In Famine’s footsteps: trail of death leads to Skeleton Park

Week 3 of Michael Collins’ 900km Diaspora Run in search of the lost stories of Canada’s Irish Famine migrants sees him cross from Catholic Quebec into loyalist Ontario

Michael Collins running along the Thousand Islands Parkway, Ontario.

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In my most successful novels, there is, early on, if not the absolute awareness of the totality of what the novel will encompass, then at least the narrative arc of a beginning and an endpoint. The yeoman’s work of each day is then measured in scenes and chapters toward that distant endpoint.

My ultra-running life parallels the same structural arc. The difference being that, instead of moving through scenes and chapters, I psychologically compartmentalise a 100-mile race into manageable stages, 20-mile stages, further broken down into five-mile stages.

As with all successes, on the page or on the road, the absolute alignment of varying elements is essential. I begin my novels with the onset of falling temperatures, in an advance on a literal and figurative darkness, psychological exploration and narrative indeterminacy aligned with the meteorological outlook of a day or a week. I write against anticipated storms and the barometric pressure of the frontal lobe. This psychological alignment with the actual forecast is doubly reinforced, given that I use ultra-running as a sort of psychological clearing-house to better process and understand my characters.

That my high-mileage runs take place in the freeze of a Midwest American winter directly influences the essential urgency and desperation of my characters. For me, the measure of success on the page always correlates to a heightened psychological anxiety induced through a physical exhaustion of miles run.


I say all this, since it is no different on this journey. When I first read of the passage of 100,000 dispossessed Irish, evicted and forced into exile aboard the infamous coffin ships, I locked on the narrative arc of an encapsulated history that began with the arrival of ships in the Saint Lawrence in early May of 1847 and ended with the icing of the Saint Lawrence in late October. So, too, the singularity of the route, the distance travelled, some 900 kilometers along the Saint Lawrence from Grosse Île quarantine station down through Montreal, Cornwall, Kingston, and Toronto, fell into the domain of what I felt I could manage in a month-long run.

Over halfway through the journey now, and in allowing momentary reflection, in the survey of that initial history of 1847, I can only describe the feeling as the appointed hand of providence. How often is one compelled to bear witness vicariously to the most tragic and damnable episode of Irish subjugation - a forced emigration that would spawn the second greatest loss of life in the Victorian era and eventuate in the death of some 20,000 souls flung into the Atlantic or interred in mass graves all along the Saint Lawrence?

I’ve written in previous weeks of the sullen and cruel facts of 1847, most notably prime minister Russell’s decision to end British famine relief, while shifting the feeding of the Irish to an insipid class of absentee landlords, who, in summarily pushing through the infamous Gregory Act, shirked responsibility for providing relief by simply evicting their tenants.

No doubt, it is along this fault line of direct parliamentary acts that the charge of genocide has been leveled against the British. So, too, historians can point to the sinister policies of the British, who, after America passed a series of Passenger Acts forestalling the sailing of disease-ridden ships, landed upon the grim idea of retrofitting empty lumber mercantile ships returning to British North America to carry a human ballast across the ocean to an unwitting and ill-prepared population.

If one is in doubt as to the absolute collusion of British officialdom with the absentee class of landlords, one only has to view the public record of the foreign secretary to Ireland, the landed Lord Palmerston, who, acting on the advice of estate agents and championing enclosure, evicted some 2,000 of his tenants and then shipped them to Canada aboard ships that one Canadian official compared to conditions aboard vessels used in the slave trade.

In a memorandum circulated among parliamentary colleagues, Palmerston clearly underscored official British governmental policy toward agrarian reform in Ireland, writing:

“It is useless to disguise the truth that any great improvement in the social system of Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implies a long continued and systematic ejectment of Small holders and of Squatting Cottiers.”

For me, the retracing of 1847 has all been about compartmentalisation - the totality of the experience first envisioned with a starting point at Grosse Île quarantine station and an endpoint at Ireland Park, Toronto.

The harrowing details and particulars of that passage along the Saint Lawrence suggested early on a natural narrative divide - the reception of the Irish into Québec by the religious community and then the further passage of the remaining Irish into the sectarian waters of Ontario.

How could one not divide it otherwise? With just a cursory overview of the map, Ontario declares its British-leaning sensibilities with towns named Kingston and Loyalist. In Brockville, I came across an infamous Protestant Irish transplant and native of Wexford, Ogle Robert Gowan, who established the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America in 1830. Before his emigration to British North America, Gowan had led a Protestant militia called the "Black Mob", which had been accused of committing atrocities against Catholics before and after the Wexford Rebellion. His leaving Ireland was motivated by the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act.

