Michael Collins: my marathon a day, for a month, to honour Irish emigrants

The Irish author, emigrant and ultrarunner is running in memory of the 100,000 Irish immigrants who fled to Canada in the Great Famine

My name is Michael Collins. I am an Irish emigrant, writer and ultrarunner. In 2000 my novel The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A decade later I captained the Irish team at the 100km World Championships. Although one might not connect writing with running, I have tapped the loneliness of the long-distance runner: psychological and physical dislocation inform my writing process.

I first experienced this dislocation as a young runner, leaving under cover of dark for early Sunday-morning runs into the remote Limerick hills. In so doing I ran to an observation point from which to view my town and its people.

My running earned me an athletic scholarship to the United States. To negotiate my daily training runs, which averaged 25km, I ran beyond a bucolic campus to a ghettoised landscape of abandoned factories in the rust-belt city of South Bend, Indiana. In the act of running, in crossing boundaries, I found that a preoccupation with all things political emerged.

I abandoned running after college, earned a doctorate, and ended up working at Microsoft in Redmond, in Washington state. In my subterranean cubicle I felt a deepening loss of the physical self against an advancing virtual age. In a conscious act of moral reorienting I returned to running. During 130km weekend runs, running to and from work, programming by day and writing by night, I tapped a voice within and captured the essence of the United States' industrial past in writing The Keepers of Truth.


I became the keeper of certain truths that I accessed through running. Against the imminent loss of the physical world I read about Ernest Shackleton’s heroic journey of survival in the Antarctic, then entered and won the Last Marathon in Antarctica. A year later I stood atop the world, winning the Mount Everest Marathon. Dislocation became my way of processing life.

Recognising the service of returning military veterans of the post-9/11 campaigns, I left Microsoft and took a job at a community college. There I encountered soldiers coming to terms with psychological dislocation. I created task-oriented academic exercises that demanded a combination of physical activities and classroom analytics. The prevailing metaphor was combat readiness in anticipating, meeting and succeeding in civilian life.

Yet, for the bluster of coping strategies, there was a personal loss I had never fully reckoned with: my leaving Ireland. I was of the generation that left amid the economic doldrums of the early 1980s. In the years to come I would use running and a preoccupation with hunger, exhaustion and journey to inform a personal and cultural identity that connected to the Great Famine.

While I was at a literary festival in Canada an organiser asked if I had seen Toronto's famine memorial. I hadn't. Ireland Park is tucked away on a dockland pier. It is a lost history, fittingly out of place against the Toronto skyline. The human scale of the gathered sculptures, representing Irish migrants escaping the Great Famine, reconfigured my relationship with Irish history.

In the years since then I have returned on quiet pilgrimages to correspond with that immemorial gathering of souls. Their story begs telling.

Poor Laws  

The spectre of Irish emigration to Canada figured in the endgame years of the Great Famine. In 1847 the British parliament, in cutting off all famine aid, enacted the Irish Poor Laws, requiring absentee landlords to cover the cost of relief to their tenants.

With those laws came the great emigration of 1847. Facing the United States’ stiffening emigration regulations – the Passenger Act barred diseased ships from arriving in American ports – unscrupulous landlords looked farther north. Commissioning timber ships that would otherwise return empty to Canada, they loaded an emigrant ballast into hastily retrofitted hulls. These were the coffin ships.

The journey into the freezing reaches of the Canadian north and down the St Lawrence river would cause the most harrowing suffering. Immigrants arrived with a pestilence of typhus at a makeshift quarantine station at Grosse Île, 50km downriver from Quebec City, that was equipped with just 150 beds. By the summer of 1847, 40 vessels, carrying 14,000 immigrants, clogged the St Lawrence. Catastrophe ensued.

Those with fever were summarily quarantined on the island. Families were wrested apart. For years afterwards provincial newspapers would carry classifieds from immigrants seeking the whereabouts of relatives. Of the 100,000 Irish who sailed to Canada in 1847, 20,000 died.

Surviving Irish immigrants, continuing their journey by land, ventured first through the francophone province of Quebec and then down into the neo-English province of Ontario.

An estimated 75,000 Irish descended on Montreal, then a city of some 50,000 people. The francophone hubs of Quebec City and Montreal met a bereft, alien-speaking population of Irish with extraordinary religious ardour.

The story of the Grey Nuns, who erected fever sheds and brokered the adoption of thousands of Irish orphans in the cities, was all but lost to French texts that, until recently, had never been translated into English.

So, too, some 6,000 Irish souls were lost to history until workers building a bridge in Montreal unearthed a mass grave. Such was the amnesia of a city so traumatised. The union whose workers had uncovered the grave erected a monument, the Black Rock. Montreal’s Irish community would like to relocate the Black Rock to a permanent memorial park.

Those who survived Grosse Île and Montreal headed southwest, and the anglophone city of Toronto braced as 38,000 emigrants descended on a population of 20,000.

Ireland Park’s historical committee has researched Toronto’s response to 1847. In establishing an emigrant hospital, a convalescent hospital, and a widows’ and orphans’ refuge, Toronto’s medical community set a gold standard for the containment of disease.

The heroic efforts of the hospital’s lead surgeon, Dr George Grasett, who was of Protestant-Irish lineage, and the staff who died in the service of the Irish are being recognised with the construction of Dr George Robert Grasett Park, on Toronto’s waterfront. To be unveiled in 2017, it includes a glass installation etched with billowing sheets, to represent fever sheds.

Between Grosse Île and the cities of Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto lies an emptiness of almost 1,000km that I will trace one step at a time. Into that limitless horizon I will run some 65km a day, starting at Grosse Île. This is what I seek as a runner: acts of dislocation in kilometres run that facilitate a collapse of time, to vicariously access distant histories.

The run will end at the Ireland Park famine memorial in Toronto. My goal is to foster historical awareness while raising money to memorialise that fateful year: 1847.

Along the way I will meet Irish societies who have uncovered the historical records of 1847. The death toll is sobering. Interred in a mixture of mass and individual graves are 5,000 souls at Grosse Île; 6,000 at Pointe St Charles, in Montreal; 1,400 in Kingston, on the north shore of Lake Ontario; and a further 1,200 in Toronto. Canada is home to the greatest group of mass burials of Irish immigrants in the world. All died in 1847.

How to join in

People can participate in the month-long event by walking or running within their own communities. (Registration for this is at diasporarun.org.)

Individual names, with distances completed, will be displayed on the site, along with the combined distance run by all of the participants. An associated blog will facilitate a virtual cultural experience. Everyone who registers and participates will receive a commemorative medal.

In the centenary year of the Easter Rising my experience as an emigrant is less Irish than it once was, although what I have learned from the scholars I have visited in preparation for the run is how dynamic our history is.

If this project started as a personal run, it is now dedicated to highlighting the efforts of the custodians of our history who continue to uncover the voices of the past that encompass the totality of the Irish diaspora.

If I can add to that narrative it is perhaps fitting that I do so in tapping the legacy of our indomitable Irish endurance, in committing to an act of journey and distances covered. It is, after all, how we populated North America, one step at a time. I invite you to join me.

Get your gear on: what is the Irish Diaspora Run?

Scheduled to begin on June 10th and end on July 10th, it will see Michael Collins cover almost 900km.

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 will raise 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 diasporarun.org, where they can also sponsor Collins.

Collins will chronicle his project in a blog, giving updates and historical background, on irishtimes.com and on diasporarun.org.

This project is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund