The Irish Famine and the Atlantic Migration to Canada

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Document ID 305023
Date None
Document Type Periodical Extracts
Archive Queen's University, Belfast
Citation The Irish Famine and the Atlantic Migration to Canada;The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 5th Ser. Vol.69 October, 1947, pp. 870-882.; CMSIED 305023
      The Great Irish Famine of 1847 and the Atlantic Migration
which it set in motion mark a turning point of paramount
importance in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada.  The
distinguished historian J. H. Hammond in his monumental work,
'Gladstone and the Irish Nation,' quotes one of Mr. Gladstone's
letters which serves as a fitting introduction to this
historical survey of Irish Catholicism in Canada in the middle
decades of the last century.  In 1845 W.E. Gladstone wrote in a
prophetic mood to his wife: 'Ireland, Ireland!
that a cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of
God's retribution upon cruel and inveterate but half-atoned
injustice!  Ireland forces upon us these great social and
religious questions - God grant that we may have the courage to
look them in the face and to work through them. 'It was not
difficult for the future protagonist of Home Rule to read the
signs of the times.  In fact it is no understatement to say that
they were obvious.  From the beginning of the eighteenth century
the Apocalyptic horsemen, Famine, Pestilence and Death rode with
monotonous regularity across the impoverished land of Eire. The
causes of the Great Irish Famine are rooted deeply in Irish
history.  War, confiscation of land, penal laws and coercion
bills reduced the Irish people to economic slavery.  They were
forced to live on a slender diet of potatoes while the wealth
that should have been theirs was siphoned off to England and
into the pockets of landlords.  In the century and a half
previous to the famine Ireland lived on the very border of
starvation and not unfrequently this border was crossed.  When
the great famine came Irishmen who knew their country's history
were not surprised; the wonder was that it had not come much
During the first weeks of the great famine, Daniel O'Connell,
Father Theobald Mathew and other Irish leaders implored the
Government to close the ports to keep the food in the country
and to shut down the distilleries.  The Parliament at
Westminster, which, since the Act of Union, was also the Irish
Parliament, refused to enforce these obvious and elementary
measures.  The callous mentality of the British Cabinet is
reflected in the attitude of Sir Robert Peel, who, at the
beginning of the Famine imposed a new coercion law on Ireland:
     'I have no confidence in such remedies as the prohibition
of export or the stoppage         of the distilleries. The
removal of the impediment to imports is the only effectual
Irish landlords and government officials believed that the
economic theories of Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus not
only were right but also immutable.  Inspired by a vicious
philosophy of life that money was more important than human
lives, they rejected every programme of relief which interfered
in the slightest way with the course of profitable commerce.
Consequently, they imposed upon the Irish people an artificial
famine which, in turn, led to the Atlantic Migration. During the
most critical years of the famine, Ireland exported, at their
insistence, corn, barley, oats, and cattle in quantities that
would have sufficed to feed the famine-stricken population.  On
the other hand, the suffering Irish people had no means to buy
the imports which Sir Robert Peel considered the only effective
remedy.  The relief-works sponsored by Peel and Russell were
carefully designed to be of no permanent benefit to Ireland not
a finger was moved to reclaim the 3,755,000 acres of waste land
improvable for tillage and pasture.  No thought was given to the
land question or to the fact that Irish industries, suppressed
in their early development could be revived.  On the contrary,
more than £10,000,000 were squandered on useless works such as
the canal joining Lough Mask and Lough Corrib in Galway, built
of porous limestone which could not hold water! Direct relief in
shelter food and clothing saved thousands of lives, but nothing
had been done to prevent future famines.

In 1847 the economic ills of Ireland real and artificial, which
took over a million lives, were the cause of another national
disaster - the Atlantic Migration. The British Government and
the Irish landlords, influenced by Malthus, were obsessed by the
erroneous idea that the country was over-populated.  Mass murder
by artificial famine provided only a partial solution to the
problem.' The time was never more opportune to force the
impoverished populace from the country.  Conditions were
deliberately worsened by legal means.  The repeal of the Corn
Laws as Professor George O'Brien has pointed out, deprived
Ireland of her last means by which she could support her
population.  Landlords converted their farms into pasture.  The
evicted tenants had the choice of death from starvation or
joining the great exodus.  The Gregory clause of the Poor Law
Amendment Act of 1847 provided that no person in possession of
more than a quarter of an acre of land could be deemed destitute
and that it was unlawful to assist such persons. 'A more
complete engine,' wrote Father John O'Rourke, the historian of
the great famine, 'for the slaughter and degradation of a people
was never designed. The previous clause offered facilities for
emigrating to those who would give up their land; the quarter
acre clause compelled them to give it up or die of hunger.' In
face of death or economic slavery there arose throughout the
land a disconsolate cry: 'Ireland is doomed.' Scores of sailing
vessels which had brought relief supplies to Irish ports and
lumber to England were ready to transport the destitute across
the ocean. Thousands of Irish prepared to leave their native
land for ever.  Life in the Canadian backwoods could not be
harder than perennial poverty in Ireland.  For the optimistic,
Canada would be a new Jerusalem.

During the darkest months of the great Famine the Irish people
were well aware that Canadians had strained their resources to
succour them in their need.  They had every reason to hope that
the same munificent hand would be extended to them when they
arrived on Canadian shores.  The appeal of Pope Pius ix met with
a generous response from Canadian Catholics.  The Catholics of
the city of Montreal alone contributed $8676.  Dr. William
Dollard, first Bishop of the diocese of New Brunswick, raised
£80 in his sparsely settled diocese.  Monsignor Ignace Bourget
Bishop of Montreal, and Dr. Michael Power, first Bishop of
Toronto who witnessed the ravages of the famine on a visit to
Ireland in 1846, were indefatigable in their efforts to help the
stricken.  In response to the appeal of the British Association
for the Relief of Extreme Distress in Ireland and the Highlands
and Islands of Scotland, the House of Assembly for Nova Scotia
voted £2,250 and an additional gift of £665 came from other
sources.  The subscriptions for the Irish Relief Association in
British North America amounted to £2,821; of this amount £1,165
came from Quebec.  British North America likewise raised for the
General Central Relief Committee for all Ireland £12,463
including £5,873 from Montreal, £1571 from Quebec, and £3,472
from Toronto.   In addition there were large donations of grain
food and clothing.  Irish settlers in British North America sent
all the money that they could raise to enable their relatives in
Ireland to follow them.  While exact figures are not available
this mounted to several thousand pounds.  The Canadian people
did not fail in their generosity and heroic charity when the
impoverished and typhus-stricken Irish arrived by the thousands
on their shores.

Nevertheless, in the late summer of 1847, a justifiable murmur
arose among the people, directed not against the helpless
immigrants but the British Government.  French Canadians,
recalling the choleric plagues of 1832 and 1834 brought into
Lower Canada by Irish Settlers, felt that a new long-range plan
of extermination was being directed against them from London.
Citizens in every part of British North America condemned the
revolting conditions under which immigrants were sent to
Canadian ports.  Since money was scarce in the colonies and
their trade was paralysed by imperial restrictions the British
Government was warned that it must pay the enormous cost of
unrestricted Irish immigration.  A year later, 1848, the
Government did pay; Lord Elgin's advice left no choice in the
Throughout the grim and eventful year of 1847 Canadian settlers,
from the Atlantic seaboard to the remotest parts of Upper
Canada, saw with their own eyes the cruelty and suffering of the
Irish famine and the Atlantic Migration.  Here, indeed was
visible evidence of man's inhumanity to man. Passenger-lists,
preserved in the public archives of Canada, show that in 1847 by
way of the St. Lawrence River route 90,409 immigrants from Great
Britain and Ireland entered Lower and Upper Canada.  Of these
not less than 75,000 were Irish.  From Irish ports there sailed
211 boats with 54,329 refugees.  Since this fleet was
insufficient to accommodate the exodus thousands crossed over to
Liverpool in search of passage.  From England came 140 boats
carrying 32,328 immigrants.  Forty-two ships sailed from
Scottish harbours with 3,752 passengers, most of whom were
Irish. Of the 90409 immigrants who embarked for the St. Lawrence
ports of Canada 5,293 died at sea.  Of the 7074 headed for St.
John, New Brunswick,823 perished. The mortality at sea amounted
to approximately six percent.  Death and burial at sea broke the
spirit of even the most optimistic among the survivors.  Their
blasted hopes are expressed in the comment of one of the
    'We thought we could not be worse off than we were; but now
to our sorrow we know
     the difference. At home we had the chance of a doctors care
and the certainty of the spiritual administration of a priest.
Should death overtake us there we would be buried beside our
beloved dead, in consecrated Irish ground, with the prayers and
last blessing of our church.'