These few details underscored a subconscious parsing of histories, providing a natural demarcation of a journey - Lower and Upper Canada, Québec and Ontario. And so it was that the narrative arc and the division of miles were thus established early on.

Since beginning this journey I’ve thus watched for omens of alignment that correspond to that narrative divide of Lower and Upper Canada. The anomaly of a cold, wet weather front that settled with my arrival at Grosse Île aligned with a cosmic sympathy. I began my run into a quintessential wet, wind-blown Irish day. If I was in search of a deep alignment with hardship, it was granted me in the push toward Montreal.

Misery held! The fourth straight marathon commenced against a headwind and a downpour of lashing rain. Temperatures fell below 10 Celsius. Draped in sheets of rain, the sweeping Saint Lawrence might as well have been the Shannon, facilitating a surreal conjuring and correspondence with untold dead.

So went those early days into a deadening solitude of miles run along the languid sweep of the Saint Lawrence out along Chaudière-Appalaches, where so many orphaned Irish were adopted by the French-speaking Québécois, simply because of a sympathetic alignment that both the French and Irish were Catholic. The passage of the Irish in 1847 was a providential test of faith that emptied the cloister of so many religious orders that provided salvation and succor in a sublimated religious war waged over the salvation of Catholic souls. Into the dreamscape isolation of rural farms along the Saint Lawrence I eventually found myself struck by roadside religious shrines that harkened to an older Irish-Catholicism.

The narrative here was the merciful intersession of the religious throughout the province of Québec. Martyrdom encapsulated the religious edict to minister to the poor. Again, it was the annals of the Grey Nuns that offered insight into an almost medieval religious psyche that firmly established the temporality of our earthly life, and how deeds alone in this world were how one would be redeemed in the afterlife. What I confronted in reading about the passage of pestilence through Québec was a testament to one of the last great religion-inspired acts that would so soon be eclipsed by a modernist paradigm shift toward clinical epidemiology as a frontline defense against disease.

All the accounts I read prior to beginning the run extended beyond mere reportage and broached a polemic condemnation of what had so recently unfolded at the time. From the Montreal Immigrant Society Bulletin 1848, the description is damningly direct, and yet hauntingly poetic, in eulogising the passing of so many souls.

From Grosse Ile, the great charnel house of victimised humanity, up to Port Sarnia and all along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, where ever the tide of immigration extended, are to be found the final resting places of the sons and daughters of Erin--one unbroken chain of graves where rests fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, without a stone to mark their spot. I do not know that the history of our times has a parallel for this Irish exodus. It was the forced expulsion and panic rush of a stricken people, attended by frightful scenes of suffering and death.

This account of suffering echoes a familiar, plaintive, and damning tone expressed in reports from Ireland by observers that were read before the British parliament during the early spread of the potato blight in as early as 1845. All such reports fell on willfully deaf ears, the reflexive parliamentary response being that all accounts of the Irish situation were prone to exaggeration.

I reached the Québec/Ontario border in the early hours of morning, after a night of electrical storms and driving rain. Psychologically and physiologically, this was the point of natural divide. The first major town along the Saint Lawrence on the Ontario side, Cornwall, declared itself as quintessentially British. The death of some 5,000 at Grosse Île quarantine station and the further interment of over 6,000 Irish in a mass grave in Montreal, along with the concerted effort of the religious community to place over 3,000 orphans within Quebec’s Catholic communities, meant the flotsam of Irish who survived had been afforded a measure of care and might survive the rest of the passage to Toronto.

Frankly, from a narrative standpoint, I was at a loss in entering Ontario. It was not so much that I had neglected studying the history of Ontario’s reception and treatment of the Irish, as it was that there was less compelling and historical evidence readily accessible. My plan was to push through the summer heat of Ontario in a tally of mounting miles.

This plan would change. Given my use of social media to highlight my run, and specifically a dedicated Facebook page titled Irish Diaspora Run 2016, not long after crossing into Ontario, I was contacted by a host of Celtic heritage organisations who had begun ad hoc historical and genealogical projects that coalesced around informal websites of aggregated genealogies and historical links that described waves of Irish immigration to British North America. Less sensational, shocking, and compelling than the encapsulated immigrant flight of 1847 through Québec, these ad hoc amateurs had begun to describe a complex settlement of British North America that included the transplantation of Irish from Protestant estates as early as the 1820s.

