Genealogy, Immigration, Ireland, Quebec

Grosse Île and the Irish

Thousands of Irish immigrants came to Canada, especially in the 1800s. They came by ship, travelling up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City, but many got sick and some died during the long voyage across the Atlantic.

After a cholera epidemic swept England in 1831, a quarantine station was built on Grosse ÎIe, an island in the St. Lawrence downriver from Quebec City. All ships were required to stop there so passengers could be checked by doctors to ensure they were not sick. Government authorities did not want people to bring disease to the busy port cities of Quebec City and Montreal.

The worst years were between 1845 and 1849, when the terrible potato famine hit Ireland. Many of those who fled Ireland, optimistic about starting new lives in North America, never made it. Most of them succumbed to typhus, a disease caused by bacteria carried by fleas and lice. More than 7,000 people are buried in three large cemeteries on Grosse Île.

The quarantine station continued from 1832 until 1937. Today, Parks Canada runs Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. This moving historic site, including several buildings and cemeteries, is open to visitors from the beginning of May until mid-October. See https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/index.

There are a number of books about this place and the tragic events that happened there. One of the most moving volumes I have read is Eyewitness, Grosse Isle, 1847 (note the alternative spelling), by  Marianna O’Gallagher & Rose Masson Dompierre, published in 1995 by Livres Carraig Books of Ste-Foy, Québec. You may be able to find it in a library or online.

This superb book begins with a map of Ireland indicating the places that sent 10 or more ships to Quebec in 1847 with Irish immigrants: 53 ships from Limerick, 33 from Cork, 32 from Belfast, 27 from Dublin, 27 from Sligo and 18 from Londonderry.

The authors got the idea for this book after reading letters that the chaplains of the quarantine station wrote to their superiors during the summer of 1847. The authors wrote, “In order to present a full portrait of the dramatic events that unfolded at Grosse Isle, and in order to distinguish between myth and reality, this book will be the forum where eyewitnesses speak. The priests’ letters, little known until today, but which are very significant, contain descriptions of everyday occurrences, prevailing conditions at ‘the Quarantine’ in 1847. The situation proved to be dramatic and arduous, and the missionaries, faced with the spiritual and physical needs of the immigrants, felt powerless and besieged. Very soon their letters elicited response from many quarters.”

For example, Rev. Armine W. Mountain, Church of England, Acting Chaplain Quarantine Station, wrote:

Buried: Meek, Catherine, daughter of James Meek, mason, late of the parish of Whiteburn, County Linlithgow, Scotland, and of France, by her maiden name Somerville, his wife, aged two years, died on the twenty-second and was buried on the twenty-fourth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven, by me – Armine W. Mountain – Present: Robert Armstrong, Joh X. Armstrong.

Rev. Charles Morice, Catholic Priest, Officiating Chaplain Grosse Isle, wrote:

Buried: Heatherington, Taylor, Craig, White, McCray, McCray, Smyth

Hugh Heatherington, aged forty, from Ship Dykes

Margaret Taylor, aged twenty three per ship Maria Soames

Elizabeth White, age sixty-three from ship Emigrant

Margaret McKay, age forty two years per ship Eliza

Alexander McKay, age fifty-two per ship Eliza

Robert Smyth, age two years per Sir Henry Pottinger died sixth October. All died, except the last, on the seventh of October and were buried on the evening of the same day in the year of our Lord one thousand Eight hundred and forty-seven by me – Charles Morice – Present: John Fitzgerald, Patrick Dolan

 https://www.amazon.ca/Eyewitness-Grosse-Isle-Marianna-OGallagher/dp/096908059X

Other suggested reading:

John Boileau, “The Dead of Grosse Île,” Legion: Canada’s Military History Magazine, March 1, 2006, https://legionmagazine.com/en/2006/03/the-dead-of-grosse-ile/

You can read a list of some of those who died on Grosse Île at https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/decouvrir-discover/natcul4.

To search Library and Archives Canada’s records, see “Immigrants at Grosse Ile Quarantine Station, 1832-1937,” https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-grosse-ile-1832-1937/Pages/immigrants-grosse-ile.aspx