Partridge Island – A typhus pandemic and the Irish of New Brunswick
An Irishman’s Diary
In 1927, a 30ft Celtic cross was erected on Partridge Island, New Brunswick, Canada, to the memory of all who had died during the typhus pandemic 80 years before.
The cadet and myself had been feverish with flu-like symptoms as we crossed the Atlantic, and the second officer, poring over the medical handbook for seafarers, thought we might be having what he referred to as “a touch of typhus”.
This greatly alarmed the captain who became fearful that he himself might become infected.
We had sailed from India and he suspected that the cadet had picked it up in some unsavoury dive in Kolkata.
The cadet and I were not so bothered as we were already beginning to feel a lot better. The doctor who came on board examined us and more or less gave us a clean bill of health, although he made arrangements for further tests when our ship got to Montreal. He also helped to allay the anxieties of the captain.
Before he left our ship, I got chatting to him and found he came from Galway. At this remove I can’t be certain but I think his name was Flynn.
He told me that in the year 1847 there had been a typhus epidemic among the masses of Irish emigrants who had arrived in St John, fleeing the Great Famine.
In their thousands, these distressed and impoverished men,women and children had been transported across the cold and heaving seas of the North Atlantic in crowded and disease-ridden vessels.
When they disembarked, some were so weak and malnourished that they were barely able to get down the gangway. They were taken to the quarantine station at nearby Partridge Island, the first such institution in North America. There they were medically examined, some hospitalised and some sent to the ominously named pest sheds.
Later I read that there were 16,000 infected immigrants on the island that year and that over a thousand died there and in St John itself during the pandemic.
One of the acclaimed persons of that appalling era was an Irish doctor from Cork, Dr James Collins.
He was one of eight doctors hired to work at the station to deal with the outbreak. However, within a month he himself became infected and died.
The epidemic cast a cloud over the Irish who flooded into the city.
It is estimated that between 1845 and 1847 some 30,000 immigrants arrived at St John, most of them from Ireland. This was as many as lived in the city at the time.
Some long-established residents were uneasy at the presence of people who seemed prone to disease. Some began to feel threatened by this flood of new arrivals, most of whom were Catholics.
There were already some Irish there, many of the Presbyterian tradition and there were some Orange versus Green tensions.
However, the religious leaders of both sides made exemplary efforts to create an atmosphere of tolerance. The Catholic Irish were eventually accepted as industrious citizens.
They formed the greater part of the region’s labour force and came into their own in 1877 when much of the city was destroyed by what was referred to as The Great Fire. The devastated parts were almost exclusively rebuilt by Irish labour.
It is said of St John that the French discovered it, the Loyalists founded it and the Irish built it.
The French explorer and colonist of North America, Samuel de Champlain, who charted the coastal area, named the harbour on the feast day of St John the Baptist in 1604. Following the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, many who had remained loyal to the British crown during the conflict fled northwards to New Brunswick.
Two years later, St John was established by royal charter as Canada’s first incorporated city.
There were Irish-born in the area before the Loyalist influx and some Irish came with the Loyalists. The first governor of New Brunswick, Thomas Carleton, was of Irish descent. So also was another leader, William Know, who at one stage proposed, unsuccessfully, that an area in the Nova Scotia region be named New Ireland.
The Irish who fled the Great Famine took some decades to advance themselves in business and politics but, like their compatriots in other parts of North America, they placed great value on education. This enabled many to become part of the administrative weft and weave of St John, the province of New Brunswick and indeed Canada.
One of them, Timothy Anglin, who came from Clonakilty, Co Cork, was appointed speaker of the Canadian House of Commons in 1874. A son of his, Francis Alexander Anglin, was chief justice of Canada from 1924 until 1933.
In 1927 a 30ft Celtic cross was erected on Partridge Island to the memory of all who had died during the pandemic 80 years before.