussières. The students, he says, are also struck “by all the misery that came out of that island.”
They are not alone. Boatloads of tourists, many of them members of Canadian and
American Irish associations, are making a pilgrimage to Grosse Ile this summer to mark Black ’47. That was the most devastating year in the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s, a disaster that many historians say was exacerbated by the slow British response to the crisis. Among the visitors will be Marianna O’Gallagher, a Quebec City historian who has written two books about Grosse He.
The island has a special resonance for O’Gallagher: her grandfather, a Quebec City engineer who emigrated from Ireland 10 years after the famine, designed the granite cross. In 1909, it was erected on the 42-m cliff by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic organization. O’Gallagher, 68, caught her first glimpse of the cross during a 1973 voyage to Grosse He, which required authorization from the federal government because at that time the island was closed to the public. “All of a sudden, there was just a bit of a clearing— and I could see the Celtic cross that I had heard talked about so much,” recalls O’Gallagher, still visibly moved by the memory.
For all its dark tales, Grosse Ile is a strangely peaceful place awash in green. Few structures on the island date from the famine era. Some of the buildings then were tem-
porary; several others were destroyed by a series of fires. “It’s almost as if there is a curse here,” offers one Parks Canada guide. Time has not, however, erased nature’s reminder of the summer of 1847. On average, 60 people were buried each day, the coffins placed three deep in long trenches. Now, the graves are marked by a telltale series of alternating mounds and de_ pressions, the result of the o wooden coffins settling and 2 rotting over the years. Many of the dead had succumbed g to a typhus epidemic that ravaged the island—and also claimed the lives of clergymen and medical staff.
For much of its varied his| tory, Grosse Ile remained offg limits to the public. It served o as a quarantine station for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from 1832 to 1937 (in 1847 alone, about 90,000 Irish immigrants were quarantined on the island). During the Second World War and again in the 1950s, the federal government took over the island for top-secret bacteriological experiments and research on biological warfare. Agriculture Canada then used the site for animal research and quarantine.
But in the mid-1980s, after a lobbying effort by O’Gallagher and another historian, Grosse Ile opened to the public and is now a national historic site. The remaining wood buildings on the island include churches, “hotels” for immigrants that date from the turn of the century, and a disinfection building where everyone, regardless of their status, had to submit their clothes for mandatory steaming and take a lengthy shower, which included small amounts of mercury chloride, a disinfecting agent.
This summer, as people look back on the saddest period of Grosse He’s history, O’Gallagher and others hope the attention will spark interest in the island’s compelling story. A registry of the dead from 1847, newly published by Parks Canada, may pique curiosity. It reads like a surreal telephone book—among the dead, for example, are several Donovans, including Joanna, 8, who died after arriving on the ship Bee from Cork, Ireland. Records such as that keep the sorrowful tale alive for O’Gallagher, who became interested in the topic partly because of her father’s lament that the Irish contribution to Canada was not being properly studied. For her and many others, the horror of 1847 is still a very tangible tragedy.
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