What I learned tracing the steps of Irish Famine migrants

Michael Collins reaches the end of his 885km Irish Diaspora Run in Canada

 

The Irish Diaspora Run saw Michael Collins run almost 900km between June 10th and July 10th, from Grosse Île to Toronto, tracing the steps taken by thousands of Irish immigrants who fled the Famine in 1847. This is the last of his weekly updates for The Irish Times.

On July 10th, I ended my month-long solo 550-mile (885km) run from the Grosse Île quarantine station to the Famine Memorial at Ireland Park, Toronto. In so doing, I passed through the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, hugging the Saint Lawrence in a solitary pilgrimage, retracing the fated journey of some 100,000 Irish who, when faced with eviction and starvation, boarded what would become the infamous coffin ships of the 1847 passage to Canada.

Of those who left, one-fifth - some 20,000 - died. Thousands found a watery grave in the stormy Atlantic, whilst the aggregate death toll on Canadian soil would rise as piles of corpses were buried in mass graves along the Saint Lawrence. Over 5,000 souls perished at the quarantine station of Grosse Île, while about 75,000 immigrants who survived quarantine eventually advanced on Montréal, with a then population of 50,000. In the fever sheds at Pointe Saint Charles, another 6,000 died and were interred in a mass grave that went unmarked until workers uncovered the site in 1859 during construction of the Victoria Bridge and erected at their own cost The Black Rock to memorialise those who died there.

After covering over 310km the first week, I stopped at The Black Rock where I was greeted by the Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Canadian parliamentarian, Marc Miller. Both the foundation and Miller are committed to advancing the Foundation’s proposed memorial park which will include a museum, monument, and GAA pitch.

Indeed, the heroism of both secular and religious groups who tended to the sick in the hastily erected fever sheds bears testimony to one of the most harrowing stories of The Great Hunger. Undoubtedly, the most vulnerable surviving victims were the orphans of those who had perished. Numbering in the thousands, these unfortunates would eventually swarm the fever sheds from Québec City, through Montréal and Kingston, and down into Toronto.

In the province of Québec alone, over 3,000 Irish orphans were cared for by charitable organisations, including the Grey Nuns. Priests who ministered to the sick and witnessed firsthand the tragedy of so many dispossessed orphans delivered powerful sermons, beseeching their congregations to adopt these orphans. Exemplary of a Catholic rhetoric of compassion and religious injunction to charity, stories survive anecdotally of church doors being bolted until those less inclined to adopt an orphan were eventually persuaded. Such were the times - and the need so great - that the dutiful obeyed.

The subsequent decision by the French-speaking Québécois to allow the orphans to keep their Irish surnames would become an integral part of the Canadian immigration narrative, exemplifying what historian Jason King describes as a narrative “of accommodation rather than assimilation…” which would come to define “the process by which immigrants and cultural minorities become integrated into Canadian society".

Throughout my journey in the province of Québec, this notion of accommodation over assimilation best characterises the province’s history. The survival of the French language, French culture, and Catholicism, post the British conquest at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 are prime examples of accommodation over assimilation.

As a general observation, the French Québécois response to the plight of the Irish was borne of a religious commonality, and, though orphans were adopted in unprecedented numbers and allowed to preserve their heritage, most Irish who passed through Montréal were intent on eventually reaching America, via Toronto.

The lasting effect of Irish immigration into Canada is more evident in Ontario. Through the 1820s and 30s, in what was then called Upper Canada, waves of immigrant Irish were transported from Protestant-held estates in Ireland, in a conscious attempt at instituting a sort of act of enclosure aimed at depopulating the Irish countryside to advance large-scale agriculture. In the economic doldrums of the post-Napoleonic Wars era and following the Act of Union, Protestant agents such as the inimitable Peter Robinson were commissioned to transport the Irish to settle and cultivate the Ottawa Valley in what would become a frontline force against the incursion and creeping influence of the French Québécois in Ontario.

So, too, Irish workers were transported to construct the Rideau Canal in Ontario. Built during 1826-1832, the 202 km-long canal was carved out of virgin forest and built using nitroglycerine and primitive hand-held tools. The estimated death toll along the mosquito-infested marshlands between Ottawa and Kingston was over 1,000 Irish. Tragically, most who died did so needlessly. Quinine would have cured them, but the sectarian split between the Irish Catholic workers and their Protestant overseers - Royal Sappers (i.e. British army engineers) - meant Catholics’ wages were kept unduly low.

This historical legacy of sectarianism in Ontario would again rear during the passage of the immigrant Irish of 1847. In Protestant stronghold towns like Cornwall, Prescott, Brockville, Kingston, and Cobourg, the influence of the Orange Order meant that the passage of immigrant barges through the summer heat of 1847 was not well-documented. The spectre of a mass grave at Cornwall was only recently discovered in archival records. Throughout my journey, I met with and interviewed local historians and commemorative memorial committees that have recently erected Celtic crosses to mark that fateful year.

