Historian honoured fallen Irish of Grosse Île

Sat, May 29, 2010, 01:00

Marianna O'Gallagher:QUEBEC CITY historian Marianna O’Gallagher, who has died aged 81, dedicated much of her life to preserving the story of the quarantine island of Grosse Île.

It was the port of entry to Canada for thousands of Irish migrants fleeing the mid-19th century Famine and was, for many, their grave in the new world.

O’Gallagher’s first visit to the windswept island in the St Lawrence river in 1973 was to be a catalyst for her efforts to have it restored. Grosse Île is the burial site of 5,424 people, almost all of them Irish immigrants, who died in 1847 on arrival or in fever sheds having contracted typhus, cholera and smallpox en route to America.

In the following decades, she returned often to pay tribute to the dead, winning the support and respect of Canadian federal and provincial officials, and the Irish authorities, in her campaign to have the island and its dead duly acknowledged.

“Walk across that field, and your very footsteps can become an act of prayer for the hundreds of people buried there,” O’Gallagher said during a visit in June 2008 organised by the Canadian Irish Studies programme at Concordia University. “This is the main focus of our coming here – to remember all these precious people.”

Ten years before, in October 1998, President McAleese visited the island. In a moving ceremony attended by about 100 members of Irish communities in Canada, the President spoke of those whose lives had ended at Grosse Île “in fear and loneliness”. In many cases there was not even a name to remember them by.

If the suffering and grief of the Irish, said Mrs McAleese, defied description, so too did the bravery and compassion of those who tended to them on their arrival. Their courageous and humanitarian action was an early example of the long tradition of Canadian response to international humanitarian crises.

According to some estimates, some 40 per cent of Québécois can trace an Irish grandparent or great-grandparent. Many Irish children orphaned at Grosse Île were adopted by French-speaking families and assimilated, something which O’Gallagher noted in 2008 was remembered in Quebec – “by the Irish with gratitude and by the French with justifiable pride”.

Canadian research puts the number of deaths among all immigrants arriving through Quebec in 1847 at 17,477, the journalist and historian Brendan Ó Cathaoir wrote in The Irish Timesin 1998.

Of those, 5,293 perished on board ship, either during the crossing or in quarantine; 3,452 died in the fever sheds on Grosse Île; while the remaining deaths occurred as immigrants, released after cursory medical inspection, carried disease to Canadian townships.

Despite this, however, some 400,000 Irish migrated to Canada between 1829 and 1851, and around 130,000 more in the years up to 1867, forming the bedrock of today’s Irish-Canadian community.

O’Gallagher wrote two important scholarly books that achieved strong sales outside academe – Grosse Île: Gateway to Canada 1832-1957was published in 1984, and, in 1995, she was co-author, with Rose Masson Dompierre, of Eyewitness Grosse Île 1847.

Marianna O’Gallagher was born in Ste Foy to Quebecers of Irish descent, Norma O’Neil and Dermot O’Gallagher, a land surveyor. The family could trace roots to Macroom in Co Cork.

A Sisters of Charity nun from 1952 to 1985, when she quit religious life, O’Gallagher spent many years teaching at St Patrick’s High School in Quebec city as well as at schools in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New York and New Brunswick.

She obtained a BA and diploma in education from Mont Saint-Vincent University in Halifax and an MA in history from the University of Ottawa.

As a teacher, she was renowned for her infectious enthusiasm and wit, together with a passion for community history.

This latter quality served her well when she turned her attention to rescuing from obscurity the story of Grosse Île and her own family’s role in it.

In 1897, the Ancient Order of Hibernians began fundraising to erect on the island a 12m (40ft) high commemorative granite cross – the largest Celtic cross in north America – which was designed by O’Gallagher’s grandfather, a civil engineer who was also president of the Irish society in Quebec.

“He drew the design on the wall of the kitchen at 13 Conroy Street in Quebec city,” O’Gallagher recalled. “My father said as more and more money came in, the monument grew in size and stature on the wall.”

The cross has inscriptions in Irish, English and French. The French version recalls that “thousands finished their sorrowful pilgrimage consoled and fortified by Canadian priests”.

A monument unveiled in August 1998 commemorates the 7,553 immigrants of every nationality buried on the island. Names are inscribed on glass panels, with space left for the 1,545 “unknown but not forgotten”.

By the time Marianna O’Gallagher paid her first visit to the island in 1973, the cemetery was in a sorry state, “waist-high” in brush and raspberry bushes.

Today, very largely because of her efforts, Grosse Île is one of the most important Famine memorials outside Ireland and is maintained by the Canadian Parks Service.

“She was a core figure in introducing all Quebecers to their own history, that of the Irish and of the generosity of the French-Canadian families who offered homes to the Irish orphans,” said Michael Kenneally, director of the Canadian Irish Studies Foundation.

Kenneally hailed O’Gallagher’s meticulous historical research and her gift for finding those personal anecdotes and details that humanised the stories of famine-stricken immigrants.

In 1973, O’Gallagher founded a community organisation called Irish Heritage Quebec, which seeks to preserve and promote local Irish history through popular activities such as lectures.

In 1981, she launched her own publishing company, Carraig Books, specialising in works from Quebec with an Irish connection.

During the 1980s and 1990s, she served on a government advisory committee, working tirelessly to commemorate the Famine and its consequences for Quebec and Canadian history. She was instrumental in the creation of the Grosse Île and Irish Memorial National Historic Site in 1996.

Marianna O’Gallagher was president of Irish Heritage Quebec and a member of the Historical Society of Quebec, serving on the organising committee for city’s 400th anniversary. She was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Québec in 1998, received the George Clerk medal from Canadian Catholic Historical Association in 1999, and was given the Order of Canada in 2002 in recognition of her work on Grosse Île.

Marianna O’Gallagher: born March 24th, 1929; died May 23rd, 2010