Grosse Ile – The Original Isle of Tears

Grosse Ile: The migration of the Irish people covered many different trails, some of the most travelled being the voyages to the different provinces of Canada. To Newfoundland or Quebec, Nova Scotia or Toronto, the Irish arrived in waves, hopeful to start a new life in a very different terrain.

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Grosse Ile – The Original Isle of Tears

We’re spending our last day in Toronto as we conclude this leg of the “Irish Ancestry Trail”. One of our readers, Tony Dolan from Prince Edward Island in Canada – recently shared a story.

Tony emigrated to Canada from County Roscommon in the 1970s and started work as a chef. He stayed in close contact with his family back on the farm in Ireland – and remembers his father often asking the following:

“Tony – you’re in Canada now, right? You know that place where all the Irish landed from the coffin-ships – it would be great if you could get over there and pay our family’s respects at some stage”.

Tony’s dad was talking about the quarantine island of “Grosse Isle” – located on the Saint Lawrence River just outside Quebec City. Have you ever visited there? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

As immigration to North America stepped up in the early 1800s, many quarantine points were set up at the ports of entry following an earlier outbreak of Cholera among new arrivals. The island of Grosse Isle was established as one such quarantine point in 1832 – but not put to a severe test until 1847 as thousands of starving Irish arrived for a better life in a new world.

However, when you pack so many half-starving people into a small ship for weeks on end you’re asking for trouble. In 1847, Typhus fever appeared among these passengers and quickly spread as they landed on Grosse Isle. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 Irish immigrants buried on the island from those outbreaks – and many thousands more died later in the fever sheds of Montreal as their sickness developed.

Almost 500,000 Irish immigrants passed through Grosse Isle between 1832 and 1932. Today, it is run by the Canadian Parks authority and contains the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Maybe you would like to visit Grosse Isle some day? I know that Carina and myself were very disappointed when we couldn’t get there on this trip.

However, going back to our earlier reader Tony Dolan…….

As his father was reaching a healthy old age, Tony realised that it was now-or-never for a trip to Grosse Isle to pay his respects on behalf of his father and family. One morning, he headed off on the eight-hour trip from PEI with some special cargo in the trunk of his car. He had brought some peat-turf from the ground of County Roscommon on his last visit home as well as a bottle of the local Irish Whiskey.

He arrived on the island and headed to the monument. As he started a small fire using the turf, the park rangers pointed out the local rules. His response was: “Sure, this is a commemoration offering – not a fire” – so they let him be. He said a few prayers, poured the Irish Whiskey on the ground and started the long journey back to PEI.

He called his father in Ireland when he returned – and told him the story. The simple reply was:

“Sure, that’s grand then”.

So, thanks Tony for that simple remembrance ceremony from all of us – and I look forward to visiting the island some day.

A Commemoration in Song.

There is a final chapter to this story. We arrived in Montreal last week for a meetup and bumped into two very interesting individuals from Quebec City. The husband and wife team of Margaret Forrest and John Halpin had just composed and premiered a powerful tribute to the events on Grosse Isle.

Margaret told us a little more:

“One of our friends, Marianna O’Gallagher was working to open Grosse Isle to the public in the 1980’s. She suggested that there was a musical in that story of 1847 – a way of capturing the horror and hope in music and song. So, we worked with another colleague to create a musical narrative based on the horror of the summer of 1847 but had a hard time coming up with a suitable ending worthy of the story. So, we put it aside for a while.

In the early 2000’s, John found the ending to the story in a 1909 book about the tragedy (by J. A. Jordan) which transcribes the sermon of a priest appealing to the good people of Montmagny to take in the Irish orphans, give them support. So, we re-wrote the story, tightening the dark narrative of loss, and strengthening the role of hope and human resilience by illuminating the legacy of welcome, support and adoption in a new land.”

Thank you for that Margaret. The Choral Musical has already premiered in Quebec City to wonderful feedback – and is playing Montreal in October. It is in English, French, Irish and Latin – but mostly in the universal language of music and song.

If you would like to see a little more about the very worthwhile endeavour – here are two links:

Click here to see an introduction to the musical on Youtube.

Click here to go to their Facebook Page – do give them a like, a share and a vote of support!

The best of luck with your wonderful venture – and we hope that your success brings the production to many other parts of the world!

That’s it for this week – and we do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

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