Exile

For many, the rediscovery of a historical event some 150 years past has opened deep psychological scars. In an associated Facebook page I set up for the run, over 100,000 visitors, many availing of online genealogical resources, have added to the collective story of the passage and eventual settlement of those immigrants who crossed in 1847. The fated story of families separated through quarantine is a recurring motif. For a decade after the passage of 1847, notices appeared throughout Ontario with relatives inquiring after their loved ones.

Indeed, for many of the diaspora Irish I met along the run, the ancestral passage to Canada and America, especially during the Hunger years, is still perceived as a form of exile connected to draconian British rule. In total, the Great Hunger accounted for the emigration of over a million and the death of another million. Even contemporary descendants far removed from the tragic departure of the Hunger years, when asked to reflect on their ancestors’ arrival to Canada, were more apt to characterise it as an exile rather than an opportunity.

This theme of exile over opportunity accounts for a fierceness of national pride and an attendant encyclopedic knowledge of Irish history in those vested in preserving the legacy of that perceived exile. Over pints in snug Irish bars, I was versed on more occasions about a litany of Irish dates, from the 1691 flight of the Wild Geese to France following the end of the Williamite War, to the influence of the French Enlightenment on Wolfe Tone’s 1798 Rebellion. It was, more often than not, a dirge history of heroic struggle, defeat, and eventual exile.

In these oft spellbinding oratory accounts of our collective history, time seemed arrested, and the historical grievances, yet again enlivened with a dramatic immediacy and flashpoint sectarian hostilities. The question surfaced with each encounter - what to do with such a history?

What I can say of so many I met along the way on the run was that, for them, their Irishness was connected with an existential sense of self. Psychologically, their life in Canada directly relates to a traumatic ancestral leave-taking that many of them believe constitutes genocide. I was corrected repeatedly for using the word famine, and to deny them their right to tell that story as they see it would be to shamefully and consciously suppress their perceived historical reality.

I felt at a quiet remove from this theme of exile, or I thought it constituted an older generational motif, but this recurrent theme would again be poignantly highlighted with my arrival at Ireland Park. My 12-year-old son Eoin wanted to sing to celebrate my arrival. Without prompt, he chose the haunting emigrant ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’ from his repertoire of Irish songs.

Somehow, the notion of exile had registered at a subconscious level within him. What I heard in his voice was an eerie, plaintive ancestral lament for all that was lost or would soon be lost in a parting. It was as though the dead were speaking through him. He had a lilting tonal quality, which he must have heard voiced in the late great Irish singer Tomás Mac Eoin, whose rendition of ‘The Stolen Child’ was a staple song played in our house.

Leave-taking and loss

After the ceremony, I quietly talked with Eoin. He could not articulate why he chose ‘The Parting Glass’. What I eventually gathered was that, for him, the story of Irish migration was not about arrival, but about leave-taking. He was caught reflexively looking back without having the insight or full measure of Irish history. Loss was the central motif of his Irishness. He talked about the sculptures at Ireland Park, interpreting the outreach of hands as reaching back toward Ireland, when they might have been equally interpreted as a beseeching, forward-looking gesture toward a welcoming Toronto.

Where did this sense of loss emanate from? My son is no scholar of Irish history, and yet the undercurrent of great loss registered, not through a received history of the dates of rebellions and uprisings, but in the plaintive strain of a narrative carried on the warble of a tin whistle or the uilleann pipes.

I realised just then that Irish history is mediated first and foremost through our music, through haunting airs of loss, and that, perhaps uniquely in this, our history is tied to a meta-narrative of loss that is transmitted pre-language. I had channeled this history of leave-taking as wake in my subconscious choice of an Irish soundtrack of ballads that played in our home. The subtle motif of loss was the essential theme conveyed.

In the days since the end of the run, I looked further into the codifying loss and fell upon the aisling or vision poem. A uniquely Irish poetic invention, the aisling personified Ireland as either a maiden of immense beauty, or an old woman lamenting the loss of her children. That the aisling arose in the 17th century powerfully reinforced the Irish experience as a history associated with defeat and subsequent emigration, defined not as opportunity, but as exile and banishment.

Engagement

Indeed, even in the initial planning of the trip, I understood that a fundamental dilemma associated with retracing the path of the immigrants of 1847 would be balancing the commemorative emphasis of honouring the dead, while not reopening historical wounds. In reaching out to Irish diaspora groups via social media, I knew I was engaging in a sort of selective bias, and that, undoubtedly, the audience, in celebrating their ancestral Irishness, would most probably equally view their ancestors leave-taking as exile.

The Facebook site associated with the run - Irish Diaspora Run 2016 - preserves the oft-heated responses of followers to historical articles I posted of what were then contemporary accounts and observations that reached back as far as the Reformation and the sectarian split between Ireland and England. In the course of a month, through posts and dialogue, I believe that those who most fully engaged with the historical evidence arrived at a greater understanding of the historical, sociological, and psychological, paradigm shifts in Economic Theory and Religion that tragically isolated and marginalised Ireland.