What were the causes of this enormously high death-rate?  In his
contemporary account, 'The Irish Crises' published in The
Edinburgh Review, January 1848, Sir Charles E. Trevelyan, who
was a relief officer in Ireland during the famine, wrote: 'Early
in the year 1847 the roads to the Irish seaports were thronged
with families hastening to escape the evils which impended over
their native land.' The complaint in Ireland at the time, was
that those who went belonged to the best and most substantial
class of the agricultural population.  The complaint afterwards
in Canada was that those who came were the helpless and
destitute.  The fact was that the emigrants generally belonged
to that class of small holders who, being somewhat above the
level of the prevailing destitution, had sufficient resources
left to enable them to make the effort required to effect their
removal to a foreign land; and the steps taken by them to
convert their property into an available [farm or form?] had for
months before been the subject of observation.  This statement
does not contradict the evidence of Canadian priests and
government officials that the Irish immigrants arrived in the
worst possible condition of disease, ill-health and poverty.
One has, only to remember that Irish labourers and cottiers,
whose standard of living was 'somewhat above the prevailing
level of destitution,' rarely, if ever, knew the taste of meat,
milk and vegetables other than the potato.  Not even the
strongest of those who possessed a little money escaped the
ravages of fever and hunger during the darkest months of the
famine.  Unlike the United States, the colonies in British North
America could not restrict or control immigration.  Taking
advantage of this situation, Irish land-lords [landlords?] in
co-operation wth greedy and unscrupulous shipowners cleared off
their estates hundreds of sick and exhausted men, women and
children whose faces were marked with the shadow of early and
inevitable death.

In April, 1847, Stephen E.De Vere travelled as an emigrant to
Canada in a converted lumber and cargo boat.  His description of
his experience must be accepted as characteristic of the
conditions prevalent throughout the whole ship-fever fleet. It
requires a strong stomach to read his detailed account of the
transatlantic crossing; 'Before the emigrant has been a week at
sea he is an altered man.  How could it be otherwise?  Hundreds
of poor people men, women, and children of all ages from the
drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled
together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and
breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart,
the fever patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places
so narrow as almost to
deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the
natural           restlessness of the disease.'  The food supply
was of the poorest quality.  Drinking water was mixed with
vinegar to kill the stench.  Conditions were so bad that 'The
Times,' London, which had viewed the flight of the Irish with
ghoulish satisfaction, was forced to admit: 'the Black-Hole of
Calcutta was mercy compared to the holds of these vessels.'

