By WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon
The locals would come to call Grosse Ile "L'Ile des Irlandais." The Canadian island would be the first and final resting place in the New World for thousands of Irish emigrants.
During "Black '47," the worst year of the Great Famine, the coffin ships arrived at the quarantine station on Grosse Ile much faster than the facility could possibly handle. At one point there were reportedly 40 ships stacked three kilometers deep with more 13,000 emigrants aboard.
Grosse Ile, three miles long by one wide, 30 miles down river from Quebec City, would be the first and final resting place in the New World for thousands of Irish emigrants. The locals would come to call Grosse Ile "L'Ile des Irlandais."
Large numbers of the emigrants on almost every ship departing Ireland for Canada had typhus when they boarded, and as the ships continued on, with the passengers packed together (often the ships were illegally over packed) in filthy conditions, with no facilities for washing, the disease spread like wildfire.
British law called for the ships to provide seven pounds of food a week for each passenger, often they got less, and even that was sometimes inedible. Many ships bought used casks for the passengers' drinking water as they were less expensive, but these often leaked or stored wine, making the water undrinkable.
Some say as many as 25,000 died either en route to or shortly after arriving in Canada in 1847, fully, one out of every four who began the trip.
In his diary, Gerald Keegan, a physician aboard the Naparima in 1847, described a night a few days before the ship reached Grosse Ile. It was anchored in the river, with another coffin ship upstream. He and his wife, Aileen, were standing on deck when they noticed several forms floating by in the dark river. As he looked over the side, one of the forms caught on the anchor cable and he recognized that it was a body. The ship ahead of them was tossing the bodies of dead emigrants over the side. Keegan and his wife would not suffer the fate of those poor souls drifting down the St. Lawrence River, but both would perish in the fever ridden hospital of Grosse Ile.
In 1909, in a ceremony that drew thousands, the United States-based Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a 40-foot-high Celtic cross on Grosse Ile. It has an inscription in three languages, English, Irish and French. The English version, in this country that had only been ruling itself for a short time by 1909, is obviously intended not to insult the sensibilities of the British government. It reads: "Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish immigrants who, to preserve the faith, suffered hunger and exile in 1847-48, and stricken with fever ended here their sorrowful pilgrimage."
The Irish version reads: "Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish emigrants who ended here their sorrowful pilgrimage. Thousands of the children of the Gael were lost on this island while fleeing from tyrannical laws and an artificial famine in the year 1847-48. Let this monument be a token to their name and honour from the Gaels of America. God save Ireland."
Sir Charles Trevelyan, British assistant secretary of the treasury from 1840 to 1859, worked as administrator of relief to Ireland from 1845-1847. He once said: "The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people." In April 1848, Trevelyan was knighted for his services by the Queen.
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