In planning the trip in February, I had visited with Toronto-based Irish immigrant, Robert Kearns. With a degree in Archaeology and Greek and Roman civilization, Kearns has the authoritative grace and charm of a post-modern denizen committed to inclusion and multiculturalism. His Irishness encompassed Irish history, but he also offered a way forward beyond sectarianism and an arrested sense of an aggrieved and bloody history.

As a leading figure in the Irish-Canadian business community, in the early 1980s, Kearns served on the volunteer committee of the Ireland Fund of Canada, which actively sought to raise money to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland. Then, in 1997, Kearns turned his focus to the historical tides of the immigrant waves that had arrived in Canada. In establishing the charitable non-profit Ireland Park Foundation, he began lobbying Toronto for a quayside park which would eventually contain replicas of Rowan Gillespie’s famine sculptures on Dublin’s Custom House Quay Docklands. Kearns’ goal was to complete symbolically the voyage of coffin-ship migrants.

Indeed, Ireland Park had been inspiration for my own Diaspora Run, and it was why I had asked to meet with Kearns. A decade earlier, while on a book tour in Toronto, I had been taken late at night to the park. The indelible image of the sculptures and their remote placement in the small parcel of Ireland Park suggested an accommodation of history within the bustle of urban sprawl. Without descriptive plaques detailing the history of Ireland, the sculptures simultaneously encompass and transcend Irish history. The sculptures speak to the universality of an immigrant experience that defines the settlement of the New World.

In meeting with Robert on a snowy February day, I had felt that, perhaps, in his cosmopolitan vision, he was anticipating and engendering a reconfiguration of a national history, not as a source of differentiation, but as a source of shared experience.

A day after the run, in revisiting the park with my son, the theme of exile was again on my mind. I had unduly influenced or seeded historical animosities within him. I sought to make amends, or reorient him. Prophetically, Kearns’ forward-thinking vision of history was on my mind.

I explained that Ireland Park Foundation, in its logical extension of a broadening of history and commitment to encompassing a universality of shared values, was creating another park - Dr George Robert Grasett Park. To be unveiled in 2017, the park celebrates the Canadian response to the mass migration of Irish migrants in 1847, and specifically its medical profession. In addition to Dr Grasett, significantly the roster of those memorialised includes another male triage officer, Mr Edward McElderry, but also two women, head nurse Susan Bailey and nurse Sarah Duggan. All played an important role in the medical history of the city and furthered the foundation of the modern Canadian healthcare system.

In thus explaining the new park, I think my son caught the essential and subtle re-orientating genius of a universalist like Kearns, who is advancing the totality of our collective experience, seeking to steel our resolve to rise in defense of justice, promoting tolerance and universal acceptance.

In the strangest of coincidences, hours after revisiting Ireland Park, I got a Facebook message of congratulatory thanks for sharing the Irish plight of 1847 from a First Nations’ clan leader of the Hotinoshonni Confederacy Council of the Iroquois Nation. The clan’s point of connection was tied to their fellow Choctaw, who had suffered their own near-genocide in 1831, when over 21,000 of their people were made trek 500 miles to Oklahoma on what became known as the infamous Trail of Tears. In 1847, the Choctaw, upon hearing of The Great Hunger, raised and sent funds to Ireland. Ironically, the man who had forced them off their lands was Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants.

Of course, my son was enthralled that the Iroquois Nation had thought to contact me. He wanted to know about the Trail of Tears, and, in the subtle connection of one kindness bestowed on one people so long ago, an emerging history opened to him.

In researching the connection, I came upon a plaque on Dublin’s Mansion House honouring the Choctaw contribution. It reads:

“Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.”

A recognition and preservation of national histories is important, but equally so is our willingness to use our histories as a point of reconciliation, as we collectively advance a greater universality of understanding and compassion. In so doing, we find accommodation and assimilation, losing nothing, while gaining everything.

In the week since ending the run, I have felt the quieting distancing of all those who followed me for the month. I miss all of you. The run was first envisioned as a solitary act of pilgrimage, but in having the support of The Irish Times and a grant from the Irish Government, along with the reach of social media, some 100,000 of us connected, and we are the better for it.

For those who didn’t join us, the legacy of what was said is still preserved on Facebook at Irish Diaspora Run 2016. My intention is to continue updating the site. I’m currently in discussion to run the length of Ireland and possibly continuing with a Diaspora Run in Australia. In so doing I would visit historical sites associated with Irish migration, while collating a digital repository of historical documents and continuing to invite followers to share their family stories.

If anybody is so inclined, donations are still being accepted for the two non-profits I designated to help - The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation and Ireland Park Foundation. Both are independent, non-affiliated organisations.

Donations can be made at diasporarun.org. I would ask people to consider sponsoring a symbolic 47 dollars in commemoration of 1847.

Until we meet again, thank you for all your support.

This project was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Global Irish Media Fund.

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