Thirty miles east of the historic City of Quebec lies Grosse
Isle - a misleading name, for it is only three miles long and a
mile wide.  Here in 1832, the British Government opened a
quarantine station, a natural site, for it was directly in the
path of incoming vessels. Unlike the neighbouring Isle d'Orleans
with its fine parishes and rich farms, Grosse Isle was barren.
It was unpopulated before the arrival of the small staff of
health authorities.  Supplies were brought from Quebec or
Montreal; delays were long and frequent.  Forewarned that the
immigration for 1847 would be larger than that in the previous
year, accommodation was provided for two hundred patients.  The
tide of the great migration flowed in and tragedy followed.  On
28th May, thirty ships were awaiting quarantine inspection.
From the first week in May to the close of navigation 439 boats,
including eighty four from Germany with a clean bill of health,
anchored off Grosse Isle.  By midsummer the situation was
appalling.  The brig Larch from Sligo, which left with 440
passengers, arrived with 150 typhus patients; it had buried 108
victims at sea. The Lord Ashburton, from Liverpool, with 475
passengers, reported 107 dead, 60 sick with fever or dysentery;
the 'Sir Henry Pottinger,' from Cork, 399 pasengers,98 dead,112
sick.  The Virginius, which sailed with 596 emigrants, buried
158 during passage, 186 landed in a dying condition, the
remainder including the crew, were feeble and tottering. These
were typical conditions.  Soldiers with army tents and supplies,
additional priests and doctors, were brought in to cope with a
hopeless situation.  In the July and August heat typhus raged
among the
stranded victims.  Whole families were wiped out.  Relatives
became separated; the number of orphans mounted to the hundreds.
 Since the authorities were more disposed to hide the facts than
to reveal them, it is greatly to the credit of the Quebec
Chronicle that it carried the names and ages of those who died
at Grosse Isle.  From this source it was possible for hundreds
of families in Ireland and in Canada to trace the fate of their
loved ones.

On leaving the quarantine station at Grosse Isle the fever ships
proceeded up the St Lawrence River into Lake Ontario.  Whenever
they stopped to unload their passengers, typhus and dysentery
appeared in alarming proportions.  It is true to say that not a
single rural district, village, farm or city in Upper and Lower
Canada escaped the ravages. Deaths in Quebec City numbered
1,137, including many of the inhabitants.  Through the zeal of
the local clergy, Fathers McMahon, Cazeau and Baillaragean,
later Archbishop of Quebec, homes were found for 800 orphans.
Some were placed in St. Brigid's Home which for more than a
century has been a haven for the indigent.  Montreal was a
second Grosse Isle. Here, at Point St. Charles, 11,000 lay sick
with fever.  Terror spread throughout the populace.  At Bytown,
now Ottawa, 1,000 were stricken; of these 200 died.  At
Kingston,  4,326 were admitted to the hospitals and feversheds;
of these 1,400 died.  At Toronto, where the authorities had time
to make preparations, the sick received better care.
Nevertheless, 863 died from the epidemic.  At Hamilton, and at
St Catherines in the Niagara Peninsula, at London and Sarnia in
western Ontario, events followed the same course, though numbers
were smaller.  Partridge Island, at the entrance to the harbour
of St. John, New Brunswick was a third Grosse Isle but with a
much lower death-rate.  Of the 17,074 immigrants who entered
here, including 2,000 from Lord Palmerston's estates, 600 died
on the Island and 595 died in the city s fever-sheds.

In 1847 a magnificent chapter was added to the voluminous
history of Christian charity by the clergy and laity of British
North America.  The total cost for relief charged to the British
Government was £150,000.  To this must be added the large sums
contributed from private sources.  Catholic priests and
Protestant ministers, Catholic nuns and lay nurses, doctors and
government officials, and the hundreds of Samaritans from the
ranks of the laity risked their lives to care for the sick. Many
gave their lives for a cause that could not be greater. On 1st
October, 1847, Dr. Michael Power, Bishop of Toronto, the first
Canadian of Irish parentage to be elevated to the episcopate,
died a victim of his zeal.  Of the fifty-one priests who
attended the sick at Quebec and Grosse Isle twenty five
contracted the fever; of these five died.  Among those who
survived were the Abbe E.A. Taschereau later Archbishop of
Quebec and Canada's first Cardinal, Father E. Horan, later
Bishop of Kingston, Monsignor Bernard O'Reilly, the Biographer
of Pope Leo xiii, and the Abbe J.B. Ferland, historian of
distinction.  To this list must be added the name of the
indefatigable and heroic Irish pastor of Quebec city, Father P.
McMahon, who with the alms of the Irish faithful built to the
memory of St. Patrick a church of cathedral proportions.  In
Montreal and nearby towns fifty-six priests - diocesan clergy,
Sulpicians and Jesuits - attended the sick; of these, nineteen
contracted the fever and nine died - five Sulpicians and four of
the diocesan clergy.