Indeed, in first entering into dialog with these groups, I was directed to recently sourced material that provided a foundational history of the active transplantation of returning soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, who, as ardent loyalists, had been lured to British North America with land grants. Their presence was two-fold, to populate the country, but also to bolster a frontline militia against American territorial claims. With the soldiers came a grunt labor of Irish to support the backbreaking construction of an infrastructure of roads and canals.

Many of the groups who contacted me traced their ancestral roots to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, while others guardedly revealed that their ancestors, under the persistent pressure of sectarianism, had converted to Protestantism. What I would determine in meeting with groups along the way from Cornwall to Kingston was that there was a recuperative effort underway to firmly establish the role of the Catholic Irish in settling Ontario. The passage of the immigrants of 1847 was, in some respects, the least impactful immigration of the Irish in Ontario, since many of the 1847 immigrants were set on reaching America.

What I have learned, and what is being further explored online, is a more entrenched and impactful wave of immigrant Irish who have their own fateful history. In the building of the Rideau Canal, an indentured Irish class succumbed to malaria at extraordinary rates, while their British counterparts had access to quinine. Such was the surfeit of Irish labor and disregard for Irish lives.

Among the sprawl of emerging histories is genealogist Annette Code’s project detailing the assisted emigration from Lord Fitzwilliam’s Estate that began in the 1820s and ensured sufficient labor to build the Rideau Canal. Attendant to this assisted emigration was the discovery of what has been dubbed the McCabe list, named after genealogist John McCabe. Signed by roughly 673 Irish canal workers, the petition begged government intercession to secure assistance for their relatives to make the passage to British North America.

At a festival at the aptly named Skeleton Park, I was invited to speak about my drive to raise awareness regarding the 1847 passage of the Irish. The park, a former graveyard, is the resting place of some 1,400 Irish who died in 1847, along with Irish who numbered among the 1000 Irish who had died building the Rideau Canal decades earlier. A Celtic cross had been erected by a small band of tenacious ecumenical historians committed to preserving the historical realities of Irish immigration in 1847. Less than a mile away, another Celtic cross had been placed alongside the Rideau Canal.

Further back along the route, in Cornwall, I had met with members of the Cornwall Irish Memorial Committee, who, after receiving public records dating to 1847, realised that Cornwall had been the site of a fever hospital to some 250 fever-ravaged Irish. The names of the medical doctors and nurses who attended to the Irish are duly remembered. In honor of the dead, the names of the 52 people who died are now engraved on a newly erected Celtic cross.

The Cornwall memorial is testament to the emerging influence of local historical societies who now have access to digital records. They are piecing together a lesser-known history, but one that better explains the totality of the Irish experience in what was then British North America.

In Brockville, I was invited to meet with a contingent of Canadian-Irish at Block Island, a former cholera quarantine island that the committee quietly suggested must have served as a quarantine facility during the summer of 1847. Steeped in the heart of Orange territory, the historical record is silent, but a passionate Nattanya Hewitt of the Brockville Irish Cultural Society wanted to show me a photocopy of a birth certificate of an ancestral Robert Hewitt, who was born in the County of Armagh in 1841. She determined that Robert must have made the journey along the Saint Lawrence with his family, before settling at Orangeville. Hewitt said she had only recently began researching her family background, and that her Irish background had been overshadowed by her grander, English roots. She was determined to set the record straight and assert her Irish heritage.

In the memorial crosses erected across Ontario to the memory of 1847, there is a recognition of the untold suffering the Irish endured, but so, too the equal recognition of the grace and merciful deliverance of medical assistance by a predominant class of Protestant doctors who looked beyond creed and race and acted in good conscience.

I have run now as far as Kingston, and the narrative arc of the passage of the 1847 immigrants has opened into the brackish waters of convergent tides of Irish immigration that predate the infamous events of 1847. Indeed, 1847 is one chapter of the grander story of the Irish experience in what was then British North America.

How to join the Irish Diaspora Run

The route begins at Grosse Île quarantine island, on the St Lawrence river, and continues through Quebec City, Montreal and Kingston before reaching Ireland Park, in Toronto.

The project is raising funds for Irish-Canadian organisations seeking to create parks and erect monuments and statues to commemorate 1847.

Others can participate by taking on runs where they live, and logging their distances on, where they can also sponsor Collins.

This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund