I took a pilgrim’s trip in September to the Irish mass graves at Grosse Íle, the quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. I stood by a sunken green field where 5,424 were buried in 1847 in wooden coffins, three deep. Nearby, a small rust-colored metal sculpture garden symbolized the passage from the Ireland of shamrocks to the black shale of death. I stared at the names of possible maternal ancestors, five Geraghtys, etched in glass alongside thousands of others.
The occasion was the arrival of the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a famous famine ship that never lost a passenger, amidst an eight-month educational voyage to 24 cities spanning 12,000 miles.
Denis Reen, a Tralee dentist and chief officer of the Jeanie Johnston, choked up slightly as he surveyed the mass graves. “To be Irish and to look at that field cannot but stir the emotions in any normal heart. Now we can afford to remember.”
But remember what? No answer was given. Mary Robinson, on making a visit to the site when she was Ireland’s president, warned that we must avoid “closing these people into a prison of statistics and memories from which they can never escape to challenge our conscience and compassion.”
The place was serene, but I was feeling an inner turbulence. It seems that the Irish dead are never left alone. Their deaths are debated. Their cemeteries become contested ground.
One reflection of the debated obituary is the life and work of Marianna O’Gallagher, a former Little Sister of Charity nun, respected Grosse Ile folk historian, and guide for countless visitors to the island. Her grandfather, Jeremiah, was present in 1909 when the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a colossal Celtic Cross on the island’s highest point. In (nationalist) Gaelic, the plaque on the Cross speaks of emigrants “fleeing from the tyrannical foreigner and the deep famine,” while in (revisionist) English they were unfortunates who were “stricken with fever” on a “sorrowful pilgrimage” undertaken “to preserve the faith.”
Marianna finally visited Grosse Íle in 1973. The old colonial quarantine station and graveyards had been transformed into a secret Cold War center for bacteriological weapons, including anthrax, and then a quarantine center for imported animals with contagious diseases. Not exactly a sacred place.
“You had to get permission and sign a waiver,” she recalled. “Our boat came out of the fog and when I saw the Celtic Cross I was crying. The graveyard was waist high with brush, brambles, and berries, and you sank in the trenches.”
She thus began two decades of research into the lives and deaths of thousands who moved to slums like Griffintown in Montreal at a time when American ports were turning away the contagious immigrants. Marianna found stories of little children finding their siblings, the Grey Nuns (for their grey habits) who helped assimilate hundreds of orphans, tales of lice so pervasive that they could crawl away with the trimmings of children’s hair, and of doctors, priests and adoptive mothers dying from typhus contracted from those they tried to save.
This was not simply a humanitarian catastrophe — Tim Pat Coogan, author of Wherever Green is Worn, estimates 20,000 died in Canada in 1847 alone — but a politically-charged one as well. The French-Canadian leader Louis Joseph Papineau claimed that the British authorities had knowingly exported a floating cholera epidemic to its colonies. Indeed, one courageous doctor at Grosse Íle was rejected by officials when he called in advance for extra beds and resources. In despair, he committed suicide. Over time, however, the debates were submerged in an overarching narrative of compassionate assimilation. Today, says O’Gallagher, “it is in reality quite difficult to find in Quebec direct lines of descent from the Famine survivors.” Coogan estimates that the population of Canada who identify an Irish ethnic origin has dropped from 24.3 percent in 1871 to 13.2 percent today. A 1990 Canadian history book by Cecil Houston and William Smith declared that “In Canada, the Irish have disappeared.”
But Michael Kineally, the Cork-born director of Irish Studies at Montreal’s Concordia University, is startled at how the Irish, cut off from their ancestral homeland, still live submerged in “an Ireland of the imagination.” In 1992, the Canadian National Park Service brought the Irish back to public life with a proposed Disney-style tourist center at Grosse Íle. The proposal referred to the famine victims as “British immigrants” and described the Famine as historically overemphasized. The Canadian officials stumbled further by calling public hearings on St. Patrick’s Day.
Not only was Marianna O’Gallagher aghast, but thousands of Canadians discovered they were Irish on the inside. Forming Action Grosse Íle, they reversed the Park Services’s proposal and achieved government funding for the Irish memorial. The momentum continues: every St. Patrick’s Day, throngs turn out to march to Montreal’s Black Rock, where another 6,000 dead immigrants were uncovered in 1859 by Irish workers building the Victoria Bridge.
But even today the message is confused. At the entrance to the Grosse Íle ferry one sees a sketch of healthy-looking Germans boarding a vessel in Hamburg in 1871, with the words “Take an exciting trip to Grosse Île.”
Marianna won’t stop. “I’m here to tell the guides that this is a sacred place and the Irish who come here are on a pilgrimage, but I’m afraid that when I go it won’t be continued.”
She’s right to worry. The voyage of the Jeanie Johnston may bring to an end a decade marking the 150th commemoration of “Black 47” in which there was renewed interest in both the Famine legacy and the Irish peace process. There is no going back, of course, but what of the future? The 200th commemoration of the Famine will be in 2047. Will those responsible for the Irish dead be held accountable in history? Or will the dead disappear in the mists of amnesia? ♦