Here too one must mention the pastor of the Irish in Montreal,
Rev. Richard Jackson, P, SS., who gave his life for his flock,
21st July 1847.  Forty years earlier he came to Montreal a young
and zealous Episcopalian minister from Virginia with a special
'call' to save the Sulpician Fathers from the road to perdition!
His mission failed.  As a convert he joined the community of St.
Sulpice, whose history and work he had long admired.  Monsignor
Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, and the auxiliary Bishop of
the diocese, Monsignor Jean-Charles Prince, both contracted the
fever, as did two future Canadian bishops, Armand de
[Charbonnel?] of Toronto and Joseph la Rocque of St. Hyacinthe.
A similar story of sacrifice and devotion was written by the
Irish and French priests of Upper Canada, in Bytown, Kingston,
and Toronto, and in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  In Quebec
the cloistered nuns of the Hotel-Dieu ministered with unfailing
charity to the afflicted immigrants.  The Ursulines of the
historic old monastery opened a school for Irish children.  In
Montreal where the majority of the religious communities were
uncloistered, the sisters left their convents to nurse the sick
in the tents and sheds at Point St.Charles.  Little did they
count the cost or the fear of death.  Early in July 1847, there
were no less than forty eight Sisters at the point of death from
fever and exhaustion. Seven Grey Nuns, three Sisters of
Providence, and three nuns of the Hotel-Dieu de St. Joseph made
the supreme sacrifice. With a similar devotion to duty the Grey
Nuns of Ottawa and the nuns of the Hotel-Dieu at Kingston worked
until they collapsed at the bedsides of their patients.

Over the thousands of unmarked graves of Irish dead on Grosse
Isle, at Kingston and on Partridge Island, devoted hands have
reared to their memory Celtic crosses of finest craftmanship,
the symbol of resurrection.  The remains of the immigrants who
died at Point St. Charles were interred not far from the place
where the army tents and sheds stood during the epidemic.  An
enormous block of stone, erected by labourers with reverence and
undimmed faith, bears the following inscription:

                                 PRESERVE FROM DESECRATION
                               THE REMAINS OF 6000 IMMIGRANTS
                                   WHO DIED OF SHIP FEVER
                                       A.D. 1847-1848
                                        THIS STONE
                                 IS ERECTED BY THE WORKMEN OF
                                MESSERS.PETO, BRASSEY AND BETTS
                                 EMPLOYED IN THE CONSTRUCTION
                                          OF THE
                                     VICTORIA BRIDGE

                                         page 11
Here one is confronted with official and unofficial statistics.
The official count of deaths for Montreal is 3,862, which is
2,138 short of 6,000.  Toward the end of 1847 Dr. Douglas,
medical superintendent at Grosse Isle, and the doctors who
assisted him, erected in the middle of the cemetery on the
island a monument with the following inscription:

                      OF 5424 PERSONS WHO, FLYING FROM
                     AND FAMINE IN IRELAND,IN THE YEAR 1847
                                IN AMERICA,BUT A GRAVE

Years later, 15th August, 1909, when the Ancient Order of
Hibernians erected the Celtic Cross on the south side of the
island, the popular estimate of the dead had risen to 20,000.
The inscription on this monument is written with caution:

                       HUNGER AND EXILE IN 1847-1848 AND

Official figures are without a doubt too low; the traditional
estimates are exaggerated. From the confused statistics one may
accept this statement as approximately correct; Out of the
107,483 emigrants, mostly Irish, who came to British North
America in 1847, 30,265 were stricken with typhus; 6,116 died at
sea; 11,047 after debarkation.

