Where the Irish Died

What’s New?

Two new Irish Memorials!

S.S. Atlantic Memorial

S.S. Atlantic Memorial

Sinking of the S.S. Atlantic

The S.S. Atlantic, the most popular passenger ship in Ismay’s prestigious White Star Line, left Queenstown, Ireland on March 20, 1873, heading for New York. Battling fierce early spring storms off Nova Scotia’s coast, Captain Williams changed course for Halifax to wait out the rough seas. Tragically, the Atlantic would never make its destination. The ship crashed full speed onto Nova Scotia’s rocky shore at Lower Prospect Bay. Of 950 passengers and crew, 562 men, women and all children, save one small boy, died in the early morning hours of April 1, 1873.

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Memorial to Eccles Hill Fenian Battle Site, 1873

Memorial to Eccles Hill Fenian Battle Site, 1873

Defeat at Eccles Hill – 1873

Deep in the farthest reaches of Quebec’s Eastern Townships close to Frelighsburg, Eccles Hill boasts a surprisingly large concrete block monument situated in a cow pasture behind a nondescript steel gated fence. Below the national historic site’s monument just inside the gate, is a plaque recounting the disastrous Fenian raid that took place here.

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Introduction

Throughout Canada’s history, brave, and many times desperate, Irish men, women, and children emigrated from their Emerald Isle looking for a better life.

Toronto's Ireland Park

An Irish orphan boy fearful for his future at Toronto’s Ireland Park

During the 1820’s, thousands of strong, Irish “navvies” helped build the Rideau and Welland Canals. Over one thousand Irishmen died during the Rideau Canal’s construction, succumbing to the ravages of “ague” or “lake fever” (a malaria-like illness) caused through a sting from an infected mosquito.

Between 1847-1852, the Great Hunger sent upwards of half of the population of Ireland fleeing for their lives.In their weakened emaciated state, these poor people easily succumbed to the inhumane conditions found aboard immigration ships. Dubbed “coffin ships,” these horrid, putrid vessels, crammed packed with Ireland’s poorest were a breeding ground for disease, especially typhus which struck without warning, and discriminated against no one. It spread with a fury only matched by the terrible ocean storms that raged around it. Like sea foam sprayed across the worn wooden planks of the ships, diseases like typhus and cholera, slipped below deck, unnoticed, sowing their deadly seed. Many lost their lives before reaching their New Worlde. Mothers and fathers were buried at sea; their children becoming orphans, facing a bleak future alone.

Those who survived the ocean crossing (many voyages taking over two months) had to survive detention at  quarantine stations hastily set up on islands or outcroppings along Canada’s shorelines. Quarantine offered an outcome just as vile, just as dangerous, and just as deadly as life on board ship.  During the summer of ’47, dozens of ships sat in the St. Lawrence, waiting days to disembark their destitute, diseased human cargo. Over 100,000 immigrants landed at Quebec that year, many already infected, or quickly becoming ill, condemned to death while waiting.

Irish Memorial at Grosse Ile, Quebec

Irish Memorial at Grosse Ile, Quebec

All around was a sea of ragged humanity, living and dying, waiting to be given a doctor’s blessing so that they could move on. Overworked, exhausted doctors had the authority to decide between life and death. If they felt an immigrant might be sick, regardless whether they truly were or not, they went into quarantine, many becoming infected and dying, their dreams forever interred in mass graves along with their remains. And if the same overworked doctor waved them on, not noticing the first subtle signs of typhus? These poor folk continued their westward journey, carrying disease with them, spreading the scourge and overwhelming their unsuspecting Canadian hosts.

The plight of the Irish people in times past is truly tragic.

But the way they have been remembered in Canada is equally tragic.

Canadian Irish Monuments stand eerily forlorn, almost forgotten. Placed where the Irish lived and died, most often in socially and economically depressed areas, some tributes are quite difficult to discover, even by the most earnest of seekers. Local citizens – from police officers to townsfolk – even historical societies barely are aware of their existence.

Typically, couples vacation in Las Vegas, on a cruise ship or at the summer cottage. Not my husband and me. Twice this year, in 2016, we hopped in the car to discover Canada’s Irish past by finding memorial sites where settlers, workers, militia, immigrants and, of course, the sick perished.

Our first drive this past spring took us to towns located in Quebec’s Eastern townships and our latest, a much longer six thousand kilometre tour, circumnavigated Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Both excursions provided us overwhelming evidence of tragic Irish events remembered with Celtic crosses, cemeteries and memorials commemorating our intertwined British, Irish and French histories.

If field work has taught us one thing more than any other, it is that our Irish history can often be forgotten if not wholly ignored in traditional textbooks.

But never in carved stone.

The Irish people form an important part of the backbone of this great land we call Canada. Their legacy lives on in their Irish-Canadian descendants, as numerous as the sand along the shores of a country the Irish sought with hope. It is important we not only acknowledge the influence this great people have had on the making of Canada, but we must commemorate,  celebrate and teach our children.

Irish Memorials in Canada

Partridge Island, New Brunswick

Partridge Island, New Brunswick

Partridge Island, New Brunswick

Just offshore at the foot of Water Street in Saint John, New Brunswick lays Partridge Island, considered one of the best-kept historical secrets in the country.

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Irish Memorial at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick

Irish Memorial at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick

Hospital Island: St. Andrews by the Sea

Just offshore the quaint village of St. Andrews-By-The-Sea, New Brunswick, lays Hospital Island, a quarantine station that was used extensively during the 1847 Irish Famine migration.

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Irish Memorial at Grosse Ile Quebec

Irish Memorial at Grosse Ile Quebec

Quarantined: Grosse Ile, Quebec

Gerald Keegan, an Irish emigrant from Sligo, writes of that fateful summer in 1847 at Grosse Ile:

“They are calling now for volunteers to bring the sick and the dead to shore. The sailors are refusing to have anything to do with the task…I feel it my duty to render what will be my last service to these poor suffering creatures in offering myself as a volunteer…”

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Montreal Irish Memorial

Montreal Irish Memorial

The Black Rock: Montreal, Quebec

The Irish Memorial in Montreal, Quebec sits on a busy stretch of highway along the edge of the St. Lawrence River in an industrial area of Old Montreal. It is not easily visited, given its isolated location. The monument is small and non-descript – a slab of granite carved with a message of dedication. Beggars can’t be choosers…

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Ireland Park, Toronto, Ontario

Ireland Park, Toronto, Ontario

Toronto’s Ireland Park

Situated at 5 Eireann Quay, Ireland Park in Toronto, like other memorials scattered along the coast of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, stands eerily abandoned, and seemingly insignificant amidst luxurious condos and towering industrial silos at the foot of Bathurst Street on the lakeshore.

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Irish Memorial, Peterborough, Ontario

Irish Memorial, Peterborough, Ontario

Hospital Point: Peterborough, Ontario

Like other memorials along the majestic St. Lawrence River, the Irish Memorial in Peterborough is quite ordinary and unassuming, nothing like the extraordinary, impoverished people it commemorates.

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6 comments for “Where the Irish Died

  1. Alan O'Rónáin
    July 21, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Hi there,
    My name is Alan O’Rónáin. Im doing my Masters thesis on the Irish Famine and how it has been portrayed in Ireland and internationally. I would be delighted to get some feedback on people’s view of this tragic event which is still a taboo subject here in Ireland today. I would also love to hear from decendants of people who survived and made your great country of Canada their home. Any stories would be much appreciated. Please feel free to give my email address. Thank you so much.

  2. Mary E Cooper
    July 10, 2016 at 8:03 pm

    Hello Betty Briegel
    I am a descendant of the Heffernans, Patrick and Margaret, who were part of the 1825 settlers too. They travelled across the Atlantic on the Regulus. It is nice
    to read you e-mail above.

    Mary Cooper

  3. Cathy Guthrie-Grant
    January 19, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Barbara,

    Was reading through your site, and as the granddaughter of Michel O’Leary who immigrated here in 1910 to Montreal, I found this site extremely interesting.

    As with the Betty I have been researching my Irish / Scottish ancestry for a number of years and on the Irish side, I am unable to go back further than the 1870’s as many of the church records were burned in Ireland leaving not much behind in the way of a trail.

    This has given me a lot of information and a glimpse into what our peoples have endured over the years and I thank you for writing and posting this information.

    The monuments you mention provide me with just the type of historical family trip that I intend to take with my children to teach them about their heritage.

    Thanks again
    Cathy

  4. Betty Briegel
    May 9, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    My Birth name was Mary Elizabeth Ann Condon,born and raised in Peterborough,ON. My Ancestors came from County Cork,Cork Ireland in 1825 with Peter Robinson Settlers. I have been working on my ancestry for many years and I’m always finding something new that is related to my Condon, Doherty,Heffernan, & O’Keefe Families.

    I’m very interested in reading from this site and I want to thank you for allowing people like me to read your information.

    I belong to many Irish sites on Facebook

    Peterborough is having a “Peter Robinson Settlers” Celebration and Festival on July 31, and August 1,2015. If you are interested, I can email you the information on this Historical Event.

    Many thanks

    Betty Briegel (Married Name)

    • May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      Hello Betty, thanks for your post. I’m so glad you’ve found some information on my website that has been of use to you. That’s why it’s here, not only to educate but to connect with other people who are interested in Irish-Canadian history. I am definitely interested in the Peter Robinson Festival happening this year. Please do send along any information you may have. On a personal note, did you by any chance graduate from PCVS in 1971? 🙂 Thanks again.

      • Betty Briegel
        June 20, 2016 at 2:17 pm

        Hi Barbara,

        In answer to your question Yes ,I sure did . What was your maiden name? mine was Condon

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