There is an inspiring sequel to the tragedy of the Alantic
Migration. Having buried their dead the Irish immigrants turned
to the arduous task of building their homes in the new country.
Their resources were meagre; their faith was great.  Hundreds
went to the wide spaces of the country to clear their farms in
the untouched forests.  Hundreds more worked as labourers
building the roads,
bridges, canals and railways of Ontario, and Eastern Canada.
Conscious of the rights of labour, they found their leaders
among their own countrymen.  Forty years ago the Right
Honourable W. L. Mackenzie King, now Prime Minister of Canada,
wrote of Daniel John O'Donoghue, a son of Tralee; 'perhaps no
other man is worthy of being called the father of the labour
movement in Canada. 'In every Irish community there arose a
church and a school. Hospitals, orphanages and homes were built
for the sick and the indigent.  The cathedrals of the Maritime
Province and Ontario, including Ottawa, were made possible by
the donations of Irish labourers and servant girls. In
September, 1847, five Irish nuns from Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnum,
came to Toronto to establish the Institute of the Blessed Virgin
Mary in North America.  Scores of Irish girls entered the
French-Canadian convents. Older communities, like the Ursulines,
the Grey Nuns, and the Congregation de Notre-Dame, and the new
orders like the Sisters of Charity (founded by Mother Seton),
the Sisters St. Joseph, and the sisters of St. Ann, entered new
fields of work with the enrichment of Irish vocations. The
depleted ranks of the diocesan and regular clergy were filled
with Irish priests from Ireland and the sons of Irish
immigrants.  Ireland gave to the church in Canada prelates of
uncommon distinction.  Dr. Thomas L. Connolly, Archbishop of
Halifax, has been placed by a great historian among the ten
greatest theologians at the Vatican Council.  For years the
[Mestor?] of the Canadian hierarchy, Dr. John Joseph Lynch,
first Archbishop of Toronto, exercised a wide influence in
Canadian public life.  His correspondence with Sir John A.
MacDonald, a stout bound volume, reveals the breadth of his
interests.  Dr. James Vincent Cleary, first Archbishop of
Kingston, had no rival in America and few in Europe as a master
of Latin.  He loved the beauty of God's house, and the churches
built under his direction by the great Irish architect, Joseph
Connolly R.C.A. are to-day among the finest in the Dominion of

Twenty years before the Irish famine two Irish medical doctors
in Montreal, Daniel Tracey and Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan,

                                      page 13
pioneer workers for responsible government, set a high standard
for the Irish press in Canada.  Later as historian of New York
State Dr. O'Callaghan gave invaluable help to the historian of
[New?] France, and to Francois-Xavier Garneau, author of the
History of Canada.  In the years following the Atlantic
Migration the influence of the Irish press greatly increased.
Leaders of Irish birth took their place in the business world,
in the professions, and in every department of civic life.
Thomas d'Arcy McGee, Archbishop Connelly, and Edward Whelan rank
with the chief promoters and makers of the Dominion of Canada.

If in the course of a century Canada has grown from the
restricted life of a colony to a stature of a nation, it is due
in no small measure to the influence of Irish immigrants. The
Atlantic Migration did not settle the Irish question. On the
contrary it became an international question, and in a
particular sense a Canadian question.  Each year the Irish in
Canada sent thousands of pounds to Ireland to support their
relatives who had been robbed of their lands.  The voice of the
press in Ireland was heard in every part of Canada.  Interest in
Home Rule and in the land question was quickened with the visits
of Irish leaders like Parnell and Timothy Healy.  For two years
as pastor of the Irish Parish of Sillery, near Quebec City, the
ubiquitous Monsiguer Persico learned at first hand the
sufferings of the evicted immigrants and some elementary facts
of Irish history. The history of the Catholic Church in Canada,
with the rich contribution of the Irish immigrants, has never
been written.  The reasons: impoverishment of historical
scholarship, studied neglect, and frozen assets.  Should it ever
be written 'in extenso,' a magnificent volume will be entitled
'The Irish Famine and the Atlantic Migration.'

                                         John B. O'Reilly.

Transcribed by Jim Buchanan